After a two-year hiatus from this blog, this is a hard post to write. Putting the last two years into writing infers a kind of finality, as if by putting my experiences into writing they are finally made real. I strongly believe that owning your own story is key to being an active (co-)creator of your future, so it’s challenging to admit certain hardships yet-to-be-overcome into this narrative.
At first my absence from the blog was for the best of reasons – being busy doing what I loved. In 2015 I wrestled in four tournaments, and was flying interstate for camps, driving 40km each way for practice, studying full-time and working as a freelance PT. Then, a string of injuries. There are always injuries – throughout 2015 I managed persistent issues following sprains in my ankle and lumbar spine – but soon they started to keep me out for longer. I broke my hand, and then started getting chronic issues with my knee, which were attributed to overuse.
All of the travel for competition and training, as well as fees for dieticians, physios, chiros, had really depleted my finances, so I decided to take a year off study and work in 2016. My plan was to take some part-time employment, continue my freelance work and training, get back into MMA where my travel expenses would be covered, and save some money.
The part-time work that I found initially promised to be rewarding, both in terms of being able to make a contribution to others, and being able to develop myself professionally. My job was to operate a gym in an aged care facility, assisting in rehabilitation and prevention of frailty and pre-frailty. However, there were many aspects of the aged care industry that I was totally unprepared for, including being in contact with infectious diseases, dealing regularly with clients with severe depression who expressed suicidal wishes, and having clients die. In addition to this, my schedule was packed, and although I tried to be as efficient as possible with meal prep, I often found myself skipping sleep in order to complete basic tasks such as getting my laundry done.
By October, I’d had several bouts of flu despite having the vaccine, and found myself getting weaker every time, forcing myself to go back to work before I really felt recovered. One day I went to work and found that I couldn’t really walk. I tripped walking down the stairs – twice. I got so dizzy that I had to lie down on the floor. I felt that I had lost dexterity and strength in my feet, so that when I walked I was balancing on my heels and using my hands to balance against walls and furniture. I felt like one of my frail clients.
Along with fatigue which sometimes didn’t allow me to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time, I started to experience episodes of heart palpitations and elevated heart rate during which my body felt like it was going limp. When this happened, I had no choice but to lie down. It took a maximal effort at these times for me simply to sit upright – as if the act of sitting upright were a one rep max, requiring all of my focus and effort.
After two weeks, I tried returning to work, but for the next few months it was difficult for me to do more than three hours of work at a time, and I couldn’t get through more than three days without having to call in sick and forego work altogether. I was doing what I could to get better when I wasn’t at work – acupuncture, organic food, meditation, yoga – but I felt completely depleted again once I went back to work. In addition to this, it was taking all of the emotional energy I had to maintain any kind of positive mindset, and I found that I had little energy for the emotional labour involved in my job. How could I deal with a client’s fear of dependency and death when at times I was having trouble walking and performing basic activities of daily living for myself?
After a few months like this, I resigned from the job. During this time, with the help of the most compassionate and understanding doctor, I was referred to a rheumatologist, who, after ruling out autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, confirmed the diagnosis of “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”.
I felt mixed emotions at this. I had suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since 2007, although from 2011 onwards my symptoms were relatively minimal, and I had had them well under control. So in this way the diagnosis told me nothing new. I was relieved not to have a condition that involved degenerative changes, but also a little disappointed – I had hoped that they would find something that they could “cure”, and that my battle with a body that seemed to want to sabotage me would be over.
Having a diagnosis from a rheumatologist has brought some indirect benefits. People believe me now, so I don’t feel as alone as I did back in 2007, when the majority of people in my life, including many medical professionals, still told me “it was all in my head” or that I had “let myself go”. Even after 2011, when I was much better, and was able to train and compete, the processes I used to manage my symptoms and avoid flare-ups I hid from most people for fear of the stigma attached to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In sports where everyone wants to say that someone else is faking it or “doesn’t have what it takes”, the last thing I wanted to do was reveal my stigmatised, poorly understood, inadequately researched, “syndrome”.
Over the past seven months I have gotten much better. I have no trouble walking now, and I no longer suffer the “limpness”, heart palpitations or elevated heart rate at rest. I do still need a lot of sleep, and that often still includes sleep in the afternoon, which is frustrating. It’s like driving a car and needing to stop for petrol and to put air into the tyres every few hours.
Everyday activities, like driving, socialising, shopping for groceries, sometimes even showering and getting dressed, all tire me out, and I usually need to rest afterwards.
I’ve had to modify my training fairly drastically in terms of reducing frequency, intensity, overall load, as well as the type of training that I’m doing. I’m mostly doing jiu jitsu now – the fact that the intensity of jiu jitsu training is relatively lower and that it involves less impact means my body tolerates it much better than MMA or wrestling. At thirty-three, with a knee injury that flares up really easily with impact, strikes, and repetitive movement, and a health condition that is currently severely impacting on my quality of life as well as my ability to work, it makes sense to put my focus on jiu jitsu now.
It’s sad because there was much more that I wanted to do in MMA, especially in terms of applying what I was learning through wrestling. But I always knew an end would come. Even when I first started competing in Muay Thai at nineteen, I only saw myself fighting until I was thirty-one. As it happened, the last time I wrestled, I was thirty-one.
I wondered whether or not to come back to this blog at all. It seemed to have become an epitah for fallen dreams. But the fact is that life continues beyond the end of an athletic career, regardless of what kind of athletic career that was. The fact is, too, that life continues with a chronic illness, even if it doesn’t look much like the life you used to live, or the one you had envisaged for yourself. Perhaps these stories deserve to be told, as much as the stories of aspiring and achieving.