I was in eighth grade when the doctors told me my concussion was so severe I’d never step foot on the field again. Of course, I was stubborn, and I rehabbed with a point to prove. Months later, the doctors gave me a hesitant clearance to play limited minutes in the upcoming fall season. I conditioned with tenacity; I ran uphill in the rain, kicked six bags of balls into the net and then turned around to do it again on the other end of the field, sweat through three t-shirts until my legs were shaking and I couldn’t feel any sort of pain. I longed for achievement. I longed to be the athlete I was before my world crashed.
No one could have warned me that it would be my final game. When the forwards charged down the field and scored, I didn’t know it would be my final celebration. When the opponents dared to come towards our half, I didn’t know it would be my final play. I cleared the ball and just as quickly, just as swiftly, fell to the ground.
My memory goes dark there, and my world remained dark for months to come. Soccer was all I had to offer, and it was ripped from my weak hands despite all of the fight I put into preserving my identity as an athlete.
More time passed, and I continued to fight back in physical therapy. My balance improved slowly, my vision even slower, but soon I was jogging and then I was sprinting and finally I was shuffling through agility ladders with sweat dripping down my back. We worked on compromises: limit my cognitive energy before and after physical exertion, dramatically change my diet to avoid headache-inducing foods, avoid excess noise and light and stress. With an endless list of rules to follow, I was permitted to attempt non-contact sports. In other words, I was allowed to run.
I was free. I had gathered some small bit of control again. In those carefully timed, carefully monitored moments of absolute exhaustion, I reclaimed my identity as an athlete.
No one could have predicted that this wonderfully healthy exterior of a diligent athlete could actually be so sick.
My runs shifted from a fun pastime to a daily requirement. My new diet became obsessive. I avoided noise and light and stress by avoiding people all together. The compromises became excuses to allow me to live within the trap of a mental illness that was slowly taking over my new life. If you look like an athlete, no one will know that you aren’t one anymore, I told myself as I ran my twelfth mile. You have to prove your athleticism now, I warned myself as I skipped more meals. You have to work harder, I scolded myself as I chose the gym over another party.
I can’t blame the concussions entirely. There isn’t a concrete way to predict the possibility of an inevitable mental illness taking shape in my life without the trigger of brain injuries, but it has been proven that head trauma can lead to issues with mental health.
It is certain that the consequences of my concussions had a strong influence on the development of my eating disorder. Losing my identity as an athlete caused me to question my purpose, and because of that, I was vulnerable to the pressures of society’s images of who I should be. I longed for a stereotype to fulfill my identity, and when I lost the companionship of my teammates, I turned to the companionship of the internal arguments surrounding calorie counting and mile marking. My eating disorder filled a void I didn’t know I had created.
It has been years now, and I’ve since found new ways to occupy the space that soccer once had in my life. These are healthier identities: writer, philanthropist, explorer. My experience with brain trauma and mental illness has made me more aware of the vulnerability we all have; my adolescent self was not invincible. I will never be invincible. But with help and support, I can be stronger than my opponent. That’s where I am now.