Identity Crisis

It was just a little over 2 months post-concussion when I began to question everything in my life. The symptoms were relentless and still so bad that I started asking myself if when I’m cleared to play hockey again it would be worth the risk. It really didn’t make sense that I was even considering playing again at that point because I was nowhere near being cleared. It brought me so much anxiety thinking of this decision – to play or not to play. I discussed my concerns with my concussion specialist who then referred me to see a sports psychologist.

The sports psychologist asked me what my biggest concern of playing again was. I explained my fear of this happening again and experiencing the same or an even worse outcome. I will never forget what he said to me. He said, “Wasn’t that always the risk?” I can’t explain why this one question made me feel like my brain was spinning out. My mind was going all over the place. I thought to myself, wow, it really was the risk of playing the whole time, the past 25 years. Every time I stepped onto the ice, there was this persistent risk of injury.

While it was a risk my whole life, I never stopped to really think about it. Thinking back, we were never taught of serious risks like this. Yeah, you might dislocate a shoulder or break a bone but an injury that alters your entire life? No, that won’t happen to me. We were never taught that a concussion was anything really serious. Was I always one hit away? Anyway, the sport that is part of me couldn’t do this to me, right? The psychologist was absolutely right and I thought, if I had known this was the risk I wouldn’t have played. But that statement in itself seems like a betrayal to hockey so essentially, it’s a betrayal to myself.

It wasn’t until this appointment that I realized what was happening within me. I discussed my feelings and thought process with the psychologist and he said, “You are experiencing an identity crisis.” I sat there and stared at him in a prolonged moment of awkward silence. He was right. Why hadn’t I thought of that? It made complete sense.

What I felt then, 2 months post-concussion, I still struggle with today, 26 months later. It’s like a void within me. While I don’t feel this way all the time like I had before, sometimes I still feel like I don’t know who I am anymore. I am unable to work and I am unable to play hockey. After all the years of hard work, school and money to achieve my dream of working as a PA, I am unable to do that. After playing hockey for 25 years to the point that it’s part of every fiber of my being, I am unable to play. 

Where do I fit anymore?

Who we are becomes so deeply intertwined with what we do. When asked who we are, we often respond with our occupation, our passions, our family and how many siblings we have. It’s an interesting thing to think about. If you ask a kid who they are, more often than not, they will respond with something similar to, “I am a hockey player.” That’s what it was like for me. But then I achieved my dream and so I became a hockey player and a physician assistant.  

Our identities are so important. It’s years’ worth of memories – it tells your story. A story within that you carry around with you everywhere you go – a beautiful masterpiece spanning your entire life consisting of strengths, weaknesses, personality, passions and experiences that ground you and keep you rooted. It’s this story that is told to others by how we communicate, think, act and feel. Without even knowing it, we are telling it in our everyday lives. It shapes our morals, knowledge, and ultimately helps us understand our place in the world. The way I see it, every interaction we have reflects this personal story. It’s what makes you, you and what makes me, me.

Hockey has been all-encompassing for me. Sometimes it takes kids many years to find that one sport for them. That wasn’t it for me, though. At the age of 3, my skates were laced up for the first time and I would never look back. My life revolved around hockey. I was in the hockey rink so much growing up that it felt like a second home. Even when I wasn’t on the ice playing, I was running around the rink with my siblings and friends. 

From a young age, my evenings were mostly spent at hockey practice and my weekends involved traveling to tournaments. The summer before college I spent most of my time in the gym and on the ice practicing my stick handling and the accuracy of my shot. In college, we were either on the ice or in the gym during the week and either playing home games or traveling on the weekends. Going into college I didn’t really stop to think about my future after hockey. I just wanted to play, and in the moment that was good enough. 

So many hours were spent training, traveling and competing. Having this constant thing in my life brought me ambition, purpose, deep friendships, and relief from the stressors of life. There was always a feeling of gratification while playing. 

Hockey soon became a part of me, a foundation. It was this special place within me of coherence that always remained constant even in moments of uncertainty. It was a safe haven. I realize now it’s ridiculous to call it a safe haven. My problems seemed to melt away when I stepped onto the ice. 

It wasn’t just the physical component of the sport I lost but the emotional and psychological component. The camaraderie of the team, the deep connections my teammates, the consistent outlet where I could escape – vanished. The physical loss seemed somewhat easier to cope with than the psychological loss.

Being forced out of hockey and leaving the game on terms that were not my own, I started the grieving process of the sport. It took me a very long time to realize I was grieving. I was grieving the death of hockey and grieving my athletic identity. The foundation that grounded me also ended up destroying me. It was like a part of me had died, and I had started to grieve that part of me too. 

I’d experience unexplained periods of anger. Depression and guilt became frequent emotions. I think maybe I kept a lot of the details of my recovery to myself for so long partly because of denial – denial from this major loss in my life. I also felt that I would be viewed as weak-minded or ungrateful if I shared all of it. Even sharing just a little of what I was going through brought judgment and misunderstanding from others so I almost felt like I had to downplay or belittle the severity of it too.

I have experienced recurring thoughts and questions:

Who am I anymore?

What can I possibly contribute to the world right now?

I had a fear that everyone would move on without me. But that’s life – it carries on. Soon after, it seemed like I was stuck in place watching everyone move on without me. I thought this was something I would have to face alone. Others in my life moved on with work and relationships. 

My teammates continued the season and traveled to tournaments and went on to nationals. I really thought I would be better to go with my team but a huge part of this was denial. My teammates tried to keep me connected by texting and calling. They even took a cardboard cut-out of me and sent me photos of them with cardboard me. It was so thoughtful and something I was grateful for but even so, I felt like an outsider. I was no longer part of that – the camaraderie and connectedness of the team. 

It seemed like I was stuck in a bad dream, my feet cemented to the ground. I’d try to follow but couldn’t and was stuck in place. I’d scream out but everyone was getting further and further away and couldn’t hear me anymore. It felt like I was left behind. And soon enough, it was like I was trying to leave me behind too. 

Hockey was like a way of life. It fueled my life in so many other areas and bled into them – my personality, my confidence, my strengths. I didn’t just lose my job and hockey, but lost my energy, independence, spunk, and confidence. I lost a sense of purpose.

Viewing the video of my injury and my body lying there on the ice I think of the saying, “Leave it all out there,” meaning leave everything you have on the ice or the field. It really does feel that way because it’s like I left myself there that day.

Post-Concussion Isolation

silhouette photo of woman

I remember the first Thanksgiving following my concussion. I didn’t realize that this occasion of coming together could be so dark, painful and even more isolating for me. 

As a fresh reminder, I have five brothers, four sisters, seven nieces and eleven nephews. So, you can imagine just how big some of our family gatherings are. My very large family piled into the house. Just greeting everyone produced a lot of anxiety and required all of my depleted energy. I was so troubled by my vision that I felt guilty for not being able to maintain eye contact and having to look away frequently. It was so painful and that is still an issue I experience to this day. 

It didn’t really occur to me to mentally prepare for the occasion, maybe partially because I was still in denial about my injury and because I hadn’t fully understood what was going on inside my body at that point. I figured it wasn’t a gathering with strangers so it would be completely comfortable and enjoyable.

As more and more people arrived, the more and more stimulation I experienced. I was having a difficult time processing the noise of the various conversations and the movement of people in the house. I felt like I was going insane attempting to maintain a conversation while hearing all of the background noise on top of the ringing in my ears. I kept going up to my room to hide in my bathroom to get away from it all for brief moments. Why can’t I even enjoy my family’s presence? It’s not like I was mingling with strangers. I could feel myself shutting down, breaking down. 

Because of the amount of people at Thanksgiving, we had several very long tables set up and connected together. I took my seat at the table and looked around at everyone conversing, laughing and enjoying the moment. I wanted to experience that but couldn’t. Everyone started eating and just hearing the silverware clinking on the plates began to hurt my ears. The tiniest movement of someone bumping the table or moving their chair caused me to feel so dizzy and nauseated to the point I felt I was going to throw up. I felt too embarrassed to ask everyone to stop nudging the table so I didn’t speak up. 

I couldn’t enjoy it. I sat at the table surrounded by my large, loving family yet felt so alone. I was physically there, but almost felt invisible. I felt so removed from myself.

Of course, many of the conversations I engaged in included questions about how I was doing and feeling. I said I was “okay.” This was the easy response that took up the least amount of energy. I was told I “looked good” or “I looked fine.” While I may have looked “good” on the outside, I was certainly not feeling good nor did I feel fine. This was so troubling to me – the external invisibility of the injury – a theme that has played over and over throughout my recovery. There’s really no external sign of what I was and am going through. 

After the meal, everyone gathered at the table to play some games. I sat and watched. I smiled to essentially “play along.” This was just a lie to myself and everyone there. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself nor did I want to be a downer. The games started to become more energetic and the environment became so loud. 

There was a lot of movement at the table; it felt like it was constantly moving or vibrating. I became so dizzy and nauseated that I finally had it in me to speak up and ask if they would stop bumping the table. I felt embarrassed and also crazy for asking this because it was something that was so subtle and probably not even noticeable to everyone else. Pre-injury, I would have never noticed it.

I continued to watch. The longer this carried on, the more symptoms I developed. The longer this carried on, the more disconnected I felt. It was so disheartening to me because this was my family who I was supposed to feel comfortable with. It never crossed my mind that I would experience this with those really close to me. Questions started popping up in my head. Will I ever be able to enjoy this again? When will I feel like myself again? Will anyone ever fully understand what I’m really going through? Where do I belong anymore?

Everyone left and I went to my room where I sat in the dark, holding my head. Crying uncontrollably, I continued to suffer in silence. 

It felt like a nightmare and I so desperately wanted someone to wake me up.