Dealing with mental health while recovering from physical trauma

It’s been almost a year since I last competed in my sport. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a fighter and while every athlete has a sell by date, what happens when that date is fast tracked ahead of schedule? Do you just adjust to a different path or is it more complicated than that?

When you eat, sleep and breath sport for two decades, it gets to a point where you take it all for granted. Everyday being able to kick, punch and compete is automatic. And whilst I’ve always had other projects going on to balance my sporting life (and pay the bills) I had no idea the havoc a career threatening injury would play with my mind. 

Most athletes will have been sidelined with injury at some point throughout their athletic careers. I was no different. A few broken bones, muscle tears and even a Crohns Disease diagnosis were just some of what I contended with. When they show up, you’re pissed off but it’s mostly part of the fighting game and you deal with it. Then came March 2019. This one was supposed to be a stress fracture in my ankle. A six-week job. Easy. 

But an MRI and consultant visit later the six weeks turned to indefinite. “It’s not good” I remember hearing. Those words translated to a rare joint disease diagnosis called PVNS. This is a tumour that shows up in certain joints and eats away at the surrounding bone and ligament. That coupled with untreated injuries over the years meant the cartilage in my ankle had taken a hike and I needed some new stuff. Surgery was the answer. But not just on the ankle. My knee was going to be the donor for the bone transfer, so it’s a double whammy. 

Did I mention, I was trying to qualify for the Olympics? And that I’m 35? So in the height of the Olympic Qualification period I am more or less being retired. At least that was the outlook then.

It’s hard to explain the mental trauma that comes when you’re faced with a serious injury. Nevertheless, I’ll try. Fighting is like breathing to me. Instinctive. Natural. So how do you adjust when that stops and you’re moulded to a bed 24 hours a day? The physical pain from having your leg cut open and patched up is insignificant compared to the mental battle to accept the new hand you’ve been dealt. The boredom, the realisation that your goals have evaporated, the bittersweetness of watching your team succeed without you, wondering if you wasted the past few years working towards something that no longer seems plausible, the feeling of being irrelevant. It brings a lot of dark days. 

And it gets more challenging. The current Sport Ireland system doesn’t appear to care very much about the mental health of athletes and how they cope both physically or mentally with injury. And when you’re in a niche sport, they wash their hands of you altogether. It’s not cheap being injured. The scans, the hospital visits, the doctors, the medication, the physio appointments are expensive and unless you’re part of the establishment you will pay for it all yourself. So the irony is that the injuries often come from representing your country in sport, winning medals for Ireland but when your body breaks, you’re on your own. Unless you’re useful or part of the system, don’t expect a helping hand. 

The only way I coped with this past year has been to convince myself that I could get back playing. A light at the end. I wasn’t ready to finish yet and I now know I don’t have the skill set to cope either. I have brilliant family and friends but also have a brilliant coaching team. The latter, contrary to many sporting federations, saw me as more than a commodity. The regular phone calls to check-in never centred around performance but more around general wellbeing – normal conversation. It helps knowing there’s genuine concern from those around you and you’re not just seen as a potential medal or not. 

Being injured is rotten and after months of painful recovery work, I’ve managed to get back to a decent level of fitness. This week I’ve been selected for the Irish Team to compete at the European Championship next month. I worked hard for this but I’m also lucky. I’m aware that my luck may very well run out soon and so the lesson hasn’t been lost on me. I’m on a clock now before my body says enough. And like so many athletes, I will struggle with adjusting to the next phase. It has flagged a need for serious mental health support for elite athletes and in particular for those athletes who are not making the cut with the National Sporting Authority’s system. Where do they go for help?

In order to find the answer to that, we need to start by asking athletes their opinions. We need more athletes’ voices to be heard. We also could have more diversity in the athlete voice that currently inputs into decision making across sport. Injury and retirement from sport are something every athlete will face and the supports to help them cope with that transition need to be prioritised. I know others have had similar or worse experiences than mine. The sooner we realise that athletes are more than medals; the sooner we can make changes for the better. 

This blog was first published on A Lust For Life here.