Loss of self, loss of joy

I thought having to take 3-6 months off from training was going to be one of the hardest things I’d ever done. If I had known I would not be able to return to training in 6 months, it would have been that much closer to unbearable. If I’d known what was really coming…

It’s a good thing I didn’t know I would continue to get sicker. As an athlete, I couldn’t have comprehended that I would grow too sick even to walk. So much more than the ability to train and compete would be stripped away.

My identity and sense of direction took a hit, of course, but after my first Athletic Identity Crisis, that part wasn’t so bad. I was able to pivot relatively easily to some of my other projects and pursuits. I took up singing, enrolled in an online course, and began to grow my business, spending more time with the fabulous athletes I get to coach. My identity suffered only a little at first. I was an athlete who needed to take a temporary break. When my condition worsened and the timeline became indefinite, that raised new questions about how to make major life decisions. I wasn’t sure what my priorities were anymore, or if my priorities would ever again center around being active.

One of the many unpleasant surprises was that my connection with nature suffered immensely when I stopped training, and I found it difficult to reconnect. My ability to manage my mental health absolutely tanked. If you’re an athlete, and you’ve ever had to take more than a few days off, you know that can wreak havoc on your mood. Imagine doing that for 3 years.

Through social media, podcasts, and other forms of public-speaking, I regularly hear the stories of friends and strangers alike who are suffering from a temporary inability to do what they love. Within the athletic world, this usually means someone is injured, though I also hear stories of illness, challenging life circumstances, bad weather, and even identity crises that pull people away from the sports they have loved.

Most of these stories have something in common: athletes speak very passionately about the life and identity they loved, that they have, (usually temporarily,) lost. This leaves me in a difficult situation of being pulled between two reactions. On one hand, I have enormous empathy for anyone who loves to be active, and can’t for some reason. It’s so painful to be away from what you love, and I know only too well that for a self-identified “athlete,” not being able to be active can lead to a real crisis of identity, whether that’s a temporary state or a long term shift of self-image.

On the other hand, I often reflect on the story of someone who has an acute injury that will heal in 4-6 weeks (or even a very serious injury, or perhaps a recovery from surgery, that may take a few months to heal,) with the judgment that their situation doesn’t sound so bad: it’s temporary, and there is a definitive end-date to their down-time. It’s hard not to compare their experience to mine (I am only human.) Though my goal is to avoid this type of judgment, I do believe very strongly that perspective is invaluable. For this reason, I appreciate stories in which athletes keep an eye on the big picture.

I have learned a lot from understanding the stories of folks who have been much sicker than I have been. That, more than anything else, is what has helped me continue to cultivate gratitude throughout my illness. I’m incredibly grateful that there have been periods on and off in the past 3 years that I could exercise. Even when I couldn’t exercise, most days I was well enough to leave the house. Some people are not so lucky.

Athletes experiencing temporary setbacks, or even major shifts in their athletic identity, may find it helpful to acknowledge and cultivate gratitude for their continued ability to be active, their predictable healing trajectory, or something else about their situation that will eventually lead to something positive.