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Isabelle Schwarz: Persevering through pain

TW: self harm

Like many athletes, I have always been a bit of a perfectionist. Academically and in sport, I demanded the very best of myself, and I was used to my body and mind being able to provide that. I started rowing in my first year of university and training was going really well. It wasn't easy, but I loved it. After a year as a novice, I made varsity. I was so proud of myself. I told my coach I would work my butt off to get myself into the crews I wanted, and I did. But the Monday before our provincial championship, I felt a pinch in the back of my knee; this was October 2021. I saw a physio that Wednesday and was diagnosed with a slight adductor strain, possibly minor enough to race that weekend. When I returned on Friday, I had a severe limp and was told the strain would actually take a few months to heal. I was done for the season, but I was ok- I had more years ahead of me to compete.

Then it didn't get better. For months I followed physio protocols and saw no improvement. I limped around campus, and sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to walk 500m from my car to my class. Three months later, in January, I saw a sports medicine doctor who referred me for ultrasounds and an MRI, which all came back showing nothing. But I couldn't run, walk, or even bike without pain. Before, I had thought of my body as a machine; as long as I cared for it, it would work for me, but I didn't understand it anymore. I started to hate my body and resent it for what it was doing to me.

Over the next few months, I kept doing physio and tried different exercises, acupuncture, and chiropractic. By May, it still wasn't getting better. Sometimes I thought maybe I was making it all up, maybe I was being dramatic- trying to get attention. But I would come home from work, crawl up the stairs and just lay in my bed, wishing the aching would stop. I was not making it up. I went back to the doctor, was prescribed high-dose NSAIDS and told to wait it out. They helped, but I still couldn't do anything beyond the bare minimum of movement. I was constantly in pain. I spent hours googling possible diagnoses. Eventually, my doctors and I landed on the possibility of a labral tear (damage to cartilage surrounding the hip joint), so I was referred for a more specific MRI. I got the results exactly 8 months after I had last been in a boat. It confirmed that I had a small labral tear. This was the best day; I was at work and almost cried tears of joy. Finally getting a diagnosis was so validating. It showed me that the months I'd spent in pain weren't nothing. I was right, and I hadn't been dramatizing it.

However, when I spoke to my doctor, he told me the imaging wasn't congruent with how much pain I was in. A small tear like that couldn't be causing that many issues. The damage shown in the MRI wasn't enough to necessitate surgery, but he referred me for consults anyway. We had already tried almost every conservative approach, so I wanted an operation. Meanwhile, my pain kept getting worse. I started using a crutch because it hurt too much to walk around campus; even with medication, the impact of every step was brutal. I felt like my hip was going to fall out of its socket.

I had my first surgery consultation on September 1st. The surgeon said he was willing to operate- but the wait time was two years. I was so shocked I couldn't even think of words to advocate for myself. Tears formed in my eyes as I walked out of the office. I didn't have two years-I knew that much. I couldn't keep living like this. I bawled the entire 40 minutes home. I felt so trapped. My hope faltered, and for the first time, I had suicidal thoughts.

For my next appointment, my parents came with me because I couldn't articulate how much pain I was in and how it limited me from doing any activities of daily living. My injury had taken everything from me, but I felt dramatic saying that. We tried to make the doctors understand how terrible it was and that I couldn't survive like this. Still, it was a 1-2 year wait. COVID had left many hospitals backed up with elective surgeries, and there was nothing they could do. I felt so hopeless. I had run out of options.

At this point, my injury was all I could think about. I spent most of my time spiraling. I would get up at the end of class and realize that I hadn't heard anything in the last 40 minutes because all I could think about was how I couldn't do this anymore. I was prescribed new, more potent pain medication, which alleviated much of my pain but also ruined my appetite. I was making it through most days eating less than 1000 calories because everything made me nauseous and I hated the idea of eating.

Finally, in October– a year after my initial injury– I got a consultation with a surgeon who was supposed to have shorter wait times. I couldn't stop smiling when he told me it would be 4-6 weeks until surgery, not even months. It was only two more months, I could survive that.

I went back to school, where I was on my own again. I thought I would be fine, but I was still in pain every day, and my medication made me so exhausted. I could never focus on my schoolwork or really do anything. I wasn't eating, and I started losing a lot of weight. I got sick and couldn't shake the virus because my body was so weak and tired. I was withdrawn from my roommates and friends, spending most of my time alone in my room. At night I would just sit in bed and think about how horrible everything was, how much had been taken from me. I was resentful, anxious, and had no healthy outlets.

And then, one night, I cut myself. On my abdomen where I knew no one would see. It took me 3 weeks to even admit that to my therapist. I was so ashamed; confessing it to her forced me to admit to myself that I was struggling, and I wasn't ready for that yet. I told her it would never happen again because I genuinely thought it wouldn't. I was just overwhelmed. One of my friends saw the cuts, and I told her the same thing- it wouldn't happen again.

Nothing prepares you for this part, for what happens when everything breaks down. You wonder: does everyone feel this at some point in their life? The feeling that it cannot possibly get worse, that there is not one more thing you can lose control of because you've lost it all already. Like you're drowning in the ocean, and the waves keep crashing. Just praying for someone to rescue you from this nightmare and knowing that if one more wave comes, if one more bad thing happens, you might not be able to cope. So you try to hold on to a tiny sliver of hope.

I was sleeping almost 12 hours a day. I wasn't eating. I lost 20 pounds in 8 weeks, and my legs shook when I went down the stairs. I used to be an athlete. I was so defeated and felt like I couldn't control anything in my life anymore. My friends told me they missed me- I missed myself too. I felt like I was drowning. I was so unhappy. I felt like my past, healthy self was watching from the window, and in her place was a broken version. I felt so disassociated from my body. I knew all the things I was supposed to be doing, but I couldn't do them. And I couldn't figure out when it became so hard to keep myself alive.

Then I cut myself again, worse this time, to try and remind my brain that the body I was in was really my own.

I remember reading news storied of athletes who had committed suicide. I used to never understand how it could get that bad, how things could go so wrong that you had no hope left. I wasn't there, but I was so close. I understood it at that moment. But I had promised my therapist that if my thoughts ever got really bad, I would talk to someone, and thankfully I realized that I needed help. I called my roommate, sobbing and asked her to come to my room. I don't know what was going through her mind at that moment, but I am so grateful that she was there. She hugged me as I cried. And she helped me call my parents to tell them what was happening. Telling my parents I had self-harmed is probably the hardest thing I've ever done. I could hear it in their voices. They were so scared. I was scared.

The next day I went home. I didn't know how to act in front of my parents, and I didn't really know how they explained it to my siblings. I still had trouble admitting to myself that I needed help. My parents treated me like I was so fragile, which I hated- but they were right to. I was really sick. I had trouble being alone, my brain would spiral. My parents were basically force-feeding me food and multi-vitamins to try and get me ready for surgery.

Being around my family forced me to acknowledge how poor my mental health had gotten, which was really difficult. I had to confront what was going on to begin moving past it; For a while, I was always three seconds away from breaking down into tears, but eventually, I started to feel a little better.

The morning of my surgery, I was cautiously optimistic. Waking up in recovery, I was finally ready to believe that the nightmare was over. 14 months later, I was finally able to start healing- both physically and mentally. The damage to my joint also ended up being worse than anything seen in the MRIs. Further validation that pushing for surgery had been the right choice.

I'm 2 months post-op and have so much more joy in my life. I'm ready to challenge myself and push toward the future I know I deserve. I have found confidence in myself again. I am learning to trust my body. I have a long way to go, but I feel ready for the journey. And I celebrate all my successes with my friends and family.

I still hate what happened to me- how much time I lost. That I don't get to do what I thought I would. My mental health still needs work, like physical health, it's an ongoing project. But I can recognize when I am spiraling and pull myself out of it. And I am truly grateful to be alive, thriving again after months of barely surviving.

To any athletes, injured or otherwise:

Please ask for help, even if it feels impossible. It requires you to admit that you're struggling, but it's also the first step toward getting better. You are so loved. If I've learned anything, you have so many people in your corner, even many you wouldn't expect.

I still believe that everything happens for a reason. You will end up exactly where you're supposed to be. Nothing ever works out to plan, so all you can do is keep going. Sometimes bad things happen, but you're doing the best you can, be proud of yourself for that. It's ok to be so frustrated that this happened; it's ok to grieve, not understand, feel sad, and have terrifying thoughts. It makes sense that you're upset- you're still fighting. It means you know you can and will do more. Because it will get better. You will get better. It sucks sometimes, but other times the sun shines down on you, and you remember what it feels like to be alive.

And when you ask for help, be SO proud of yourself for that.

To everyone everywhere:

Have conversations about mental health. Reach out to your friends and family and tell them you love them. And never be afraid to ask for help when you need it.


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