We all know the saying “You can’t go home again.” But what if we can? And, what if coming “home” isn’t necessarily to a place, but to an activity, or a passion that once felt like our home of body-mind-soul, only to later to be our greatest source of suffering
Growing up, the one place I felt most at home within myself was on the volleyball court. Boy, did I LOVE playing indoor volleyball. It was my domain, my arena, where I felt in charge, in control, and on purpose.
It was nothing for me to practice for hours and hours; to play game after game in weekend-long tournaments without taking a break; to “pepper” (a volleyball drill) in the backyard with my sister until the sun went down, where we’d then move inside to the family room, sit on opposing couches, and just work on our hand skills by setting the ball back and forth to each other.
How I loved volleyball … until I didn’t. Until it all came crashing down on me my sophomore year in college.
At the start of my sophomore year, it had been 6 months that I was struggling with the brain disease of an eating disorder. The drive I had in athletics to win, to give my best, and to perfect and perform, proved to be a dangerous ingredient in my quest to finally achieve the athletic body ideal.
This quest was fueled by many factors, one being years of micro-aggressions from some coaches (not all) that shamed the athletic body I was in because it wasn’t the “perfect athletic body.” It wasn’t that my body wasn’t performing and getting good results in competition. It was just that it didn’t look like the athletic ideal.
By spring semester my freshman year I decided to once and for all go on that diet and look like the athlete I was told I should be. It took about a whole three weeks of restriction and over-exercise for me to suddenly wake up with a voice in my head that I had never experienced before.
This voice wasn’t the typical critical voice we, as humans, all have. You know, the voice that shames, critiques, and judges oneself. No, it was a different voice, a voice of obsession and compulsion around food, weight, numbers, calories, exercise. And it would run, and run, and run on a loop 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Carolyn Hodges Chaffee, founder of the Upstate New York Eating Disorder Service and author of Measuring Health from the Inside, says in her presentations and trainings to health professionals that if you take 100 women and put them on a diet, nearly 30 of those women will likely result in having an eating disorder. One reason is because women are sensitive to serotonin, and when you underfeed the body it affects the chemicals in your brain. (If you want to understand this more, read her book. Her approach to treating eating disorder patients is groundbreaking. It’s what saved my life and many others.)
After just 6 months of living with the eating disorder, my body had morphed into the athletic ideal, yet the irony of it all was I could no longer play the game. I looked “strong,” in terms of our society’s obsession with low body fat and muscular definition, but in fact, I had no strength. I couldn’t concentrate, and I found myself benched for the first time in my athletic career. It was downhill from there.
I was heartbroken. Devastated. My athletic identity was all that I had, all that I knew, and now it was gone. I felt gone. And I began to hate everything about sports—about volleyball—my one true love.
It was a long journey to heal my brain, my body, and then my soul, but by the grace of whatever loving power exists in the world, I did. The healing didn’t come without many losses though. Loss of a career path I once thought I’d have in sports maybe as a broadcaster or a coach; loss a full four-year athletic career in college; loss of relationships; and loss of opportunities during college itself.
One of the biggest changes I had to make during my healing was moving away from my competitive nature, and closer to my compassionate nature.
It would take more than a decade before I truly picked up a volleyball again with an open heart. I tried a few times, but they always fell short.
One time was when I was living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I had moved there during the pinnacle years of my healing, and lived by the beach where a volleyball court resided on the sand. A friend got word I played in college and coerced me into playing with her.
I didn’t know anything about beach volleyball. The game is exponentially different than indoors, but I gave it a shot, and hated everything about it. I hated the competition. I had worked so hard to move away from that mindset, and that feeling in my body. I also hated all the memories, pain, and sadness tied to the game that flooded my being. I wasn’t ready.
Fast forward to today, now 16 years later, I find myself living by the beach in Santa Cruz, CA, where in a matter of steps from my front door are four beach volleyball courts. For the first few months in my new pad, I merely watched the locals pass-set-hit from a distance. I observed from my front patio, or casually glanced as I passed by on my way to the coffee shop housed next to the courts.
But something felt different this time. To my surprise, there was a flutter inside of me; an excitement, an enthusiasm running through my body. There was a pitter-patter in my heart. I felt a playfulness I once had during my youth.
So I did what I so often encourage others to do through my work in the world. I listened to that feeling—to the call of my heart—and took the plunge. Am I happy I did!
It’s been a year now I’ve been playing beach volleyball in Santa Cruz and it has given me great joy. I love the sport again. I love learning the beach game. I love tapping back into my competitive side. And I love, love, love the pure bliss that comes from the simple combination of pass, set, hit.
When the time is right, we can come home to the things we loved and may have lost during the eating disorder. I’ve come home to the sport I once loved, and this time, I’m doing it on the sand, in the sun, and by the clear, cool waters of Monterey Bay.
Life is good.