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Lucy Teel: Healthier Now That I’m Injured

TW: Suicidal ideation, disordered eating

I remember one day, earlier in my collegiate soccer career, sitting in the grass of my neighborhood park mere minutes after turning away from the wall that I had planned on crashing my car into that day. I remember how the tears streamed down my cheeks, the hot summer sun beaming down on my face, still contemplating whether I should go back into my car, race down that street, and end my life. I remember having to text the crisis hotline. I remember answering the “do you have a plan to kill yourself” question. I had bounced around answering the question, not wanting to wind up in the hospital. They ended up deeming my answer as a “no.” I remember how the conversation lasted around ten to fifteen minutes with it mainly consisting of the person telling me they were sorry for me and recommending that I watch something funny or possibly take a nap. They ended up telling me shortly after that they had to move on to help somebody else. Despite not gaining much clarity or advice, somehow, that conversation kept me alive, for I lifted myself off the blades of grass, hopped back in my car, and drove the thirty second drive back to my house. 

This incident occurred just a couple months shy of my sophomore year of college in 2020. Despite my second year status, this year stood as my first year of eligibility, for my entire freshman year was consumed with me healing from a hamstring tear.

That morning, before I found myself texting the hotline in my neighborhood, I had stressed about passing the fitness test scheduled in the summer packet for my collegiate soccer team. I had grown such a strong desire and fixation on making a good comeback, that a simple act of forgetting to pack my water and my cleats threw me into a spiral. I remember sitting in the parking lot in front of the field, my soccer bag in my lap and the random water bottles from inside littered around me, thinking about how much of a screw up I was. I remember asking myself: how can I even expect to get a good workout in 110 degree heat later that day? How can I expect to start, to play, to even be allowed to practice? I remember telling myself that maybe this lack of preparation, this lack of care, was the reason I injured myself the year prior. Maybe this lack of preparation showed that I do not have the potential to reach anything higher, for how can I achieve anything if I cannot even remember the essentials needed to play soccer? I told myself my progress was shot, that I will never improve. Soccer, in my mind, was my only purpose, my only talent, and if I cannot thrive in the sport, then how can I expect to thrive in life. 

As much as I would like to say I had learned from that step back of not wanting to end my life, it was not a one off incident. A few months later, during the height of the pandemic, I landed in quarantine after working out with my teammate just a few days before she grew ill with COVID-19.

A week into quarantine, I stressed about my regression due to my lack of activity. Despite working out with resistance bands, in my eyes it was not enough. Around the twelfth day of quarantine, I sat on my bed with about twenty or so of my antidepressants in hand, ready to shove them into my mouth. It was not until one of the pills grazed my lips that I dropped them on my comforter and began sobbing. I had to contact the crisis hotline again that night.

There was another incident too where I remember sitting in the back of the bus riding home from an away trip during my spring season my sophomore year of collegiate soccer. I tucked into a ball and sobbed into the pillow on my lap. In my mind, each play, each time my foot touched the ball, each run that I made repeated in my mind despite any effort to numb myself through watching TikTok or scrolling on Instagram. One play continued on loop: me jumping for a header that cleared over my head as the echoes of my coach’s screams boomed around me. The words “I’ll throw you on the bench” repeated in my mind over, and over, and over.

I tried to give myself grace, especially since it was my first full game back from yet another hamstring injury. I desperately tried to quiet my mind, but any positive talk would be suppressed by the screams of my coach. Staring out the window as my reflection stared back at me, I quieted his voice with the sounds of water and suppressed this bad play with the vision of the Monongahela river in my front with Station Square on my right and downtown Pittsburgh on my left. I pictured throwing myself off this Smithfield bridge that stood just a couple blocks from my apartment, feeling the wind rush against my skin as I plummeted down to the water, for, in that moment, dying felt more comforting than living with this constant reminder that, according to my mind, I was a “terrible” soccer player. 

Outside of suicidal thoughts and suicide ideation, I would struggle with panic attacks before almost each practice. My heart would race and my body would sweat regardless of the weather. Half the time, I would vomit, one, two, maybe three times before practice. If there was a game that week, my mind would be clouded by how many days until the game, and once that day came, I would be consumed by this thought of “don’t screw it up.” Soccer consumed my life, so much so that it became the entirety of my identity. My worth as a person grew dependent upon my ability, and in my eyes, I was never good enough, strong enough, fast enough, skillful enough. I, due to my soccer identity, was worthless. 

At the beginning of 2022, right before my junior spring season, my hamstring popped while lifting in my apartment. I had already sustained two hamstring tears in my career, so due to the recurring physical trauma to my leg, this injury really forced me on the sidelines. Despite the pain and the weakness, I convinced myself that I made it up, that I was dramatic. The physical pain and the self deprecating thoughts grew so overwhelming that I told myself that, if I continued to play, this fall season would be my last one, and I would not use my Covid nor my medical redshirt. I even decided to take a step back from soccer for the spring semester, allowing myself to heal without the weight of this mental toll, that way I could come in my final season healthier, happier. 

However, throughout the recovery process, I had continuous setbacks, both mentally and physically, leaving me still injured when I returned for the fall season. Mentally, I struggled with my food intake, for as my injury continued to linger, I found myself fixating more on my body. I have struggled with an eating disorder throughout my life, and the lack of activity due to this injury heightened those negative emotions and intensified that draw towards picking up those bad eating habits again. I found myself at times pushing my body past its limit to the point of enduring immediate sharp pain in my hamstring. I found myself at times struggling to eat, fixating on my plate not being balanced enough, not being healthy enough. Sometimes, I would worry that the food itself was too much, and I would hold out on eating a snack, or even a meal, despite the progress I had made throughout the years to eat routinely. This resulted in an internal battle. As I lost muscle and weight, I noticed how it impacted my fitness, for I grew fainter, weaker. I would grow angry, for all of my progress, all of those hours spent in the gym, just disappeared, all because of my doing. Of course, the loss was not as bad as my mind told me, but the voices grew so loud that any sort of optimism or rationality would cease to exist. It resulted in this vicious cycle of then going back to my normal eating routine, only to feel guilt shortly after, resulting in me over analyzing my body and deciding to, again, overexercise and cut back on food. 

Outside of those mental setbacks, I struggled with physical ones as well. At the beginning of my senior fall season, the trainer informed me that I would be cleared and would have plenty of opportunities to play. Yet, the timeline of my recovery grew, originally starting with my clearance at the beginning of September, then shifting to the end of September, before being moved to the beginning of October, then shifting again to the end of October, to finally hearing from the trainer that I would not be cleared by the end of the season. My heart ached at that final statement, but I convinced myself that it was still possible, that I could play at least a couple minutes in one, final game. 

The world crashed down before me as the opposing team scored that final PK in our semifinal game. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I walked out onto the field to shake the opponents’ hands. The world blurred around me as I walked to the locker room, alone, trying to savor every last movement I would ever make in Highmark Stadium. My coach spoke to us, but most of it was muffled as my head tried to wrap around this idea that this was it for me. Some of the words, though, would trickle in. 

“We’ll regroup in January,” he had said, and I immediately responded in my head: that doesn’t apply to me. “Next year, we’ll…” I blocked the rest out, for that also did not apply to me. I remember peering around the locker room and watching my other teammates sob. I remember how I envied them in that moment, for they all had one, two, even three years left. They all still had time. I was done. 

Reflecting back, I struggle to comprehend that my career ended on an unsatisfying note, that it ended prematurely despite my presence during the season. I still struggle to understand my identity, especially with soccer being the only thing to define me for the majority of my life. I still struggle to eat, sometimes falling victim to that vicious pattern of restricting and overexercising. I struggle with physical pain, noted in the moments where I’m walking and I feel a sharp twinge in my hamstring, traveling up my leg towards my hip.Yet, an unexpected feeling entered as I cope with the end of my career: relief. I feel relieved that I no longer have to suffer through those moments where I hovered over the toilet vomiting just moments before I ran out the door for practice. I feel relieved that I no longer have to base my worth off of my athletic ability. I feel relieved that I no longer have to face those moments of wanting to die because of a bad game or practice. I realize that, because of my injury, I no longer had those anxieties and worries that plagued me for years, and I was able to begin that departure from soccer as my clearance became further out of reach. If I had been cleared, I may have entered that same vicious cycle of worrying from practice to practice, from game to game, which would have left me so far from the present that I would have been unable to savor those final moments as an athlete. 

Sometimes, I crave those moments on the field. I still find myself, despite the constant ache in my hamstring, despite the overwhelming anxiety, wanting to sign up for graduate courses at my school and email my coach to ask if I can use my redshirt years. I still find myself wanting to return to that familiarity, for even though it wasn’t healthy for me and almost killed me, the unknown of what my life looks like is scarier than the torture I put myself through for soccer. In those moments, though, I try to cling onto that relief and remind myself that life is so much more than sports. Maybe the goodbye from soccer won’t be forever; maybe someday I will return to it. For now, though, I can finally spend the time to really heal my hamstring and rid myself of the pain for good. I can finally mend the broken pieces and learn that I am worth more than how much I can lift, than how fast I can sprint, than how many minutes I play, than how many games I start in. I can finally learn what it means to enjoy exercise, what it means to actually be healthy. I can use this as an opportunity to truly learn who I am, for my potential and happiness are no longer tethered to soccer.

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