I have always taken the utmost care of my body. I consider that one of the top reasons that I am still playing on the National team — my ninth year with the Senior team after two years playing for Team Canada Juniors. I was pushed beyond my limits when I was a young girl by coaches who saw huge potential in me across a wide array of sports as well as coming from a family where we were taught that working very hard at what you did would translate into you being one of the best. And to be the best meant that your physical body needed to be working very, very well.
I know I have alluded in the past to how different our (me and my brothers') sports upbringing was but shall I give a little friendly reminder? My mom was a volleyball stud who dominated during her time at UBC plus won a few National Championships. My father was on the National Wrestling team after his stellar career at UBC and represented Canada on the international stage competing at the World Championships and Olympic Qualifiers. I grew up playing a lot of sports and I knew exactly what it took to become the best in each one. My father graduated in Human Kinetics so along with that plus his individual sporting background, he had my brothers and I doing things when we were in early elementary school that you would see university athletes doing in their mid-season program. I joke that we were tricked into doing drills and implementing ridiculous training methods before and after school and then again before the sun went down, but in all honestly, my brothers and I loved it. We loved the challenges. I don’t think any of us could imagine not growing up with that level of activity we were getting on the daily. And the other elementary school kids, a lot of them our close friends who went under dad’s “rule”, also had wildly successful sporting careers. We were just working harder than anyone else at any given time.
Well, I guess I kept that mentality going. It’s hard to stop a habit when you’re in the thick of things. Even when I was on a break with strict instructions to relax, you could find me out on a hike, running stairs, at the gym, biking all over the Sunshine Coast, on a jog, or doing ladders in my backyard. From getting so much international experience at a young age I think I was hyperaware of the fact that there are so many girls out in the world that also want to have success in this sport. Not to mention the constant (albeit healthier) competition that I had everyday in university or on the national team that was necessary to claim your spot on the travel roster and starting position on the team - you always had to be in the best shape.
Needless to say working really hard has never been an issue for me. I take care of my body outside of trainings in order to be able to go at it all over again the following day - I don’t see there being any other way.
Now, a lot of fingers have been pointed at “old school thinking” in terms of physical performances and abilities. For example, an older mentality would be to train as hard as you physically can and push your body beyond all it's limits which will then translate into a lot of success. Newer age thinking will offer an alternate solution and push back on that to say emotional, mental, AND physical health will all play a very key roll into the success of an athlete (or any physical person). I think almost every single reader will agree with that statement; all facets of our human self are important and need to be cared for in order to have the success that we are seeking. Like anything in equilibrium, if one small piece is not in tune or if something is fatigued from taking on a larger role, then other parts will try and compensate or be sacrificed and that balance is no longer present.
Let me dig into that a little bit more.
YOU - as an individual, how much time do you spend meditating, writing in a gratitude journal, visualizing, stretching, talking through your struggles with a counsellor or a sport psychologist, creating a game plan for your entire season, making a couple goals for each day, checking in with yourself truly and honestly and then LISTENING to your body or soul.
I hate to admit it but I have been doing a pretty awful job at supporting all cylinders. I am not at equilibrium.
Five years ago now one of my younger twin brothers passed away suddenly in a tragic and sudden accident. After only taking a couple weeks off to be with my family and ultimately be at home during the initial state of shock and planning the Celebration of Life, I was back with the National Team to finish off my season and about a month after that I was on a plane headed to Istanbul, Turkey for my first full 8-month professional stint overseas. The Istanbul apartment had zero wifi for those first two (plus) months and I was quite far from any cafes that offered it. So I did a lot of writing. And a lot of crying. I felt virtually alone in the never-ceasing pain.
Over the years things became more manageable, unfortunately due to this new ability of mine to compartmentalize what I was really feeling in my soul versus what needed to get done (for years I thought I was terrible at this but apparently I’ve been doing it all along!). You can imagine that there was no ‘scheduled’ grieving time with the summer and fall months booked in with extremely intense National Team commitments and travel and competitions and then only a short week or two after that wrapped up I’d be on a plane to a foreign country for the next 8 months of the year. And with each new season and new start there were very new, very challenging, very time-consuming and very demanding things asked of me.
Every season I’ve played in had extremely challenging details. Outrageously so, I could probably write a book in the future. So when I would get into a sort of slump I would easily blame it on not having enough time off and therefore no time to grieve, the “over-seas blues” (when the every day routine becomes so familiar and a little mundane), or just missing my family and home. I am exhausted all of the time, really sad, not really inspired to do a whole lot, and all the little problems just weighed down on me so hard. I know I didn’t take the time to grieve my brother five years ago and still haven’t really done so to this day. Which I think, as a result, was the manifestation of the moderate-severe anxiety and depression I was diagnosed with at the end of last summer.
Ahhh yes. Mental health. I could go off on this issue (and I probably will in a few more posts) but I will try to keep it relatively quick.
But to ask you honestly — are you surprised by this diagnosis?
It took me two random physicians and my family doctor later for me to actually put my hands up and surrender. I think I was in denial for so long - but my body’s protective stance was only letting me absorb a few certain things at a time. It knows my limits and I think I’ve been so emotionally full yet running on empty for a good long while now.
I was so relieved and yet so broken when my family doctor diagnosed me. I now know I’m not crazy - or maybe you think I am depending on your ideas surrounding mental health - and all those terrible dark days that were strung together for so long, a vast emptiness that I never felt I had enough strength to pull myself out of, the energy and the tears that would well up inside of me when just a few little things fell out of place - all of those uncomfortable unnamable feelings now had a label. I was relieved.
But I was also terrified. After that was established my doctor wanted me to go on anti-depressants right away as my case of depression was borderline severe. Of course, this all happened days before I was leaving to Indonesia last fall and I just didn’t feel comfortable hopping on some pretty heavy medication if I was in a foreign country by myself. The hardest part however, was simply coming to terms with the idea of having depression and anxiety. To me personally, that seemed like something I could and should and would be able to fix. It meant that there was a little piece of the puzzle that was throwing off my equilibrium that I wanted and needed to solve. The worst part was thinking that my head coach and coaching staff might view me as a weak player. That maybe this would deter him from taking me to a tournament or handing over a larger role within the team. What would my teammates think? Would they still come to me for advice or would they also view me as fragile and broken. Would parents still want me to mentor their kids or coaches let me mentor their athletes? All of those unknowns were the hardest part for me. I could extend a little bit of grace to myself but would everyone else do the same? I decided I would go to Indonesia and see how the year progressed all the while being more aware of my emotions and anxiety and the lows in which depression brought forth. I thought I could manage on my own.
Of course with any bout of depression or anxiety it is pretty difficult to simply tackle it on your own, to wake up one day and simply overcome it. Although I wish it was that easy. Even working with a professional or integrating self-care routines or boundaries within a busy lifestyle, or any little tweak can often be the balancer that most people need. The piece to restore equilibrium. Unfortunately with a more severe bout of it, I quickly realized that I couldn’t do this own my own or at least pull myself out of those longer slumps when I would just wake up feeling so crummy and so sad. And some of these feelings have lasted weeks to months with little subsiding relief. I had so many seemingly-random anxiety or panic attacks that were being deeply infused in my life by disrupting my normal day to day things. One afternoon in Indonesia I had to get up and leave during a pre-game meal and sprint back up to my hotel room, barely holding it together as I burst in through my room. I sobbed uncontrollably for an hour without really knowing why. And then moments after I forcibly collected myself, I had to walk out and go play an important match with my team.
I think my grief had finally manifested into something tangible and I was finally recognizing the severity of what was happening inside me. I knew that this was something that could be so easily overlooked for me personally but I think for a lot of other individuals too. Months before I finished my season in Indonesia I was touching base with a few professionals back home so I could have some appointments and plans in place the moment I stepped back onto Canadian soil. If I didn't make those appointments I would have found myself at the end of another National Team summer wondering where the time had gone yet again. I had gone far too long without reaching out and seeking help.
It was only after a few sessions with the counsellor I am now working with that I realized I was living my life exactly how I tried so hard to avoid. Complacent, routined, safe, and guarded. And to be fair I guess I never knew I was doing that - it was all subconscious. My body was protecting itself far before my brain could catch up and realize what it was doing. For me it was easier and safer to go from team to team, from contract to contract and then back to the National Team. I knew what to expect in terms of the grind. The physical labour was normal to me. I have been pushing myself and my body physically for my entire life. Those certain pressures I could withstand. Not to mention a new, tough challenge would mean my brain would be happily distracted with present, more pressing daily matters such as surviving in a foreign country all the while attempting to play the best volleyball of my life. Normal, no? As I said earlier in this post I’ve always taken very good care of my body but over the last few years I was experiencing some longer illnesses and injuries that started taking me off the court. And a lot of symptoms that health care professionals still can’t pin point after years and years and tests after tests. I started looking into more of a holistic approach in my lifestyle but it takes a lot of work, structure, and dedication to remind myself to take care of every part of me and not just focus on the physical.
My counsellor had said to me one evening that I say “I haven’t really grieved my brother yet and it’s been five years” or some form of that sentence quite frequently. And when I say I haven’t grieved, I don’t think that’s completely true, but I don’t think I have truly given myself time to feel everything I maybe should have. My default setting is to dive head first into volleyball and other things in my life and try to hold the trauma and grief at arms length. But she told me that it’s not necessarily a bad thing; this was my body KNOWING that I just couldn’t do it all; I couldn’t have it all unfold for me during these last few years because then maybe I wouldn’t have had these past successes if I tried to grieve at the same time. I most likely wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out. It's possible I would have broke. And my body knew this: I couldn't do it all.
I do really recognize that I need to take the time and space to truly grieve my brother’s passing but I still can’t really lean in to it the way I know I need to. But I’m learning these days that my body knows best. My body is telling me that it just can’t deal with it, with truly knowing Connor isn’t earth side. I still can't go there even after these five years. I am getting little bits and pieces of grief but I still have to keep it in a tidy little box (most days I can control that... until I can’t) for me to keep going in my sport. I am learning to trust what my body and heart need; some days I need a very good long cry to surrender to all the horrible feelings and miss Connor terribly, to count the passing hours and just make it through the day, and other days I need to push through and throw myself into sport and being close to those around me. When distraction becomes my favourite and most overused medicine. Be with people or to not be with people. It’s forever changing on a day to day basis.
It’s a constant learning process I am realizing. And even though I am not currently in a space where I have this time to be sad, or miss a day of work when I need to cry for hours on end, or just take a moment for myself when my anxiety or depression becomes too much, I am trying to take little steps towards healing and hopefully back to equilibrium. No I don’t have the ability to call in sick but I am also slowly learning how to take little, seemingly normal moments in my day to make myself present. To push these overwhelming and sudden feelings aside, sure, but to promise myself to revisit those same feelings when I am in an appropriate situation to do so. I figure that this will be an ongoing process and I wonder if at any point in my life I am going to have this all figured out. I suspect not — there will always be new distractions to throw myself at. But to push away my grief and sadness is to also push away any good memories of my brother. Because it all still hurts at a magnitude I didn’t think was ever possible, it is easy to avoid ever getting to that point and opening the floodgates even for a moment. To avoid getting to those hollow and emptying feelings.
And although I am struggling and this week is extra difficult, I am allowing my heart to dictate where my mind will go.
I want the memories to flood into myself and even though it brings upon the hardest and most difficult of thoughts and feelings, I think to grieve is to feel. And to feel is to remember.
And I want to remember my brother for everything he was.
And maybe, just maybe, I will one day feel like I am more at an equilibrium.