Athletes are a lot like superheroes: seen by the public as put-together, mentally tough, and able to do anything. They are often placed on a pedestal, and the way that society views sports can make it hard for any athlete to truly be themselves. Not all athletes struggle, but a vast majority are like any of your peers and experience tough times too. Some come from homes that did not allow them to be nurtured; some battle with injuries, family and friend problems, identity concerns, addictive behaviors, anxiety, depression, eating disorders– the list can be endless.
Just because an athlete is talented does not mean they are invincible. And just because an athlete appears tenaciously motivated does not mean they do not have their days where it’s hard to leave their bed. We often forget that being an athlete is not all glamorous all the time, which is why I make the connection between athletes and superheroes. We have the front that you see on the field, court, mat, track, or gym, and the everyday front that our friends and families see. But when daily life gets tough, both athletes and superheroes alike tend to try and go it all alone.
I will be the first one to admit that I am headstrong, persistent, and oftentimes believe I can carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I like to think of myself as Superwoman: able to do it all and never needing help. But even superheroes need sidekicks and a team too, right? The team makes the super-suit, coaches through the earpiece, and supports their friend through it all. Seeking aCYSTance is something I have struggled with for years, thinking that if I’m an athlete and strong like Superwoman, I can do it all. But when you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and insist on bearing it all alone, at what point does that weight ultimately crush you? Sooner or later, it is bound to happen…
Asking for help is hard
As an athlete, I ran away from any opportunity to ask for help because, well, vulnerability feels pretty dang uncomfortable! So I continued to grind and grind on my own for years. It’s taken me quite some time to accept that asking for aCYSTance is okay. Although I still struggle from time to time, I’ve learned that having a support system truly lessens the load.
When athletics is your whole world for 10+ years, writing a new story for yourself can be a challenge. Letting go of the “superhero” label is not simple, especially when you have closely identified with it for so long. I have had to change so much in the last 2 years post-athleticism: I cannot eat the way I used to (without gaining a lot of weight), can’t work out as intensely (I don’t have time with work and personal life responsibilities), and so much more. The transition from athletics is not always an easy one. No matter if it is a personal choice, graduation, exhausting eligibility, or an injury. I have been intentional to lean on my support system throughout this process, allowing myself to become vulnerable, but that still does not mean it has been easy.
I recently read a post on Instagram that spoke to me and was, truly, the inspiration for this article:
“When you are a competitive athlete, you are programmed to believe positive affirmations and attention will come your way when you perform well. But no one prepares you for the body changes that follow… No one prepares you for the confusion you will have around food because all this time you have fueled your body for athletic performance… It makes sense that so many former athletes struggled with eating disorders, body image, mental health, and a screwed-up relationship with exercise… It is easy to blame our bodies and our minds for not effortlessly transitioning into a life we don’t know.
Is this enough?
I had never been a naturally gifted athlete or the one with “an amazing physique”. I was the girl who stayed late, spent hours growing myself and my game, and making sure to do all the little things right. I struggled with my body image from a young age because I felt that no other athletes looked like me: I was 5’3”, strong, sturdy, and not “toned”. From a young age, I have always had a curvy figure– especially in my stomach– and every sports uniform felt uncomfortable to me. I have worn oversized clothes for many years to hide this insecurity, stemming from the moment a kid in elementary school realized that Smelly Kelly has a big belly seemed like a cool rhyme. Every moment I put on something that cut into my stomach, my internal dialogue was this rhyme and an endless list of negative self-talk.
This was a driving factor for me to do all the “right things”– from nutrition (seeing a dietician) to exercise to even seeing therapists for my mental health. I cut out gluten, dairy, sugar, and processed foods. I was coachable and consistent. I had been involved in intense training since the end of middle school (for 10+ years). I went to performance speed school, spent countless hours in the gym, went on miles-long runs, did 2+ workouts a day, and more. I even pushed myself to the point of rhabdomyolysis (a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the blood), which often results from too intense of exercise. In hindsight, I know these behaviors in which I engaged were not healthy, all for the pursuit of becoming a superhero– struggling in pursuit of a “perfect image” that I know is, and was, unattainable.
I asked for help…
Within this post, I keep mentioning asking for aCYSTance – sharing that it is okay, and encouraged, to ask for help. But what happens when you muster the courage to ask for help and are brushed off or invalidated (one reason we fear asking in the first place!)? I had asked countless doctors to listen to me and to investigate my health because I physically did not feel right in my body. For years, something just felt off. But seeing as many of my tests didn’t show something astronomically abnormal, I was continually told, “Maybe it’s just stress?”
Well, riddle me this: in the past two years, I have now gained 20+ pounds (within a short few months), feeling like my body is frozen in time, having bloat in my tummy, always being sore, feeling so fatigued… how can that be just stress?
Losing weight is not an easy feat for some, but with eating right, taking all my supplements, and seeing a dietician, SOMETHING should have worked, right? Working out consistently, 5-6 days a week at a high intensity, SHOULD work, right? Seeing a therapist for support SHOULD WORK, RIGHT? Even just one of these strategies should have proved helpful to my weight loss goals, and all combined definitely should have helped! Yet, the number on the scale continued to climb, and the symptoms I described earlier continued to progress. So, where was I going wrong?
I was told for 6+ years, “Oh, it’s just stress” or “Oh, that’s just your normal body” to the point that even I had started to convince myself of it. Oftentimes, our accepted version of “normal” is externally projected onto us, causing us to second-guess the very real alarm bells that are going off internally. But we occupy our bodies 24/7. We are the experts on ourselves
Advocate for yourself
Well, this “superhero” was persistent in advocating for herself and– with the right team on her side– finally found the answer she had been looking for: After two ultrasounds and some proper blood work, I have been diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). PCOS is a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges (hence my play on words, “aCYSTance”). The cause is not really known and maybe a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms often include menstrual irregularity, excess hair growth, acne, and obesity.
WOW – how validating this answer was for me, reading up on the symptoms, and learning more about it! As much as I wanted to scream and say, “How did we not find this sooner?!”, I cannot help but feel excited for what lies ahead. Knowing that I have some answers– and that it wasn’t all “just in my head”– finally gives me a sliver of hope to hold onto.
Not a failure
The hardest thing for me to grasp was the notion that even as a DI athlete, being extremely healthy nutrition-wise, working out like a madwoman, and taking care of my mental health, I felt like I had failed. Superheroes, athletes, and anyone working towards better health: your conditions are not your fault, and are not a reflection of yourself. In truth, I know I did not fail. But, based on years of unhelpful thinking patterns, this is something that I must continue to work on remembering: I am not my struggle.
While I cannot be Superwoman all the time, I am learning how to be an athlete without my sport and more about myself as a woman– a woman who is no longer afraid to ask for ACYSTANCE! I’m so thankful for the team (doctors, therapists, family, and friends) that continues to share the weight of the load I often carry. Without their support and validation, this superhero would have continued to walk alone.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.