Life Through Tape Covered Sunglasses
I was one of the lucky ones.
For women’s hockey players, the CIS, or any university level of sport is one of the highest levels as we can achieve in terms of competition, disregarding national programs. And being offered one of those low-in-numbers, high-in-demand spots was a dream of mine. Like many girls in hockey, I was born into the sport through family. However, unlike most girls I was taken out of the sport by the game itself.
Carleton University was an easy choice for me. My brothers were close by, but I still had distance from my home town. I worked my way on to the roster of the Varsity Women’s hockey team in my first year of university with the support from my family, friends and coaches.. For all of these things, I consider myself thankful, and very lucky. I was lucky to have 50 minutes of pre-season exhibition game time, before I was hit, leaving my concussion in control of my future.
After three weeks of sitting in my residence dorm room with my curtains duct taped to the wall and my sunglasses on, I understood that something was wrong. I spent my days shuffling from my bed to my bathroom, being sick and having whispering conversations with visitors before falling back asleep. Knowing what time or day it was became something that I couldn’t remember mattered. I laid flat on my back without being able to lift my head off of my pillow. My mom and dad had only heard faint mention of me being on ‘concussion watch’ from my aunt in a Facebook post a few weeks prior. I couldn’t contact them because couldn’t look at screens.
Over time, my diagnosis was made. My team of caretakers who seemingly swept up my life, put it in a box and handed it to me. They then proceeded to guide me through my crash course in adulthood. Eternal thanks to all of the medical professionals who involved themselves in my recovery. A concussion, with a severed vestibular system, chipped vertebrae, pinched nerves and severe migraines were among some of the things that completed my diagnosis. Of course none of this is easy to cope with mentally, but when concussed I didn’t even realize that I was struggling. As time progressed and recovery did not, my demons began to grow behind me. I was a once constantly athletic girl who used sport as a stress-coping mechanism, forced out of everything that made my world my own.
I did everything right to recover. Whether it was athletic therapy, vestibular therapy, MRIs, CT scans, missing class, not reading or no screen time. I lived out of the ‘don’t do this’ section of my concussion handouts much like it was my bible. But nothing ever seemed to turn for the better. And as my progress began to subside and my pain began to increase, my already bruised head was pushed further into a darker place. I was eventually told that my injury would be career ending, before I was given the opportunity to make the decision myself. My demons were not of those with faces. They have crept up behind me over time and have been leaning on my shoulders, some days more than others. My triggers can be something so complex as walking to class and feeling my forehead pound with every step, knowing that I won’t be able to look at the lecture screen. Once something major in my life changed, every little detail regarding every inconspicuous moment becomes a reflection of how much I wish I could go back to how it was before.
For many months I woke up, cried and then proceeded to put a smile on my face and act like I was capable of dealing with the planet-sized curveball that was thrown my way. And looking back now, I see how wrong I was for trying to convince myself that nothing had changed inside of me.
My struggles truly began when moving back home for the summer became a reality. I had come up with a way of living at Carleton that surrounded me with people who knew my situation better than I did. Going home meant remaking the support system that had been given to me as a privileged varsity athlete. Again, for this I am lucky. My parents did not understand that I was not the same daughter that left our house in August. I couldn’t go home until December, due to not being cleared to sit in a car. They did not understand that a huge aspect of my life that had shaped me into who I was, was now a gaping hole in my mind, filled with what it ‘should have’ been like. But how could I expect them to understand. For me, bad days came in bursts, tears and anxiety brought on by absolutely nothing but my own thoughts. I eventually turned to an old teammate who had experienced a severe concussion and in turn left school to go home. Her emotions mirrored mine regarding feeling useless, sad and angry, but for the most part just purely exhausted from feeling all of these things constantly for a long period of time. I eventually found myself wishing that I could just stop feeling, because numbness would be a welcome break from the emotions I experienced. After the numbness took over, I realized how lucky I was to be able to feel those emotions. After being angry, I accepted my dim prognosis and kept on walking. The light inside of me had burnt out months before I had realized it. In short bursts I started explaining my frustration to those closest to me. However this eventually stopped, as I felt like I was a burden on their shoulders that they didn’t have the time to deal with. I felt guilty for relying on my teammates as a distraction from my life that seemed to be falling apart at the seams. I had never been so wrong.
I began to fall into the rhythm of second year. I was given the opportunity to remain involved with my former team by the Carleton women’s hockey staff, and I accepted my role of assistant equipment manager. However, after being away from the rink and the reminder of what could’ve been mine, my return to the Carleton Ice House had an unsuspecting ‘slap in the face’ feeling. Forcing myself to be surrounded by the hockey team pushed my instability over the edge, allowing depression to begin taking control of my thoughts. Within 12 hours of feeling overwhelmingly unstable, I was in Doctor Taylor’s office describing how I am no longer myself. For this, I am lucky.
My road to mental recovery is a combination and a process, much like everyone else’s. Speaking with a mental health professional allowed me to not only discuss my feelings but also learn about myself in a different light. I have since found a new sense of normal that I am comfortable with. I have learned to embrace the skills and lessons that I learnt from competitive sports and apply them to how I have chosen to live my life today. Speaking up about my situation, however long it took me to become honest with myself, was the only way that I could have ever received help.
I am lucky for the relationships that have grown from my injury. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who never tell me that they know what I have gone through. I am lucky to be at Carleton, a place where I can reconstruct myself however I see fit. After experiencing the best and worst aspects of varsity athletics, I can speak with confidence in saying that tunnel vision is as dangerous as it is comforting, and it is important to remember the world outside the Carleton Ice House. I have a loving family and group of friends who have always seen me as something more than just a hockey player, something that I am still learning to do now. I am lucky to have experienced 15 years of a beautiful game that was ready to see me grow up before I was ready to say goodbye. It is important for us to remember that we may break, but that does not mean that we are broken.
I am one of the lucky ones.