Scrambled eggs with pickles drenched in Tobasco sauce, coffee, half and half, 10 packets of sugar, and a spoonful of salt and pepper.
“I bet you won’t eat that!” My friend chuckled, as she shoved the bowl of mushed up post-brunch leftovers onto my placemat.
Growing up, I was surrounded by mischievous, hyper-active kids eager to turn anything and everything into a “who’s the toughest?” competition.
Who could eat the most repulsive leftover restaurant food creation? Who could submerse themselves naked in the 30 degree river the longest? Who could smack a ping pong ball against each other’s bare backs and produce the biggest welt?
I attacked such dares with the hesitation of an adult asked to tie their own shoes; easy peasy.
One of my favorite games involved holding hands with an opponent. On my turn, I used my free hand to slap my competitor’s forehand as hard as my adolescent fingers could possibly slap. My opponent would then return the favor.
The point of the game was simple; who could endure the pain the longest.
I always won. Ask my brothers, and they will say I’m lying, but that’s their competitiveness talking. They craved victory, but not as much as I did.
I wanted to be the best, the strongest. And in most of our made-up games, showing emotions and revealing pain? That’s a sign of weakness.
And I am not weak.
This “rub some dirt in it” mentality was further etched into my personal hard drive through sports teams. I witnessed teammates sit out because of a rolled ankle, a kick to the thigh, a stomach ache…
To me, scrapes and bruises symbolize resilience.
And I am resilient.
The higher the athletic level, the more the fragile ones are weeded out. By the professional level, only the strongest remain. I am surrounded by the toughest cream of the crop; the reigning champions of their own trivial childhood hand-slapping games.
Every injury I endure, I am determined to be tough and overcome it as quickly as possible.
When I got my concussion, I tackled the injury with the same mentality.
In the following months of recovery, a series of events, one by one, gradually piled up, until one day I hit a tipping point, and experienced a brutal awakening that my preconceived definition of toughness was fatally flawed.
I stumbled upon a new level of bravery. One that few experience firsthand, but deserves, and needs, attention.
I am telling my story in hopes that it will encourage individuals to discover this toughness and harness it to intentionally stand up for the well-being of themselves and their teammates.
After I was diagnosed with a concussion (My whiplash heat stroke FIFA ’94 Concussion), I was told to rest for a week. I set out to be the best rester that ever rested.
Six weeks of resting later, I progressed at a dehydrated snail’s pace. I was not where I wanted to be.
I was over laying around. I wanted to get back on the pitch. I wondered why I was still feeling this way, and looked back at the footage of the initial tackle from my first game.
We often reflect on our past and wonder, why on earth did I do that? In my case, why did I keep playing? If I would have known that this tackle would give me debilitating symptoms for three years, of course I would have subbed myself out.
But I didn’t know. The referee issued my opponent a yellow card, but the team physiotherapist never came onto the field to assess me, so I thought the tackle couldn’t have been that bad. I felt out of it, but it always takes a few strides to collect oneself after a collision. I did what I have programmed myself to do and played on.
Once I watched this footage, I decided to take matters into my own hands and sought out a vestibular physiotherapist. This physiotherapist performed some manual tests, and concluded that I was dealing with vestibular migraines and no longer had a concussion. My brain was fine. He then referred me to a highly touted migraine specialist who confirmed his analysis: my concussion was in the past, these were just migraine symptoms. I was safe to play soccer.
I was pleased with this news. The specialist gave me some medication to take when I experienced nausea and headaches. She believed my symptoms would clear up rapidly. I took the pills and performed the vestibular therapist’s prescribed rehab exercises.
I felt better and ramped up my physical activity quickly.
After just one week, I passed the team’s return-to-play protocol of jogging and heading a few balls. I trained in three sessions, with only mild nausea from change of direction.
I was cleared for my first game back!
I spoke with the team doctor and physiotherapist and, since I was out for eight weeks, the plan was for me to play 30 minutes to ease myself back into the strenuous demands of a game situation.
Game time arrived, the whistle blew, and I was in my zone. As the scoreboard ticked, my body increasingly fatigued. By the thirtieth minute, I glanced over to the sideline to see who was subbing me out. Nobody was even warming-up.
I anticipated that I would be kept on the field a bit longer than 30 minutes.
Typically, coaches share athletes’ drive to win. Externally, I looked fine and functioning, so what was the harm of playing an extra 5, 10, 15 minutes?
The halftime whistle blew. With the break, I figured I could recharge and contribute 10 more minutes.
Ten minutes passed, and my emotional and physical energy tanks were entirely depleted. At one point, the opposing team attacked towards our penalty box. My mark was at the far post. I knew it was my responsibility to track back and guard her. But my body and mind were checked out. Instead, I stood at the halfway line and watched as my mark easily tapped the ball into the goal.
Any other game, I would curse at myself for my lack of effort. In my current hollow state, all that filled my mind was how badly I wanted the game to end.
The final whistle blew, and rather than shaking hands with my opponents, I bee-lined straight to the bathroom stall, and broke down in tears.
I was mad at myself for feeling so deflated. I questioned if I should have subbed myself out, but I rationalized my decision to stay quiet: Why would I sub myself out if I was just tired?
A few days later, my nausea, headaches, exhaustion, and dizziness reemerged.
I explained my frustrations to my teammate and friend, Keelin. Why didn’t my coach or physiotherapist take me out?
As an honest friend who’s experienced her own lack of proper treatment, Keelin told me something that has stuck with me since:
“You have to speak up. You can’t expect other people to, you have to look out for yourself.”
She was right. Despite how badly I wanted to be “tough”, I had to swallow my pride. I had to be my own advocate.
I spoke with the team doctor and he was surprised I played the full game. He wasn’t sure where the miscommunication occurred. He prescribed me an even stronger migraine medication.
The rest of the week, I didn’t train. I stayed at home, avoided car rides (which induced intense nausea), and rested.
I was standing up for myself.
A week later, we had our most important game of the season. Playoff implications were on the line. A night before our game, I messaged our coach telling him I was feeling a bit better, but would have to see how I felt after the long bus ride up to the game. I made it clear that if he wanted to start someone else, then he should.
On the way to the game, our physiotherapist encouraged me “you got this, be tough.”
In our warm-up, I felt a little off and fatigued, but I didn’t know if that was a result of the long bus ride or if it was concussion related.
I performed a few quick change of directions sprints. I felt mildly nauseous, but, not terrible. The symptoms were just enough for me to question if I was being over-dramatic.
The migraine specialist said my brain is fine, that it’s just a migraine. I can play through this then, right?
I knew I COULD play through the pain, but that method didn’t bode well for me last time. It wasn’t worth feeling crappy for another 6 weeks.
I decided to compromise. After prematurely playing a full 90 minutes, I believed I could safely experiment with 20 minutes. I informed my coach that if he wanted to start me, I would play 20 minutes maximum.
Twenty minutes passed. I felt off.
I didn’t get subbed out, but I knew that we had a water break at the 22nd minute mark because of the high temperatures.
During the break, I locked eyes with our trainer, drew a horizontal line with my hand across my throat and muttered “I’m done.”
Our physiotherapist smirked at me and responded, “you didn’t even do anything.”
I’m not sure if she was referring to my contribution to the team or that I didn’t get caught up in a tackle, but a ravenous lion roared inside me.
I stared sternly into her eyes, “I don’t fucking feel good.”
I walked off and sat on the bench.
The following week I changed my flight and flew back to Portland to seek proper treatment.
I tell this story not to point fingers. I do strongly believe we need to raise the standards for concussion prevention and management. But, I take full responsibility for putting myself in each situation. For playing more than I should have, for not speaking up earlier when I didn’t feel right.
However, I don’t blame myself either. “Toughing it out” is embedded in sports culture. It’s the dogma we, competitive athletes, have fed ourselves our whole career.
I attribute a large amount of my athletic success to this steadfast determination.
But sometimes life hits you with circumstances far too great for this modality. Sometimes, the harder we try to “tough it out”, the further we’re pushed away from our desired result.
Concussions require an even deeper kind of bravery.
One in which you understand there will be coaches who want to speed up your recovery, teammates who can’t comprehend why you aren’t playing, specialists who offer expertise in their own respective fields.
It’s important to respect these people’s opinions and intentions, but know this:
there is only one YOU in this entire world. Therefore, YOU are the only master of YOU.
No one else knows you better than you. No one can see when you are feeling mentally clouded, nauseous, anxious, or just not yourself.
This is when you have the opportunity to rise to next-level toughness and be your own advocate.
One of the bravest things I have ever done, was to speak up and take myself out of the game. It took multiple failed attempts before I found my voice. I had to learn the hard way (18 months of debilitating symptoms and diligent recovery), that no game or situation is worth jeopardizing my well-being.
Hopefully in speaking up, I will prevent someone from taking the long road.
You have a chance to change the narrative of what it means to be strong in sports.
There’s a time and a place to fight through pain. But when it comes to your brain and health, it’s simply not worth it.
When you stand up for yourself and your teammates, when you listen to your body, when you sit out despite the immense peer pressure to play on, you are not weak. You are resilient. You are an entirely different breed of tough.
And I’d challenge you to a hand-slapping contest any day.