Haley Jenkins stared at her phone for about an hour inside her room on Feb. 12.
On the volleyball court, Jenkins is rarely indecisive; there’s a reason the Heritage senior is one of the best setters in the area. But in this instance, her hands were quivering. She was about to post on Instagram, but she wanted to make sure everything was perfect before she pressed the “Share” button in the top right corner.
After countless revisions and multiple rereads, she finally shared the post: 10 screenshots of typed words that described her struggles with anxiety and depression.
“I haven’t told many people about this because I felt embarrassed and ashamed by it,” Jenkins wrote at the beginning of the post. “But now I want to share my story with everyone.”
She didn’t exclude any details. She wrote about how she tried to kill herself multiple times, how her Heritage teammates forced her to seek help and how after receiving that help she slowly became herself again. Most importantly, she learned how to love herself. She concluded her post by encouraging anyone facing the same struggles to reach out to her.
She was overwhelmed by the support the post received. One-hundred seventy people commented on the post, applauding Jenkins for her bravery and honesty. The coaches at Campbell University texted their future setter, “We are all here for you. All you have to do is just call.”
“There were a few people who (messaged me), which made me feel better about posting it because I knew I reached out to people and helped them,” Jenkins told The Daily Times. “I figured that if I posted my story it would help them know that they aren’t the only ones going through it, and that it’s going to get better at some point. It’s just not going to stay that way.”
It certainly got better for Jenkins. Seven months after the initial post, she’s continued to be an advocate for mental health, sharing her story with anyone willing to listen.
Her family and friends were there for her during the darkest moments of her life. She’s trying to do the same for others.
“The past year has been very challenging and emotional,” Jenkins said. “But I’m glad I went through it so I can be a better person for myself and others.”
Spiraling into depression
Jenkins’ hands were shaking once again on Sept. 5, 2019 as she watched Heritage’s five-set win over Hardin Valley.
She was supposed to be keeping the team’s stats because she was forced to sit out a year after transferring from Webb School of Knoxville, but she admits she can’t remember a single thing that happened during the match; She wasn’t really paying attention. All she could think about was the letter inside her pocket.
Three days earlier, teammates Zephanie Snyder and Lexi Patty had given Jenkins an ultimatum: Either she was going to be the one to tell her parents about her suicidal thoughts, or they were going to do it.
So Jenkins planned on reading a letter to her parents after the Hardin Valley match. She was dreading how they were going to react.
“Your parents raised you,” Jenkins said. “They gave you your life. And to tell them that you don’t want it anymore is one of the hardest things to tell them. I didn’t want them to be sad or upset so I kept it to myself and my friends.”
Jenkins experienced a happy childhood. She’s always been a blessing to her friends and family, especially her late grandfather. Marvin Jenkins lived with Haley and her parents, Danny and Heather Jenkins, after he suffered a stroke in June of 2002, four months before her birth. Haley was always around her grandfather. He couldn’t talk after the stroke, so Haley brought him water whenever she noticed he was thirsty. She liked to sit in his lap and drive his electric wheelchair. Marvin had a favorite rose bush outside the kitchen window; he made sure to show Haley every new bloom.
“Roses became a special bond between them,” Danny said.
Sports became Danny’s special bond with his daughter. He was the one who introduced her to volleyball. He was helping a friend coach a YMCA volleyball team and took his 6-year-old daughter to a match. It wasn’t long until one of the coaches noticed Haley effortlessly passing the volleyball against the wall.
“How long has (your daughter) been playing,” he asked Danny.
“Half an hour,” Danny answered.
“I need a player on my team,” the friend responded. “Do you think she could play for me this Saturday?”
From that point, Haley continued to excel at the sport. When she was 10 years old, she began playing for K2 Volleyball Club. A few years later, she made the USA High Performance Team, a pipeline for the national team. She committed to Campbell before the start of her sophomore year.
It was also around this time her mood began to change. It didn’t happen overnight. The club volleyball scene affected her mental health. She placed an enormous amount of pressure on herself to be perfect. Her father, who played Division-I baseball at Alabama, admits he too was sometimes guilty of pushing her too hard.
“I thought I was doing her good. I wasn’t trying to hurt her,” Danny said. “She told me, ‘I want to be the best.’ I knew what it took to be the best. … At first it’s like, ‘Hey Dad, can you play with me in the driveway?’ Sure, sure. Then she has a lazy day and that’s when you’re like, ‘Great athletes aren’t lazy, they get up and do the things they need to do whether they want to or not.’
“Now, she’s out playing with me and it’s not as fun.”
Meanwhile, she endured bullying from some of her classmates didn’t , and it didn’t help that she began to experience traumatic events. Her grandfather passed away a few days before her 10th birthday. Haley later had to grieve the deaths of two more friends.
She and her mother, Heather, were Black Friday shopping at Riverchase Galleria on Nov. 22, 2018 when they heard gunfire. They had to hide in a Bath and Body Works for six hours while police cleared the scene.
It might have been a slow process, but by the time Haley reached high school, she had spiraled into a deep depression.
“I hated myself. I thought I wasn’t good enough for everyone,” Haley said. “The tiniest thing would happen. I would get into an argument (with a friend) and when we didn’t speak for a day, I’m like, ‘OK, she hates me now. She would be better off without me.’ It was the little things that set me off more. … It kept spiraling on and on, and not talking about it to a lot of people doesn’t help. It makes it worse.”
She decided she needed a change. She transferred to Heritage last fall so she could be with K2 teammates Snyder and Patty, two of her closest friends. She also liked the idea of playing for Jason Keeble, who coached Haley’s K2 12U Adidas team.
Snyder and Patty tried their best to comfort Haley. They spent a lot of late nights with her, making sure she was OK. Whenever she stopped responding to texts, they FaceTimed her. They continually urged her to share her suicidal thoughts with her parents.
“Absolutely not,” was always Haley’s response. “That’s not happening.”
Her friends realized there was only one thing left to do. Snyder and Patty both texted her on a Monday that they couldn’t help her anymore until she sought help for herself. They gave her until that Friday to tell her parents.
“It had gotten to the point where it had kind of impacted us in a way,” Patty said. “It was getting kind of hard. We had to figure this out until it got better.”
Patty came over to Haley’s house on Wednesday to help her write the letter. Danny and Heather Jenkins were already planning on having a conversation with their daughter after the volleyball match, sensing something was wrong. Instead, they silently listened as Haley read from her letter in a corner of Hardin Valley’s gym. She told them everything, about her depression, about how she tried to kill herself. Haley emphasized throughout the reading that it wasn’t their fault she felt this way.
When she had finished, she asked if she could spend the night at her teammate Maggie Cooper’s house.
“I just don’t want to come home and get into all this with you,” Haley explained. “I just want to tell you what’s going on.”
Danny and Heather reluctantly acquiesced to their daughter’s request. After Haley left the gym, she sat in her car with Snyder for an hour. They didn’t talk; Haley just cried.
The next day, Keeble arrived at Haley’s first-period health science class with a blue slip.
“Get your stuff,” he said. “Your parents are here.”
Her parents checked her into Peninsula Hospital, where she stayed for five days. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
“It’s probably the worst thing we have ever been through,” Danny said. “We didn’t know the suicidal part of it. We knew she was unhappy. We could tell she was depressed. There were signs, but these are teenagers. What point is it real versus they are just being kids? That’s the hardest part and what I would encourage parents is that if you think something is off, address it right then. Don’t wait. Don’t just go, ‘It will get better.’ It will get better if you help them. There is nothing wrong with questioning them. We waited too long in my opinion.”
Getting back to the old Haley
During her stay at Peninsula, Haley could only visit with her parents for an hour each day. Other than that, she wasn’t allowed to communicate with the outside world.
Still, she received constant reminders that she was loved.
Her friends wrote letters to Haley; her parents showed her these notes during their visits. In her letter, Patty reminded Haley that she loved her, that she was proud of her for receiving help and that she was going to continue to be there for her.
Since Haley wasn’t allowed to keep any of the letters, she memorized them.
“When I read the letters, I realized that they obviously really care,” Haley said. “It just made me feel good, ‘This is helping. They know it’s helping. They are proud of me. They love me.’ I think it really helped me get out of there faster to be honest.”
She continued to have a strong support system when she left Peninsula. She began meeting with a therapist who taught her coping mechanisms on how to deal with her anxiety. Snyder and Patty frequently came over to her house to spend time with her. And her boyfriend Parker Ledford constantly offered encouragement. Keeble was supportive, too, letting Haley sit in his classroom whenever Haley needed to clear her head.
By October, Haley began regaining her joyful personality. Once again she was laughing at her friends’ jokes, regardless of their quality. She asked her friends if she could help them whenever she noticed they were sad.
“Her teammates were an absolute blessing to her, which now allows her to be more positive,” Danny said. “She has a naturally bubbly personality. That’s her. That was another thing that was rough for us is that our bubbly kid went away … Now that she’s back to her more naturally bubbly self, people feed off that, her friends feed off that. Other adults when she spends the night at their kids’ houses see it. We get comments all the time about how they just love having her around because she’s so fun.
“She gets to return the favor. She gets to be there for friends who aren’t necessarily experiencing the same level that she went through, but all kids get sad or get depressed at some point. She’s a great testimony to, ‘Hey, how can I help you, because I know I needed help, and you may not know it, but I’m here for you.’”
‘There’s just a light around her now’
Haley still feels sad every now and then, but she knows that’s OK. More importantly, she knows it’s OK to discuss why she’s upset with her parents.
In the past, she hid her problems from her mother and father. Now, she’s not afraid to approach them for advice. It’s made her realize that almost everyone deals with the same struggles in life. It’s further emboldened her to encourage others.
“A lot of times when you’re talking, you just need people to hear you and not say anything,” Danny said. “But sometimes she would say, ‘I am sad about this.’ And I would say, ‘You know, I actually went through this when I was your age.’ She would be like, ‘Oh really? I didn’t know that.’
“You can just hear her voice change because she realizes it just isn’t a weird thing she’s going through, that it’s common.”
These conversations have enabled her to enjoy her final year in high school, to savor her final season playing with Patty and Snyder. She looked like one of the best volleyball players in the area during Heritage’s straight-set win over Hardin Valley, dishing passes three feet away from the net, allowing Heritage’s hitters to rack up kills. Patty continued to make digs. Snyder didn’t play due to an injury, but she still yelled out her support every time Haley made a play.
“She’s a big blessing,” Snyder said. “She makes everyone happier. … She’s just happier. There’s just a light around her now.”