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Why I Left My College Athletics Team for My Mental Health

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I had never been a “quitter.” This label was tough to swallow, but I knew there had to be a difference between quitting and choosing to making a change when life felt out of control.

As a transfer student, I moved to Ann Arbor the summer before my sophomore year and joined the women’s rowing team. I thought I had found my perfect fit. This team and culture were exactly what I wanted to be a part of; I was surrounded by women who were striving to be leaders and the best, both on and off the field. On the surface, this was a dream come true. Friends and family were so proud, and the positive attention I received as a member of the Michigan athletics community was truly special. Despite this, something was wrong. I couldn’t identify or name it, but I was losing control.

Fast forward to junior year, I knew that I was unhappy, stressed out and chronically exhausted, so I made the decision to leave the team. I told myself that everything would “automatically get better” if I removed myself from the team and the pressures of college athletics. While I came up with several reasons why this was the right decision, none of them acknowledged the true problem.

At that time in my life, I was running on empty and living life on autopilot; I was completely out of touch with my mind and body. In retrospect, it scares me to think about the damage I was doing to my mental and physical health, and today I can finally acknowledge and name what I was experiencing.

Being able to name what I was experiencing has been powerful in my journey to recovery and self-improvement and allowed me to accept that I needed help. I encourage anyone reading this reflect how you are feeling right now and what you would tell a friend if you knew they felt this way. Would you encourage that friend to ask for help?

I talk about my experiences in the present tense because I am still a work in progress. I found that it became much easier to work on my challenges when I could finally name them.

I have anxiety.

Early in college, I didn’t know what anxiety was. I had heard about depression, but I knew nothing about the signs and symptoms of other mental health disorders. I had convinced myself that extreme stress, inability to sleep and restrictive eating was all part of being an athlete. Today, I can confidently acknowledge that I have anxiety and I am learning how to thrive and cope with this challenge.

I have disordered eating.

My relationship with food has been complicated. From a young age, I was very insecure about my strong legs and this sparked my interest in learning as much as I could about nutrition and how to control my diet. At the age of 12 I began counting calories and memorizing nutrition labels. This restrictive pattern continued into college, all while training two to three hours a day.

The day I cried in the team nutritionists’ office was when I began to realize that food was controlling me. Today, with the help of a nutritionist, I am working on improving my relationship with food and fueling my body in a way it deserves.

I am dependent on exercise.

As a college athlete, I truly enjoyed training. I loved early mornings in the weight room, that was my time to stand out. Despite my drive to be a great athlete, I reached a point in college when my body image became more important than my physical performance.

I craved the feeling of complete exhaustion, which I reached fairly quickly due to my poor recovery and nutrition habits. My self-worth was completely wrapped up my identity as an athlete. I still find so much satisfaction in exercise and crave it daily, but I am working on finding the best balance for my body and mind.

Thinking back to my college years, I realize that I shoved away my feelings and fears so that I could be this person I thought I “should” be. I lived with perfect structure, leaving no room for flexibility, intuitive decision making or spontaneous adventure. I trained myself not to feel.

The culture of college athletics is both a beautiful and intense space. Athletics taught me incredible lessons about leadership and community, while at the same time, taking a notable toll on my mental and physical health.

Where am I now? Trying to find balance in my life. I go to weekly therapy sessions and meet regularly with a nutritionist. I found yoga and build in time each week to let my mind and body rest. I have dedicated this past summer to working on myself and embracing the present.

I hope that one day I can speak about my experiences in the past tense, but in the meantime, I will continue to share my story in the hopes that I encourage someone else to do the same.

Follow this journey here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Getty image via DeanDrobot

Originally published: December 15, 2017
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