It’s the feeling of returning to the intersection you had recently survived a major car accident. Or, having to play on the field where you once collapsed in pain, and was told you tore your ACL. Or, going back to the shopping store you happened to be at when an earthquake struck. Or, even, walking down the same path for the first time since you had been mugged.
No matter the event, it is unanimous that people have flashbacks when exposed to stimuli that represent a previous experience, particularly a traumatic one. We forever associate the specific details of the incident with bad feelings; the vivid recollection of a trauma that causes distress.
My stomach was churning. My palms were sweating, my heart was racing, and my breathing became erratic. It felt as though I was entering a tornado; a swirling cloud of emotions that I had experienced at my most unhealthy state. My memory raced as I became exposed to certain smells, activities, and people. Each flashback reverberated the struggles I endured just weeks prior to that time.
When hearing the word “weight room,” other words that come to mind are “ambition”, “aggression”, and “strength.” A place that symbolizes mental and physical strength became my place of weakness, frailty, and faintness.
I was dressed in my light gray Michigan State women’s soccer sweatshirt and sweatpants. My once properly fitting sweatsuit was oversized, and quite baggy. Though I had made some strides in recovery, I still held on tightly to several behaviors. Instead of taking the elevator up four flights like I had done before developing an eating disorder, I began my trek up the stairs, counting each step as I passed. My dreadful, anticipated walk to the Michigan State Athletic Weight Room had gone from a nightmare to a reality.
Our first team lift of the semester was scheduled for that afternoon. I had returned to campus the day before after gaining nine pounds. That day, I had already attended three classes, and my weekly appointment of psychotherapy. I was tasked by my psychiatrist to take on another challenging step; to enter the weight room at the start of the team lift, and personally advise our head strength and conditioning coach that I would be observing the team due to health issues.
Our head strength and conditioning coach was the most intimidating individual involved in my college athletics experience. He was straight-faced, honest, and intense, and held an extremely high standard for each individual. The fear was understood, as each athlete strived to receive acclamation from him. The mere thought of disappointing him was daunting. To verbalize my downfall was disheartening.
Bashfully, I approached him as he stood by the center posts of the room, surrounded by every machine. I had been told he was informed of my designated task, which was somewhat comforting. It didn’t eliminate nerves, but at least I didn’t have to go into an in-depth explanation. His immediate support and care emerged from his usual demanding personality, and I knew from that point on, he was there to help me fight. And, he did, in the most significant ways.
He became a hero to me. His involvement throughout my treatment and recovery became imperative. He encouraged me to enter the environment I had learned to fear and despise. He urged me to participate in conditioning sessions by just showing up, and eventually being his assistant. He welcomed me into the weight room by keeping a chair behind the desk to sit and observe at my leisure. Again, to gain a more positive association with the facility. The idea of being on his team re-trained my mind to associate him, the weight room, and conditioning with positive thoughts.
When I decided I was ready to begin exercises, he allowed me to do it at my own pace. One memory that truly stands out occurred that summer. I recall vividly coming out to the turf field, and participating in the first of many sessions with the volleyball team. Volleyball players were not known for their speed or endurance, like I had once been recognized. I lost every single race that night. It was the most defeating feeling I had ever experienced on the field. He, again, kept it positive, and promised it was okay; my speed would come back, and just to keep working and give it time.
He spent countless hours and days personally training me and preparing me for my re-entrance back into women’s college soccer that fall season. It was as if I never missed a minute, even though I had been on the “injury list” the entire previous spring. His dedication to helping me recover from my eating disorder provided me with hope, strength, and confidence to come back healthier, stronger, and better than ever.
I am aware that the act of simply walking into the weight room and communicating my status with our strength and conditioning coach sounds effortless. However, it was a tremendous feat that incorporated fear, panic, anxiety, and disappointment. It was one of many challenges I was forced to face in my recovery from my eating disorder.