It was working….
This story was adapted from a talk given by Charlotte to members of The Hidden Opponent (THO) in November 2021 [TW: contains mentions of an eating disorder]
I’m not sure what my life would look like without sports. I grew up with my dad as a basketball coach, and when I tell you that I was brought to his practices in my car seat, I’m not exaggerating.
I’ve always loved sports, chosen to be around them, and found my best friends through them. I started playing basketball and soccer when I was three, and have been in organized sports ever since.
Yet, if you asked me to pinpoint one common thread in my struggles with mental health, it would be sports.
My journey with mental health started out slowly, gradually, one could even say “normally”. I would come home crying if I didn’t get enough playing time in fifth-grade basketball. I would start hyperventilating before cross country meets because for one, running is hard and I didn’t want to do it, but also because the thought of running sent waves of panic through me.
I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t articulate what I was feeling, I just knew that I was anxious.
When I got to high school, I felt like I was cruising. I was a freshman playing varsity basketball and volleyball, was being recruited to play basketball, and because I was playing well, my mental health was great.
Looking back, I can now see a common trend: When sports are going well, I’m happy. As an athlete, I tend to determine my self-worth based on my athletic performance.
I’m not entirely sure what leads me to put so much emphasis on my athletic ability that it controls my life, but it’s something that I continue to struggle with.
Junior year of high school, my big hoop dreams came crashing down. A sprained ankle that refused to heal got me moved to the bench and I don’t think I ever really came back from that.
The reason most people thought I never recovered was because of my ankle, but inwardly I knew it had more to do with my mental health. It got to the point where I was in tears at the very thought of going to practice. I could barely play for fear of making a mistake but then would cry when I wasn’t playing. It was a double-edged sword and I wasn’t happy either way. I would walk around school in a fog, feeling like a total failure and constantly close to tears. It was miserable.
I didn’t know how to get past this monster in my head, because in so many ways I didn’t understand that there was a monster in my head to begin with.
I know now that your brain needs to be treated like every other part of your body. It can get injured. It needs to be healed. In high school, I didn’t know what that meant. Thankfully, my parents noticed it was time for a change. Sixteen years after my dad had first taken me to basketball practice, my basketball career came to an end.
Three weeks later, I attended my first rowing practice. Five weeks after that, I was on my first collegiate visit.
I threw myself into rowing without acknowledging any of the demons still left with me from basketball. I sprinted towards this new and shiny sport that was full of opportunities, convinced that I was totally fine. And it was, for so long. I got recruited and committed to UVA. Our high school team was top three in the country. I was still learning more things about the sport and was genuinely enjoying practice every day, something that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
I was happy again and I thought I was healed.
My first semester at UVA was a whirlwind. I think any collegiate athlete can relate to the overwhelming desire to nap every ten minutes during your first semester of college sports. It was crazy. But I didn’t think much of it, because we were all told that being overwhelmed is what’s “normal” for freshmen, let alone freshman athletes.
The spring was different. Rowing is a spring sport and that meant when I came back from Christmas break, the intensity that I was feeling in the fall only got worse. It seemed like everything that could go wrong did. I wasn’t performing well at all on the water. I was homesick and didn’t feel like I had found my place at UVA. The cracks that were already in my armor, in my brain, started to widen.
If I spent half of my junior year of high school in a stump because of high school basketball, imagine that now but with Division I rowing. A sport that I now dedicate 25 hours a week to, that controls my schedule, the decisions I make, the free time I have. I didn’t make a single travel squad all spring. I would be left on land for additional training. I wasn’t even considered for the competitive boats. I was constantly close to tears, absolutely floundering as I questioned whether or not it was worth continuing to do this to myself.
I didn’t know if what I was feeling was unique to UVA and the team, if it was a rowing problem, a brain problem, or a me problem.
UVA is incredibly lucky to have two sports psychologists on staff. As someone that had never “talked out” my problems with anyone other than my family and friends, I was definitely wary of unloading what I was feeling on some unsuspecting stranger. But I decided with the help of a teammate that it was long past time to seek help.
That poor woman. I walked into her office, she asked me what my name was, and I burst into tears. Definitely the calm, collected start I was hoping for. But she took it in stride. By the end of our first session, she helped me understand what I had been ignoring for so long. I base my self worth on how I’m performing in sports. I love my sports, I’m dedicated to them and I put a lot of time and effort into them, but I let them control my life because I can’t separate my self-worth from my athletic performance.
This was hard for me to admit and come to terms with. It wasn’t that I was afraid of something being wrong, I was afraid of something being wrong and not being able to fix it.
I think that’s one of the most terrifying things about dealing with mental health. Not every solution works for everyone. You’re going to experience bumps in the road. It took me a long time to understand that. I still get frustrated when new tactics don’t work on the first try, but I’ve also learned that that is ok.
Despite meeting with a sports psychologist throughout the rest of my first year and seeing improvement in my mental health off the water, things with rowing did not get better.
I went home that summer to regroup after my first year. I’m from the Midwest- Chicago specifically- which I tend to claim is my main personality trait. Being from the Midwest, food was never talked about as anything other than something we were lucky to have and appreciate. I never saw it as an enemy or a restriction. I didn’t know what body dysmorphia was, nor did I fully understand what eating disorders were.
Rowing is a sport that is about moving your own body weight, and I was not the smallest in the boat. I often recalled when one of the third years that spring had mentioned she had lost twenty pounds and went from not making a boat her first two years to now being in an NCAA competition boat. In my fragile, definitely confused state, I understood rowing to be the biggest problem in my life. If I wanted to fix my life I needed to fix rowing. If I wanted to fix rowing, I needed to lose weight.
So I did.
Over the course of a summer, I lost 24 pounds. Shockingly, I did it healthily. I started running again, I ate healthy foods, was walking a ton, and not restricting myself. But when I came back to school, no one recognized me. I got so many compliments on how I looked. My coach pulled me up in front of the team for me to talk about how I had trained over the summer. Everywhere I went, it seemed like I was getting rewarded for losing weight.
Naturally, I became terrified of putting it back on. I began to restrict my diet. My restrictions led to binge eating. My binge eating led to bulimia.
But what mattered to me? I was doing well on the water. So it was all worth it.
Somehow, what had started as a legitimate and healthy way to do something better for me spiraled so completely out of my control — yet in some really confused part of my brain, it was totally worth it.
I was in the boats that I wanted to be in, and I felt like the sport that I had put so much time and effort into was finally going the way that I wanted... Even though I was regularly destroying my body with the food I was putting in and unwillingly taking out, I was having the best semester I had had at college.
I thought I was happy.
Being a D1 athlete takes an enormous amount of dedication. It takes so much drive and determination to get you to where you are. It takes more to stay there. Some people can push that limit further, to better themselves, to find that extra “something” that separates them from the rest. For me, my extra something was my eating disorder.
My discipline and commitment to compete at the D1 level were the same things that drove me to restrict my eating habits and purge when I felt necessary.
When we got sent home for COVID midway through my second year, I got a massive wake up call. Two weeks after returning home, I developed a stress fracture in my right foot. My doctor told me that my bones literally couldn’t handle the workload I was putting on them because I hadn’t been fueling properly. That terrified me. This was the first time I had a tangible negative result of my eating disorder.
Previously, all I had seen were the faster times on the indoor rowing machines or felt how good the compliments on my appearance were. I had finally gotten the wakeup call I needed. I called one of UVA’s nutritionists, called a therapist and began to restructure my diet.
This was something that took time. I talked before about how a brain injury is something that will have bumps in the road, just like every other injury. This is an injury that I still struggle with. I would feel like I would be doing ok, go months without purging, only to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream in one sitting then cry about it twenty minutes later. It’s been a long process and it hasn’t been easy.
I’m beyond thankful to have the support system that I do. My friends, family and therapist have all contributed to helping me find healthier eating habits and be more comfortable in my own skin. I’m lucky in that regard. My stress fracture could have been something much worse.
Heading into the spring of my third year, I think I was ready to actually perform for UVA rowing. My eating disorder (ED) recovery was going well, and I was faster on the water as a result. But I still had not dealt with the fact that I based my personal worth on how I was performing.
As you may guess, I was in for another rude awakening.
After a particularly brutal loss, I was taken out of our top boats. I didn’t handle it well. I fell apart mentally, my confidence was destroyed, and I quite literally couldn’t function because I couldn’t believe that I was letting my performance affect me like this again... It got to the point where I was depressed. I couldn’t hold my head up, my grades were slipping, and I just wanted to be home because I hated rowing so much. Simply put, I was pretty miserable.
When I came home for the summer, I had a lot of thinking to do. I knew that if I was going to make it through my senior year I had to find a way to prevent my performance in rowing from being the defining factor of my emotional well-being. The idea that my life could not be controlled so strongly by my sport became central. I wanted to find a balance between being an athlete and a normal college kid, and in so many ways I was just tired of all the emotional build-up that my sport had brought me.
While the idea of this final spring is honestly quite terrifying to me, I do feel better prepared than I ever have. I feel lucky to have found this separation in mentality between athlete and person and feel like I have the ability to take back control of my emotions. My life is completely different with that in it, for the better, and my food habits are holding strong.
Over the past four years, I’ve been pushed to lows I had never experienced before nor want to experience again. All of this said though, I’m thankful. I am thankful for my family for their unwavering love and support. I am thankful for my teammates and friends who I could call at any point in time when I needed help. I’m thankful to Kevin, our head coach, for not only believing in me but standing by me when I didn’t know if I could stand by myself. If there is anything that I’ve learned, it is that mental health can be a scary and sometimes overwhelming experience, but I am beyond lucky to have the people in my corner that I do.