Michael Phelps on Being A Dad — And How Family Helps Him Through His Darkest Days
If it's 5 p.m. in Paradise Valley, Arizona, there's a good chance the Phelps family is at the dinner table. It's a ritual that swimming champion Michael Phelps cherishes.
"As a kid, I always wanted to have dinner as a family but with my parents separated, that didn't happen often," Phelps tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I love how we have dinner every night together at the same exact time."
Most often, Phelps, 36, is the chef for his wife, Nicole, and their three boys Boomer, 5, Beckett, 3, and Maverick, 1. "Quesadillas are a big hit," he says. "I enjoy it. It's fun just being able to hear them talk about the day, the banter back and forth. It's fun to be a part of and just fun to be a dad."
It's also an important part of the routine Phelps has developed to help him manage his depression, which at times has been so severe that he's contemplated suicide. "Depression is something that will always be part of my life — it's part of who I am," says Phelps, whose Michael Phelps Foundation provides wellness programming to youth around the world.
"It's my job to continue to learn and understand why I am how I am." And so, he sticks to his routine with the same discipline he drew upon to win 23 Olympic gold medals: daily workouts, at least seven and a half hours of sleep each night and drinking lots of water. "All these small things are part of the equation," he says. "There's only so much that we can control in this world, so I want to be on top of it as much as I can so I can be the best father, the best husband, the hardest worker. I want to give myself the chance."
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Another technique Phelps leans on: writing down his feelings. "I look at quotes for motivation but sometimes I write down negative messages, things that aren't always friendly, names I'm calling myself or what I'm going through mentally," he says.
For a time, he'd scrawl the epithets about himself on his bathroom mirror. "I wasn't okay with that," says Nicole, 35. "I was like, 'It's not fair to me because I can't comprehend why you're writing that about yourself. That's not how I see you.' That was my boundary and he's totally respected that."
Now, Phelps uses a journal for his negative feelings. "He has that tool of writing it down, whether good or bad," she says.
The couple is determined to help their sons develop their own tools for managing feelings as well. "They talk about their emotions," says Phelps. "It gives me a lot of hope. I just want them to be as prepared as they can be."
All three boys have learned the art of the "lion's breath." Says Nicole: "It's funny, Maverick will be so upset and then suddenly you'll hear him breathe in deep and then sigh."
They also know there are times when their dad needs time and space. "It comes down to patience and compassion recognizing that the person you love just can't get out of bed and that's okay. They are going through their own stuff and you have to be kind about that," adds Nicole, who says that though they are few and far between, Phelps still struggles with "really severe moments" of depression. "It's very scary still to this day," she says.
Listen to more of PEOPLE's interview with Michael Phelps below on our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.
When their dad is struggling, the boys will "either try to be near him or they'll question what he's experiencing," Nicole says. "We don't hide from emotions. We teach them that daddy or mommy is having a moment and we need to either give them space or ask if they want a hug. And that's taught them they have permission for their feelings to be heard too."
And in those moments when a hug is welcome, "it just makes me melt," Phelps says. "It makes me go to the ground instantly. I absolutely adore being around them."
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