This is My Story
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
The Latin root of the word courage is cor, which means heart. Courage means “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
Speaking from the heart is not always easy. But I hope that in sharing my past and present experiences, someone else will find comfort that they are not alone. My story will never be the same as another’s – but each one has its own merit, and each one is equally worthy of being heard.
Health is the best wealth. After being in the hospital for two weeks, I believe this now more than I ever have in my life. The pursuit of one’s own health (physical, mental, and spiritual) is a noble investment. I sure won’t be taking my health for granted again, given that I was walking a fine line between life and death before I got here.
For the past 3 years, I’ve battled hard with chronic anxiety, bouts of depression, and restrictive eating. Much of this has centered around conflict regarding my sense of identity and self-worth. It centered around the fear that I couldn’t be loved, accepted, or worthy to connect with others just by being who I am. For 3 years, I thought I had to change myself in order to gain approval and be loved.
It’s difficult to admit, because in all honesty, I still fear judgment about this from the outer world. I never want others to think I am broken or weak. But in talking about difficult subjects, sharing my truth, and facing my deepest fears head on, I know that I am the opposite of weak. In fact, I am strong, courageous, and resilient. There is absolute power in vulnerability.
So here is a full (but abbreviated) version of my story:
As a brand new transfer student coming from UCSD to UCLA, I became the first athlete at UCLA to specialize in beach volleyball (without also being a member of the indoor team).
In my first year there, I experienced excitement, the thrill of new challenges, and absolute pride in building a beach volleyball program. I also experienced loneliness, isolation, and feelings of disconnection with the people around me. I compared myself to my peers, and began to think I had to change myself to somehow gain the approval of coaches and other girls on the indoor team.
I sought self-worth in performance for sport, and became hyper-aware of my diet. But I was also uneducated on how to fuel properly. Innocently, I limited certain foods to be “healthiest”. I thought if I ate at my best, I would play at my best.
I lost a little bit of weight. I started to get compliments. I looked fitter, leaner, and people apparently liked it. In a brand new world and setting where I felt quite lost, I started to feel more loved and accepted… and this quest to become “healthier” was helping me get there.
More restrictive eating, more weight loss, and my performance in beach volleyball did improve significantly: I was faster and lighter, I was quick and more confident in my ability.
I placed my identity and sense of worth in success and perfectionism in my body, in my school, and in my sport. I was firmly committed to the success of the UCLA Beach Volleyball team, and had my heart set on a national championship.
But with weight loss I also lost other things. My period became irregular and then nonexistent, my metabolism was compromised, and my anxiety worsened. I used performance in sport to drown out other worries and pressures about finding a career I enjoyed, or finding an identity or passions beyond my sport. Family wanted me to stop playing volleyball altogether because they blamed it for my health condition, which caused me intense conflict.
I was far from healthy, mentally or physically. I thought that I needed to conform to societal and athletic beauty standards - that I needed to be ripped, lean, and fit a mold to be loved, accepted, and successful. But it came at a cost.
Not only was I struggling mentally, but my internal physical health was taking a hit. Restrictive eating causes damage not only to the muscles you can see from the outside, but also the most important muscle of all - my heart.
And here’s the irony: the more weight I lost, the more praise, awards, and accolades I achieved throughout my career, which only fueled the idea in my head that nothing was wrong with me. I was excelling in school and sport. I thought my body and mind were totally “healthy”. In fact, I thought I had reached optimal health.
I reached rock bottom at my lowest weight the summer after my 3rd year at UCLA. I trained hard with USA Volleyball and worked my butt off, but my health took a sharp decline. My family took a trip to Poland that summer and we walked almost 10 miles per day, but I ate so little due to high levels of anxiety. When we returned from that trip, I sought treatment and I deliberately gained 20 pounds in a 6-week period in order to allow me to resume training at UCLA for my 5th year season.
I finally accepted that I wasn't healthy, and this came as a shock.
This was a dark time for me. I did not reach out to many people for help or support. I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I was dealing with.
I used the privilege of competing in beach volleyball again when I returned to UCLA as motivation to recover.
My final year with UCLA Beach Volleyball, my final chance to win a national championship, my final year to make the best of things. I was filled with gratitude to be healthy enough to compete and practice again. I continued to gain weight throughout the year and felt stronger and more capable. I excelled in my classes. I competed well. I focused more on my relationships and friendships.
I continued to deal with family conflict and disapproval of my commitment to volleyball. This was especially tough in my final season. I wanted to flourish with the program that I had been with and worked so hard to build since day 1. I made a lot of sacrifices during that year, and poured my heart, soul, mind and body into the team. But at nationals we came up short at 5th place, after being ranked 2nd, and I was heartbroken. And I was still left with confusion and anxiety over what I wanted to do for the next steps of my life.
I took on a new challenge: graduate school at UCLA in a Master of Public Health. I wanted to become an advocate for mental health and wellness and create support systems for those who have struggled with the same things I have. I wanted my story to offer comfort to others going through the similar experiences.
I’ve never been so academically and professionally challenged in my life. Graduate school proved to be a full-time commitment, and it was hard to find time to play, study, and work 2 jobs at the same time.
On top of it all, UCLA Beach Volleyball won the national championship the year after I left. I was happy for them, but damn, that one hurt. It was everything I dreamed of one year prior.
My mindset eventually became more well-rounded: I found worth in solid relationships, learned how to be a working professional, and gained many other skills I had never before pursued. However, my heart still yearned for the sand, the sea, and the court. I think it always will. So I ran there every chance I could get.
Anxiety hit me like a freight train trying to transition into a full-time internship that was incredibly unstructured and challenging for me. When I messed up at work, I turned to exercise and beach volleyball to relieve my distress. I felt happiest and most confident in the abilities of my body, and used this to combat the times when my mind was going in a million different directions uncontrollably.
I exercised more, I ate less due to stress, and I dropped weight again.
Here’s another piece of irony: I felt a shift in my thinking. I became motivated and confident, enjoying that I can foster a career and re-incorporate volleyball into my life. I started to believe in myself that I could create the life that I wanted and become truly happy and fulfilled. I found relationships and community where I felt loved. I was figuring life out.
Weight loss again. Compliments again. Perceptions of success, again… I must have been doing something right.
But this time around, my body and mind couldn’t take the residual stress, and my heart almost failed (literally).
So here I am, still in the hospital, taking a lot of time to think about what I’ve been through and what it means to be healthy. I’m listening to my doctors closely and learning so much about the physiological responses and changes my body has undergone in response to how I dealt with stress and anxiety. Our mental and physical health are interconnected and inextricably related to our physical bodies. They are not separate systems.
My perceptions of what “health” meant in the world of athletics and fitness were clearly skewed in the past. Weight loss is always praised, and weight gain is almost always criticized - this is why I feared it so much. Now, I don’t fear it any nearly as much, because I know it is absolutely necessary for my body repair itself and become strong again. I’ll never be as lean as I was before or fit the “ideal” beauty standards in the world of fitness, but my long-term health is worth far more than that.
Health is not a number. Health is not a body type. Health looks and feels different for each person.
Moreover, mental health is equally as important as physical health. Fostering mental wellness among student-athletes is necessary. As a society and community, we should continue to spread awareness and provide support for those who need it.
It’s going to take a good long time for my body to heal fully from the damage it’s taken over the years. It needs healing from the inside out. The great news is, it can heal. My heart has already repaired itself significantly, according to what my doctors are saying, and for this I am so grateful. I know that my metabolism and my hormones will eventually catch up. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to return to beach volleyball with renewed energy and appreciation when the time is right.
Today, my motivations to recover have changed. Today, this is what “healthy” means to me:
- Valuing myself and my body no matter what I look like, at each stage of my life
- Being able to show up in my community and my relationships, and to be there for others
- Being able to have a child in the future
- Connecting with God, with myself, and with others spiritually
- Living the fun, active lifestyle that I love for a lifetime instead of a short time
- Not just a healthy body, but a healthy mind, soul and spirit
The choice to put my entire life on hold to tackle my anxiety and heal my body was the hardest decision I have had to make. But it was a choice to value myself enough to make health my #1 priority. I feel proud of that choice.
Health is the best wealth. It is a noble investment in the enrichment and quality of our lives. Sometimes we don’t realize this until a lot of the things we love doing are taken away. I will continue to fight for my mental and physical health. I will continue to fight the good fight. It’s worth it.
For those of you out there fighting for yours, I’m with you,
For those of you out there fighting mental battles, I’m with you, and we are stronger than we know.
“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ – Revelation 21:5
I’m incredibly thankful to all the people who have reached out to me and offered support in the past couple of weeks. Thank you to everyone who has sent prayers, well wishes, good thoughts and flowers (lots of lovely flowers!!!) :D my way. This journey is only beginning, and without the support of the amazing people in my life, this would be so much harder. So from the depths of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you.