• Maddie Phaneuf

Invisible Battles

Note: this post is about my own personal experience with mental health and therapy. I am in no way a health professional, if you need help, seek it from a professional.

Before shit hit the fan...

When I meet a new person, the first thing they typically ask is “What do you do?” I never thought this question would cause so much anxiety for me, but it did. You see, my answer is usually along the lines of “I’m a professional athlete” which then jumps into the question “Did you go to the Olympics?” Most people see this as a simple and exciting question to ask an athlete, and why shouldn’t it be? The problem was, for me, that it was a really hard one to answer and deal with. My experience with the Olympics was very negative, and I hated talking about it, so I'd try to avoid the conversation.

For those reading who don’t know my story, I went to the Olympics in 2018, got very sick and didn’t end up racing. I was heartbroken to say the least, and it was really hard for me to talk about. It got to the point where I would start lying to people and not telling them who I really was in order to avoid the conversation. I would say that I was a nanny or that I worked at a ski shop, which was true but not the whole truth.

It took me nearly a year to figure out I was dealing with something much bigger and harder for me to handle on my own and that I needed to seek professional help from a therapist. Little did I know that I was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from my experience at the Olympics. It’s hard for me to even write that because I’m afraid people will doubt it’s legitimacy. When we learn about PTSD we usually tie it with war veterans, so it’s not common for people to associate PTSD with athletes.

Here’s a list of PTSD symptoms:

  1. Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are reliving the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.

  2. Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.

  3. Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.

  4. Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping. (Source)

My symptoms didn’t include all of the things listed above, but I did have a lot of the symptoms. Here’s a list of my PTSD symptoms:

  1. Flashbacks of being told I would no longer be racing, immediately followed by crying. Occurred randomly and out of my control for months following the event.

  2. Since returning from the Olympics I didn’t touch my rifle or skis until I absolutely had to (at Nationals in 2018) - and then I ended up leaving those races early because I was too uncomfortable being in the biathlon environment and was unhappy racing.

  3. When people asked me about the Olympics I would tend to have a short, positive response in order to not dive into the negative memories.

  4. I had a lot of negative thoughts, the biggest one being “I’m not a real Olympian” I truly didn’t believe I deserved the title and had those thoughts constantly.

  5. There was a long stretch of time where I wasn’t interested in activities I previously enjoyed, all I wanted to do was get drunk or high as a way to take my mind off of the Olympics, I was miserable to be around. All in all, I was not okay.

The thing was, it took me seven months to realize this. It wasn’t until I was crying myself to sleep after an intrusive thought about the Olympics one night in September when I realized I should probably seek professional help. The fact that I still couldn’t even think or talk about my experience at the Olympics without crying and getting angry at myself made me realize that this was clearly a problem that I wasn’t fixing on my own. I wanted to feel better; this problem needed to be solved.

Immediately after being told I would no longer be racing at the Olympics

I’ve heard people say that the hardest step to getting help is admitting to yourself that you need the help. I had always played with the idea of going to therapy, but was under the impression that therapy was for people with “real problems” and for a long time I really didn’t believe that I had a problem that needed fixing. I had been blind to my suffering and brushed it off as me just being sad I didn’t get to race. I finally decided that there was no way therapy would make any of this worse, so why not go and try it out. Worst case scenario - I don’t like it, but at least I could say I tried.

Luckily at the time, I was living in Boulder, Colorado where a quick Google search would lead you to a lot of therapists to choose from. I looked at a ton of websites and finally landed on one that was close to where I was living and I felt a connection with. I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into the first session, and I was really nervous. I was so happy to have immediately felt like I was in a safe space and felt really connected with my therapist. I have no idea if this is the case for everybody who has tried therapy, I’m sure there are therapists out there I wouldn’t necessarily connect with, but I think it’s important to do some online research beforehand and if you don’t feel safe or connected in your first session - find someone else!

Therapy is incredibly helpful, I recommend it for everybody, even if you’re not necessarily “struggling”. After every session I felt like a layer of pain had been shed and suddenly the weight on my shoulders had been lifted. I learned a lot about myself, and have learned new tactics and ways to battle my own issues. I reignited my self confidence and finally feel like I have my voice again. To say the least, therapy made me feel more like myself than I’ve ever felt.

It was interesting having someone tell you things about yourself you may not have realized. During my sessions is when we discovered that for me, the Olympics was a traumatic experience. The signs were there, and my therapist helped me understand that in order for me to move on she was going to have me do different exercises that should help. We mostly used imaginal exposure to overcome my PTSD. Imaginal exposure is when the client (me) is asked to imagine the event in which the trauma occurred, with the aim of processing the emotional event fully and over time, lessening the emotional and physiological responses. (Source)

This meant I had to close my eyes, think back on being told I wouldn’t race at the Olympics, and really think about all of the details...over and over again. Remember, this was a memory I was constantly trying to forget and push far back into the darkest corners of my brain. When doing this exercise I was truly letting it all out, I was sobbing so hard. My therapist was reassuring me that this was good, keep processing it all. I didn’t have to verbally tell her what I was imagining, I just needed to picture it clearly and accurately.

She had me explain to her how I was feeling. She wanted me to turn this feeling into an obtainable ball, without thinking about it. She asked what size this feeling was - I answered “a grapefruit”. She asked what color this feeling was - I answered “purple”. She then wanted me to picture somebody who cared for me, and I immediately thought of my grandfather who had passed away a while back. She wanted me to incorporate him into this memory in order to turn this negative memory into a more positive one.

Without hesitation, in my imagination my grandfather hugged me, told me he couldn’t imagine what I was going through but wanted me to know that he still loved me, that this didn’t make me any less of an Olympian, and that everything would be okay. He then took this purple, grapefruit sized ball and put it in his pocket. He told me “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this for you, you don’t need to carry it anymore.” and winked at me. I laughed out loud, which is when my therapist asked what I was laughing about. So I explained to her, and she told me, “See?! Now you don’t have to carry that feeling anymore, your grandfather is holding onto it. If you ever start to feel yourself falling back to that feeling, remind yourself that it’s not your responsibility anymore. You’ve let it go.”

Now, I’m not a very spiritual or religious person, but that had to be one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I truly believe that my Papa was in the room with me during the Olympics when my coach told me I couldn’t race. I truly believe he was there trying to comfort me, I just couldn’t see it then. I can see it now, and I’m extremely grateful for him. This might sound crazy to some of you, and honestly it sounds pretty crazy when I’m writing it, but life’s pretty crazy.

My wonderful Papa! (on the far left, obviously)

Another exercise my therapist had me do was write letters to my past self. I had to imagine these letters were going to be read by “Past Maddie”, the one who was sitting in her quarantined room at the Olympics with strep throat right after she was told she’d no longer be racing.

The first letter had to be brutal, I had to write out all of the thoughts I had about myself in relation to the Olympics. You can imagine these thoughts were all very negative. I’ll spare you the aggressive letter and just give you a few excerpts …“How could you let this happen?” “You could’ve done more to prevent getting sick.” and “You shouldn’t have even been nominated to go to the Olympics.” To be honest, it was a lot harder to write than I thought it would. At first I thought, that’ll be easy, because I’d been saying all of these negative things to myself for months. It’s one thing to think them, it’s another to put those thoughts down on paper in a letter you’re writing to yourself.

The second letter was to be written about a week after the fist one, and it had to be a little more forgiving. Not as brutal as the first letter, but not totally forgiving and kind either. Excerpts from this letter sounded more like…”I get that you must be going through a rough time, but remember that some people didn’t even make it to the Olympics, so be happy.” “Are you sure you couldn’t have done something more to get healthier?” This letter was a little easier to write, since it wasn’t nearly as aggressive as the first.

Finally, the last letter she had me write, another week later, had to be one hundred percent forgiving to myself. By the time I had to write this letter I had gone through more therapy sessions and was at the point where I could actually forgive myself. Some excerpts from this letter look like…”This wan’t your fault, you need to know that.” “I can’t believe the horrible timing, I’m sure you’re going through so much pain right now.” “You have so much love and support.” There was no way I would have been able to write this letter without the help of therapy, this was me finally accepting that I didn’t need to suffer anymore.

Maddie in the midst of therapy, rediscovering the joy of biathlon!

If you’re interested in non-therapy ways I’ve found help me feel more balanced and generally happy, here’s that list. Again, I’m not a health professional, if you’re struggling - talk to a professional.

  1. Getting outside and exercising

  2. Less screen time

  3. Journaling my feelings

  4. Mediating or practicing Savasana

  5. Surrounding myself with people I love

  6. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and staying hydrated

So here we are, another seven months after I first sought help. I can look back on the Olympics now without immediately crying. I don’t lie to people about what my profession is. I’m actually excited and motivated to be getting back into this sport with a healthier mindset. I hope this post helps break the stigma of mental illnesses within the athletic community, and opens peoples eyes in tackling that hardest step: asking for help.

- MP