The Olympic mental health games

The Olympic mental health games
Photo by good friend and amazing fighter Brigitte Blouin. Three months post-kidney-liver failure, I managed to score one (1) point against champion Corina Balan, who was less than half my age at the time. She scored all the other points and won that fight handily. But I wasn’t going to give up. Now I treat myself with more kindness, which isn’t saying much.

The cold tile felt painful against my sweaty shoulder. But I needed the support so I endured. I was trembling, my face a most unhealthy shade of green, my lungs unable to do much other than gasp for air. 

I sat on the floor of the toilet stall, gripping the porcelain with all the might I no longer had, waiting for liberation. I knew nothing except throwing up would let me get to the other side of whatever hell this was, and it was bound to feel better. 

When liberation came, I closed my eyes and let my body do what it had to do. The spasms were hurting my back and twisting my stomach into an uncooperative pretzel. 

Simon Biles, who needs no introduction, stunned the world by pulling out of competition at the Olympic Games in a deliberate act of self-care. Like most people, I did not understand what it meant for a gymnast to have the “twisties” but even before I understood what those were I was prepared to respect her decision and not bitch about my being deprived of televisual entertainment. Now that I do know how terrible the twisties are, I’m turning into a bit of a zealot in her defence. 

It is particularly rich for people who couldn’t possibly do a front-facing tumble without spraining both ears to criticize the greatest gymnast of all times for being “weak.” Me, I look stupid trying to cartwheel but I do feel I can comment on this, having won not one but two world titles in karate competition — in my late 40s no less. I do know what it’s like to train like a maniac and push your limits. 

I trained three to four hours a day, seven days a week. I did not stop when I felt awful. I did not stop when I was tired. I did not stop when I got hurt. I modified the training to accommodate injuries. I did not stop it. I didn’t train like this for the medals. I trained and fought like this to prove to myself that I could. 

My nickname in the dojo was Iron Lady. I was not supposed to break, not even bend. When I did, nobody could believe it, least of all me. 

Coming back from 2017 Worlds I suffered from a nasty cold that morphed into an unforgiving bronchitis precisely because I wouldn’t stop training and competing — including one tournament where I won everything including the grand championship fight against a teenager roughly nine feet tall. There’s a video of that fight where you can hear my wet cough over the screams of my cheerleading squad. In the picture below, I’m smiling (more or less) because you have to when you win everything including a coveted jacket. But my lungs were screaming.

I have no idea how I did it. Or, come to think of it, why. The pain in my lungs was so bad it radiated all over my back. It was a constant, dull throbbing that interfered with my sleep, my training and the rest of my adult life. I took painkillers to deal with it, always being very careful not to exceed the dose. They weren’t any special painkillers. Just ibuprofen and aspirin. 

Three weeks into this regimen, during a training fight, I got a solid kick to the stomach, just like the dozens of hard kicks I got each week. What was surprising was that this particular kick made me feel nauseous. 

When I looked up from the bowl I saw red. Facing me was clear, dark red blood all over everything. 

Turns out the lining of my stomach got so irritated by the ibuprofen that it caused internal bleeding, followed by kidney and liver failure. I thought I was going to die. 

It took me three solid months to get enough strength to start trying to train again. Which I did, because I wanted to win another world title — I figured winning one world title might be luck, whereas winning two years in a row meant I had earned it. 

Yes, you’re right. That was stupid. 

I did win the second world title, and now I have two shiny world gold medals in a box in the basement somewhere. I retired from competition and intense training right after that last world championship and have not put on boxing gloves since. I’m still active — I try to run 10K every day, and I bike a lot — but I no longer push myself so far past my limits because frankly, as the younger generation of athletes is showing the rest of us, there is no point in that. 

I’m a Gen-Xer and to me, constantly having to push yourself to outdo everyone is how I’ve lived my life. We didn’t have much of a choice, being stuck behind a generation of boomers who took and kept all the attractive jobs and associated financial security. I’ve always had to hustle. It is natural for me to feel like I need to punish myself to be worthy of anything. That’s pretty stupid, too. 

The good thing about having worked this hard for so long is that I am about as tough as they come. I’ve suffered all kinds of abuse, and never stopped ticking. But that toughness has come at a steep price, which is that I never learned to treat myself with kindness and put my mental health first. 

So yeah, when I see younger athletes getting so close to yet another accomplishment but pull out in an act of self-love, self-respect and kindness, part of me wants to snicker at the fragility. I shut it down quickly. Simone Biles is not the one who’s brittle. 

There is no upside in abusing yourself, no matter for what or for whom. There is only pain and misery. If you don’t respect yourself enough to stop pushing before you break, how can you expect others to treat you well? That’s a lesson I’ve learned much too late in life. 

When you do treat yourself the way you deserve to be treated, other people respond accordingly. Far from losing opportunities I’ve gained more of them — and opportunities better suited to my skills, talents and ambitions to boot. 

I am in a better place now than I’ve ever been, and I think in good part it’s because I’ve learned (slowly, very late) to treat myself with love, kindness and respect. 

So thank you, Simone Biles, for using your amazing platform (which you’ve earned many times over) to show us the way. I hope your twisties go away, and that you get back to doing what you love. Not for me or anyone else, but for yourself.