Think of your favourite thing, the thing that you love most in the world, that you look forward to every day, and that makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Now, think of what would happen if you were told that you could never do that thing again. Ever. How would you feel?
I used to be a varsity athlete — I’m still getting used to saying that.
I was a fourth-year field hockey player and captain of the Varsity Blues field hockey team. I was also a member of the Canadian National Indoor Field Hockey Team. Everything I did in my life revolved around field hockey: when I slept, what I ate, when I studied, and who I spent my time with. All of that changed, though, following a 2018 preseason match, when an elbow smacked my skull and I suffered my fourth concussion.
Nobody thought it was serious. My prognosis was that I’d be back on the field in a month or less. However, dark-room recovery days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Before I knew it, the 2018 field hockey season had ended without me ever stepping on the field and a month later, I had finished my fall semester the same way I had started it — with a headache. This concussion was serious.
I had spent the fall contemplating my future with field hockey. I always figured that I’d recover, even if it wasn’t as quickly as I wanted, and eventually return to play. My plan was shattered during a routine doctor’s appointment this January. I sat frozen as my doctor repeated, “You can’t play field hockey anymore.”
I don’t remember much about that appointment or the days that followed. I was numb. Conflicting emotions of relief and misery clouded my consciousness. I felt free without the burden of field hockey but I was also gutted because my life as an athlete — the primary way in which I had defined myself since I started playing competitive ice hockey in third grade — was over.
My life was irreversibly changed, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. At first, I didn’t tell anyone the doctor’s verdict — not even my parents. Whenever I ran into someone I knew, I would pretend that everything was fine and that I’d be back to field hockey soon.
Then I got anxious. I had to tell my coaches, my teammates, then eventually, everyone who knew me as ‘Julia, the field hockey player’ that I couldn’t play anymore. Informing my team was the hardest. I knew the concussion wasn’t my fault and that I couldn’t do anything to change my situation, but something about writing my retirement email made me feel selfish. Was I letting my team down?
After quitting the team, I completely removed myself from all things field hockey. My wound was too fresh and I knew that any reference to field hockey would send tears streaming down my cheeks. During those weeks, I felt the void that field hockey left behind — I had free time and no way to fill it. Sometimes I’d break down. One night I dreamt that I was sprinting down the field, and when I startled awake in the middle of the night, I realized that my dream was as close as I’d get to the real thing ever again. Another night, I found myself deep down an internet rabbit hole of concussion horror stories and I panicked thinking that my symptoms might be permanent. I cried myself to sleep.
It’s been three months since I was told that I’d never play field hockey again and I still struggle to navigate the awkward in-between condition of remaining an athlete on the inside while adopting the lifestyle of a non-athlete. Sometimes, talking about field hockey is too hard, but that doesn’t mean I never want to talk about it.
As I write this, half my team crowds my living room. I chatted with them for a while, but they’re preparing for an upcoming tournament and since I’m not on the team anymore, I feel uncomfortable participating. There’s no handbook on how to do this. All I can do is what feels best each day. Sometimes that means being around field hockey, but sometimes it means pretending I never played at all.
More than anything, this experience has been extremely isolating. My team, my community, and my home were ripped away from me in what felt like an instant. I was alone.
I know that other athletes go through this, but I don’t know any personally. I couldn’t shake the feeling that nobody understood what I was going through. Everyone reassured me that I was doing the right thing — easy for them to say — but I struggled to believe them. How could quitting field hockey possibly be the best thing for me?
I think it’s the “never” part of the doctor’s verdict that frustrates me most. I have more free time than I’ve ever had, but I’d give it all up to play in one more game, one more practice, or even one more drill. I spend a lot of time scrutinizing the decisions I made throughout my injury, torturing myself over the ‘what-ifs’ and trying to come up with a scenario where this all didn’t happen. I wonder about what the rest of my field hockey career would have looked like, but since everything I had hoped to achieve is now certifiably impossible, I often feel like my inability to achieve my goals diminishes the success I did have throughout my athletic career. It makes no sense, but sometimes, that’s just how I feel.
Having said all this, I still struggle with concussion symptoms every day. Even though it feels like the end of the world now, I know picking my stick back up would mean risking lifelong damage. That doesn’t make it any easier. I have no future plans to play and maybe that’s a good thing.
Before my injury, I had planned to play my fifth season for the Varsity Blues and then continue to train with the Canadian Indoor National Team to qualify for the next FIH World Cup. All I know now is that I have to return to school to complete my undergrad next fall. Maybe by then, I’ll figure something out, or not. We’ll see.
My field hockey career may be over, but the rest of my life is just getting started.