Mental Health

I have talked before on my blog about physical injuries. But something that is a little harder for me to talk about is how those physical injuries affected my mental state. I first started writing this piece in the Fall of 2017, but it's only been recently that I've opened up to my friends and family about what I have really gone through after my shoulder injury and surgery. I had always considered myself a positive person, and so when things starting to change for me in my head, I hid it, because I wanted to been seen as strong and tough.
I was so lucky to find such a supportive team to ski competitively for
I've been working on prioritizing health as a whole: both mental and physical. But despite all the hard work I put into myself, I still feel the effects of my struggles with mental health almost every single day. Four years ago, I never would've seen myself going through struggled with mental health, but I had a life-changing event, and I am a completely different person now. Way back before I was injured, I was always empowered by myself because of the traits that made me a good skier, along with being able to be optimistic through all situations- so after my shoulder injuries, and those things became less apparent, I did not feel inspired by myself anymore. Recently, I've been able to recognize different ways to empower myself, and sharing my story about my mental health problems is one way how I'm taking charge of my life again.

I have always loved skiing, and despite my struggles over the past two and a half years, I still do. It takes certain guts to start a race because you can’t control what is going to happen, and if you're pushing yourself as hard as you can, ski racing is really gonna hurt. Whether you cross the finish line with the fastest time, or if you’re way in the back, that race made you a tougher person. I raced because I wanted to win- but I also raced because I loved to. I loved skiing fast.  I loved the hard efforts that left you gasping for air, and your legs and arms, and places you didn’t even know you had muscles, sore. I loved the energy high you got from a good race, and what you could learn from a bad race. I loved how it was an individual sport, where you were responsible for your own results, but with a team aspect- so many people behind you supporting you: your coaches, teammates, wax techs, local organizations, and the community.
Junior year track season
My first shoulder injury occurred around Thanksgiving my junior year of high school. I dislocated it when I fell, rollerskiing with my teammates on an overdistance ski. Despite the frustration from taking time off right before the competition season began, I was ready to bounce back after this injury- my confidence didn’t disappear automatically. Injuries are part of the athletic journey, so I just got ready to recuperate and keep on attacking at my plan.
Racing with a brace on in the conference 3200m
Although I struggled a little bit during the first year of my shoulder injury, I don’t think it affected any of my races that season until Junior Nationals that spring. Although I was still dealing with various shoulder dislocations heading into my senior year, I was strong and confident in my training from the summer. I believed I could still be on top.
Training with no poles, Thanksgiving break of my senior year
The problem I struggled with was that the more I dislocated my shoulder, the more easily it came out the next time. Despite going to physical therapy, I ended up having 10 shoulder dislocations of my right shoulder, in the span of one year. My shoulder got so loose, that it subluxed (slipped out of the joint partially) once while I was sleeping. I was seeing a surgeon, but we decided to continue with physical therapy, rather than surgery because I was young and active.
I especially struggled with classic skiing, my senior year
I had my biggest shoulder dislocation the last day of September, the first month of my senior year. Despite going to the ER, my shoulder ended up being out of the socket for two hours, causing much more damage than my previous dislocations. Even so, at first I wasn’t fazed. I was ready to commit to my senior ski season because I had confidence in myself that I could bounce back and be better than ever. Although my surgeon wanted me to have surgery right away, I was able to get it pushed until the spring- a couple days after I would get back from Junior Nationals. I still had things to prove in high school- goals I had had since I first became a competitive skier in 8th grade. I believed that if I worked hard enough- I could do anything I set my mind to.
Winning sections as a team, senior year
But this time, I had limitations. And those limitations were what began to frustrate me. I couldn’t start training competitively until the middle of November- which forced me to drop one of my major goals: being competitive at Senior Nationals. I wasn’t good enough yet to compete there after my injury- my strength was still really weak, and I wasn’t very comfortable on my skis. I was still learning to reuse my arms, back, and rotator muscles, and as I started to see how long and hard the recovery process would be, I quickly became nervous about my upcoming season.
Skiing on the Birkie Trail by myself- one of many frustrating skis
Despite my huge setbacks, I did have some positive moments. I was able to make huge improvements in my strength and range of motion, along with huge improvements with gaining feeling back into my arm. My first day in PT, I couldn't even lift my arm without assistance. I ended up going to physical therapy for up to three days a week, and we were working on things that were critical to ski racing. We worked on strengthening my ski muscles and worked on my range of motion in that area as well. It was so specific that we often practice how my shoulder would respond if someone stepped on my pole during a race, by simulating that motion with a stick. I also was practicing what position I would fall, if it ever came to it. If my shoulder dislocated again, not only would it cause a lot more damage, but I would have needed surgery immediately, and all of our hard work lost. So, we practiced, and I visualized falling while holding my arm against my side- the safest possible position for it. Even now, when I fall, my reaction is to hold my arm against my side.
I'm still surprised how much my classic skiing improved my senior year, despite the circumstances
But despite all the hard work I put in, racing never really clicked for me during my senior year.  I still had bone damage on my shoulder ball, ligament damage around my shoulder, and nerve damage up and down my arm- with complete feeling not coming back into my right arm until late February.  Oftentimes, training and racing weren’t comfortable. I didn’t feel like my old self. I had lost a great amount of upper body strength in the year I was struggling with my shoulder. I struggled with keeping my balance and technique and I wasn’t racing as aggressively. My confidence took a huge hit. When I was racing, I knew I wasn’t the doing the best a healthy me could do. Before this point, my mentality for every single race was that I had prepared the best I possibly could’ve for that race. I had the attitude that I could win any race I entered because that’s the level I had trained to. But that winter, I felt weak and discouraged even before I started racing, and eventually, all of that stress and high expectations I had set for myself became too much, and I started to deal with depression.
Training as best I could- fall of my senior year
I had spent years working towards some huge goals, and it felt like everything was falling apart. I had signed with the Northern Michigan University ski team a month after my shoulder injury, but I felt like a fraud doing so. I didn’t have any perspective on the situation. Because I was still recovering from the last dislocation, I was trying to train as much as I could without involving my upper body, but I still didn’t feel as if I was doing enough to be a college athlete. Despite having success before my shoulder injury, I had begun to doubt I could ever feel whole enough to race well again. I didn’t want people to go to my college signing because I felt like I hadn’t deserved it.
Despite having some good races, I never completely felt like my pre-injury self
I was always a confident competitor because of my training, and the longer I couldn’t push myself as hard as I wanted to, the more my confidence was diminished. As this happened, my self-identity started to fall apart. I began to question my self-worth because I felt that if I wasn't a skier anymore, I didn't know who I was. I had always loved my body because I was strong and fit and it allowed me to be successful. But I struggled when I started to lose my upper body muscles I had worked so hard to gain. My body wasn't performing the way I wanted it to, and I was extremely conflicted about that. I still loved skiing, but training wasn’t fun anymore because I couldn’t push my limits the way I wanted to. And losing the love of training made me question everything in my life. I would feel sad, days in a row- where I had little feeling of happiness.

It might seem obvious that I wanted to be happy, but depression frustrated me beyond the end. I had always been known for being positive and optimistic despite the circumstances, so when I couldn't feel good, I became angry at myself. I felt like I couldn't do anything right- and I felt weak, mentally and physically. I didn’t end up coming close to any of my goals my senior year of high school, and at the end of the season, I felt like the thousands of hours that I had put in throughout the past six years had been wasted. By the time Junior Nationals came around, I was ready to start over.  
Always comforting to have cousins racing with you at Junior Nationals
Hitting the restart button after my surgery was extremely challenging. Trying to get back to a competitive way of training was mentally and physically exhausting. I had the pressure of myself, my present coaches, and my future coaches and team to get back into a competitive mindset and body. Being at square one- I had to climb steps I had previously already had to climb. While I love pushing my mind and body, it was mentally and physically painful to struggle to try to run exactly one mile at a 12-minute pace, when I knew 6 months ago I could have cut that time in half, easily. It broke my heart when in physical therapy, I couldn’t even do a push up on my knees.


Post Shoulder Surgery

I once again struggled with my body image. I lost a lot of weight after my surgery, almost all of which was muscle. My only form of exercise for about a month after was hiking, and I soon became almost as skinny as I was in middle school. It was hard to stay motivated when I wasn’t feeling successful. Despite making big improvements in PT after my surgery, I felt like I dropped way off of my ‘path of success’ and I was so frustrated, and worried I would be a failure, showing up to school in the fall.
I was very aware how small my arms were and how 'weak' that made me look
I got my first anxiety attack about a month before I went to college. I had always been a fairly anxious person in some regards (such as being on time to places and events) but this was the first time something to this extreme had happened. My chest was tight, I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t control my tears. Looking back, I don’t even remember what specifically caused that incident, but it was the result of a lot of stresses I felt, along with pressure I was putting on myself to get better, and all of the changes I was going through getting ready for college. For me, anxiety attack could last minutes up to over an hour- and the effects would be slow to go away, I would often feel anxious, worthless, and weak for days after.
Was able to be reinspired right after my surgery
Over the next couple of months, it happened several more times, with the stress of college really hitting me hard. I wanted to prove myself, and because I had such high expectations for myself, I felt like I was letting everyone down, despite having extremely supportive coaches and teammates at NMU. Although I was never as depressed as I was in my senior year in high school, it impacted me harder in college. My senior year I was surrounded by friends I had for years and the constant love from my family. But at school, I was a small fish in a big pond- which made me feel very isolated in my struggles.
I loved my first year as a Wildcat- I had little expectations for the season, and it did go way better than I expected
Obviously, all injuries are hard- but having to battle 2+ years against my shoulder gave me serious issues with self-worth. Having done sports since my early youth, the majority of my confidence was tied to my success in skiing. As brought up in World Class (the story of the US Women’s Cross Country Ski Team), women tend to take poor performances much more personally than men, who are able to compartmentalize their lives. Female athletes are much more likely to judge their self-worth from their performances.
There are so many different ways to be strong, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's about resilience and how you respond to situations you are in
There was never one single race or time that caused me to start to have anxiety or feel depressed, but the consistent feeling of being slow, and feeling like a bad athlete made me feel like a worthless person. While I've been working on building up a positive self identity outside of skiing, I am still very impacted by how I preform in practices and races. It's always going to be something I experience, because I am a competitor, but being aware is very helpful.
There are so many things I constantly have to work on, whether it’s my overall confidence, my anxiety, my ski technique, my endurance, and my strength. Especially this summer, over a year after my surgery, I can tell I am getting fitter, stronger, and that's helping me feel like I'm able to more consistently feel in control of my life- both mind and body. As my muscles are growing, my confidence is too, slowly. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster of ups and downs: after a good workout, I’ll feel like I’m finally on the right track, and some days, on the harder days, there are many irrational thoughts that come into my head, which can produce anxiety. But like the process of my shoulder, I have to be patient and take care of myself, and despite the ups and downs, I’m slowly but surely healing.

Comments

  1. You are brave to share this story with your fellow athletes and fans. Mental health struggles are less straight forward than physical challenges, but equally important. I wish you every success at NMU and beyond, both in and out of skiing.

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