This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
When Peloton instructor Kendall Toole was a college senior in 2015, she was struggling, but no one knew. The University of Southern California film student and cheerleader was a master at concealing her depression.
Even Toole’s closest friends were in the dark. Like everyone else on campus, they saw a bubbly straight-A student and accomplished athlete.
“I didn’t want to burden anyone. I didn’t want anyone to have to bear that weight of something that I felt was only my job to fix,” Toole, now 29, told TODAY in 2021. “So I smiled and kept it to myself. I look back at pictures where I appear so happy, and I remember the thoughts I was having at the time."
"I was comfortably numb," she added in a new interview with TODAY's Carson Daly aired Friday. "In college, I progressively could front and put my mask on that I was happy and thriving, and behind the scenes, I was slowly losing the color out of my day. ... The anxiety and depression was really starting to come in at that point in time. ... It was rough. I felt nothing."
Eight years ago, on Thanksgiving during her senior year, Toole switched her phone to silent mode and was overcome by dark thoughts.
“It scares me to this day to say how seriously I was considering (ending my life)," Toole recalled. “I was so tired of feeling pain that I just couldn’t feel anything anymore. The numbness was suffocating. Feeling numb is dangerous territory."
Toole remembers suddenly having a vision of her parents, Suesie and Rick, reacting to the news of her suicide. The image hit her like a lightening bolt.
“I saw in that moment what would become of my family,” Toole added, choking back tears. “I couldn’t do that to them.”
When she did look at her phone, she saw that her mom had called her 15 times and sent her 12 text messages.
"She knew, and that took me aback. I picked it up and started crying, like, 'I need you to come pick me up,'" she recalled to Carson, who called it "mother's intuition."
This time, it was her father who pulled her out of her depression with a mantra that's since become the catchphrase she ends every Peloton class with: "I know this is knocking you down, but we will not let this knock us out."
"If I can remind one person that their life is worth it, that is a moment in a journey that is a knock-down ... not a knockout," she told Carson.
She recently got to share with her father how important those words have been to her.
"He came to visit, and we were sitting up on my roof and I told him, 'I would not be here if it wasn't for those words.' And he told me that he takes my class often, and he said, 'Every time you end your class, I put my fists up and I raise them with you.' And he said, 'I'm so proud.'"
Managing her symptoms
The fitness instructor has also battled obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since she was 10.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 2 million American adults live with OCD, characterized by recurring thoughts and behaviors or compulsions.
"I could not be barefoot," she told Carson. "I had to wash my feet a certain amount of times. (I had) these obsessive thoughts ... that if I didn't complete these tasks, something bad would happen."
To help manage her symptoms, Toole continues to see a therapist and she takes an antidepressant.
“I think there’s a stigma around medicine. I had my own stigma for a long time about how I shouldn’t need this. I shamed myself,” Toole said. “But my mom said, ‘Honey, it’s no different than if you were diabetic. If you do not take your insulin, you will not survive. Having a mental illness is no different than having a physical ailment.'”
Toole calls her mental health journey “a lifelong commitment.”
It’s a commitment that Toole, who joined Peloton in 2019, frequently opens up about on the bike. One of her mental health-focused rides ends with rapper Logic’s song “1-800-273-8255,” the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
No longer in hiding
“Mental health doesn’t discriminate. It does not care how much money you make. It does not care what your race, religion or creed is,” Toole explained.
Toole said she has been flooded with messages from Peloton members sharing their own heartbreaking mental health stories. Many have thanked her for inspiring them to get help and for helping them to recognize when their child needs help. Toole wishes she could give all of them a hug.
“I hid my whole life. I pretended I was this cool girl with everything under control. That wasn’t helping me. That wasn’t helping anybody,” she said. “When we’re vulnerable we can positively impact people. That's when we can make a difference."
"I was presenting as miss bubbly Californian Peloton instructor who has this positive energy all the time," she added. "I was like, I'm not doing a service here if I don't talk about what's really happening. I'm going tell the world I have anxiety and depression."