Just yesterday, on my home trails in Boulder, Colorado, I had to take a cry break on my run. Or rather, I was forced to stop running because my tears were clouding my vision. I was frustrated, mad at my body, for still not feeling ‘normal’ nearly 3 ½ years after my accident, grieving the state of the world and feeling lost and helpless as this pandemic persists and changes our sense of self and community.
But after I dried my tears and continued to run, I felt encouraged. Not because I felt better, but because I’m confident in the discomfort. Knowing that feeling lost can be a starting point to personal growth, and that neuroplasticity is happening, as my brain adapts, changes and becomes stronger through life’s challenges.
I am someone who has devoted a significant amount of time to studying the brain – I spent four years in Graduate school reading, researching, and performing experiments to study the brain, its dysfunction. I earned my master’s degree in Neuroscience and Physiology, and structural biology. I thought I was a master of the subject. It wasn’t until I experienced my own relative mental dysfunction, in the form of trauma, subsequent depression, and wrestling with my own self-identify, that I realized I didn’t know – anything.
As athletes it’s easy to get caught up in a routine, focusing on the physical progression of a training cycle. Train, eat, sleep, repeat. We get caught in the singularity of it, with no room for deviation from ‘the plan’. But life doesn’t work that way. I experienced this firsthand in 2017 when my life, and running career, flashed before my eyes when I fell 150 feet off a ridgeline during a mountain race. I was forced to reset, re-evaluate, and rebuild almost every part of me physically. Naively, I thought it would just end there. Once my bones were healed, that I’d be fine and able to pick up where I left off, my old life, my old self, right? Wrong.
But that’s the funny thing about your brain. Unlike your bones, which heal and grow back in the same place, reinforcing the area damaged, your brain permanently changes. Have you heard of neuroplasticity? In short, it’s the ability of neural networks to change. To grow and reorganize. These changes can be on a singular neuron level or to a whole system, known as cortical remapping. So, it’s normal to feel completely different after a traumatic event (like mine,) or like you’ve lost a part of yourself, especially if you’re dealing with depression, like I was.
Once I realized this, I started to take my mental health seriously. As an adult woman, I was physically recovering from a mountain accident and also mentally rediscovering myself. Thankfully I had many resources, and I worked through the initial parts of my trauma with Timothy Tate, an archetypal psychotherapist, working with The North Face team out of Bozeman, MT. In the years after the accident we had many discussions and in-person sessions where I could sit in silence, contemplate, cry and laugh at the bewilderment of the human experience. I also worked with Levi Younger, a Rolfer who helped me integrate my physical discomfort with the mental blocks and fear surrounding my physical injuries. I had my team of physical therapists at Revo PT, who not only helped with my physical injuries, but also provided a sense of community that gave me a reason to get up in the morning. With my team’s help, I found my way back to competition, elite performance, and a healthy, improving relationship with myself.
I felt strong enough to take a chance on myself again. I moved to France for a year to train, race, and rediscover my love for mountain adventure. I tested myself, trying alpinism for the first time, something that’s been too scary to try until now, almost 3 years since my accident. Some will say, I’ve made it, I’m better, I’ve got this mental health stuff figured out – I’m the success story.
But during that year abroad, when the pandemic hit, unable to return home to the United States, I found myself isolated, struggling with my identity again and unsure how to balance my athletic goals with my personal ones. So, I did some research on how to expand my team and started working with Julie Emmerman Psy.D., a clinical sports psychologist, to help me balance my life in and away from sport.
I am writing this not as a focus on my own journey with mental health, but rather as an example and a gentle reminder. A reminder that mental health is important and it’s a beautiful, sometimes painful, process. It’s taken years, and will continue to require my attention; to care for, love, learn and accept the complexity of the human experience. My hope is that through reading this, you will be curious and encouraged to peer into your own mind, to begin or restart, your own mental health journey.
If you want to check out more about my journey with mental health and recovery, you can pre-order my book, Out and Back, set to be published in April 2021.