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Annabelle Young: Shouldering the Mental Load

I have been swimming since I was 5 years old, and it has always been a great stress reliever for me. I moved 8.5 hours away from home to Cincinnati and my parents went through a messy divorce, so it is really the only constant thing in my life. Being an athlete has been a main part of my identity for as long as I can remember.

When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s disease is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects your thyroid gland. It also affects the musculoskeletal system, which includes muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and joints.

When I received my diagnosis, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was always more sore than my teammates for longer periods of time, I experienced constant joint pain on and off for months, and my energy levels were all over the place. I felt like I finally had an answer to what had been bothering me for years. I had been told so many times that I was being dramatic to the point where I started to believe what everyone was telling me.

However, my diagnosis didn’t explain my continued shoulder issues, which didn’t go away even when I started medication to help with the flare-ups. I was told to suck it up and push through it because everyone else was experiencing some sort of pain in their shoulders. So I did. I pushed through severe shoulder pain for 5 years.

In May of this year, I got an MRI and I was told that my labrum was 75% torn and my bicep tendon was pretty close to detaching. I was relieved yet terrified at the same time. On one hand, I was so happy to find out that this pain hadn’t been in my head, and I wasn’t being dramatic like I had been told in the past. On the other hand, I was devasted, because I knew this meant surgery. I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to come back and do the sport I love. I feared losing my identity.

I got surgery on June 15th and it went really well. Physically, everything looked great. However mentally, I was in a dark place. I isolated myself from my teammates and my best friends. I hated going to physical therapy 5 days a week for over 2 hours because of how hard it was. I just felt truly alone even when I was in a room filled with my friends. I felt like I was losing my identity.

At the end of August, I was cleared to practice, but I was limited in what I could do. It was amazing getting back into the pool with everyone again but I felt guilty. Guilty because I was kicking during hard sets and lifting light weights. I felt like people were mad at me because I wasn’t doing everything that the rest of the team was doing. Once again, everything was going perfectly physically and I was ahead of schedule in terms of recovery. Mentally, I was still in a tough spot. I wanted to give up. I wanted to quit.

After one particularly rough week, I had a pretty deep talk with one of my close friends on the team and she made me realize that I have a huge group of people who are here to support me and I finally opened up to someone and was honest. For the first time since the surgery, I felt heard and I didn’t feel alone. I finally started opening up to the people who loved me and just like she had told me, I wasn’t judged. I felt loved and supported. The University of Cincinnati athletic department also offers an amazing injury support group to help student-athletes cope with the mental recovery from surgeries, which I have started to attend. I am finally motivated to get back to competing and I am slowly starting to get back to my old self. I was never alone, I just never opened up and I assumed that people were mad at me when all they wanted to do was support me, but I wouldn’t let them.

I am still not 100% but I am improving every single day and I am getting healthier mentally. I am starting to swim full practice and finally get my sparkle back. To anyone who is reading this and is struggling to navigate life after surgery, please know that you are never alone, no matter how much your brain tells you that you are. Your teammates, family, friends, and athletic staff have your back. You will find yourself again, I promise.


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