Preface: Anxiety affects everyone differently. If you read this and feel what I’m talking about doesn’t relate to you, that’s fine. It was nice having you, feel free to check out something different in my long line of content.
If it does, and you feel the need to speak to someone, please check out the Samaritans (or another charity of your choosing). They’ve helped me in the past, and I know they do good work:
Anyway – as you were…
When an ex-England rugby captain invites you to join her team, you don’t say no. You might preface the response text with such phrases as ‘bit intimidated by the team’ and ‘I’m a pretty rubbish player now’, but rugby is in the blood of my family, I couldn’t say no.
And it was exciting. I’d not played a game of rugby in nearly six years. I’d coached, played one game for Aylesford, reffed a little. But to play, consistently, for a team? I missed it.
When I was at university, for whatever reason, I gave up rugby. Focused on my work and my course and didn’t give rugby (or horse riding) much thought. I didn’t realise at the time that I was suffering from anxiety, and that anxiety was taking away the two things I’d enjoyed most (after writing and reading), rugby and horse riding. By the time I’d finished my course, I didn’t horse ride and I didn’t play. And to put in context for you how important those things had been for me previously, I’d played for Kent and South East England – which meant training Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, horse riding Friday, a night off Saturday, game Sunday, recovery Monday. And then? Nothing. Weekdays filled with cramming in work and focusing on my writing.
It didn’t seem like that big a problem. Until I was invited – by Spencer – to play alongside Aylesford. I went to two training sessions, met some really nice girls. Played one game. And it was a shit game. I can’t even remember if we won. What I can remember is, I missed every tackle. I was breathing like I smoked forty a day, and I felt like I’d been in a car accident for the next two weeks.
Where had my body gone? Why was I know a size twenty not a size twelve? When did that happen?
I knew things were really bad when I was getting texts from five or six girls from the team asking if I was coming to training, and my physical response was to burst into tears. It wasn’t their fault I was shit. It wasn’t their fault I was crying because I was shit. And in hindsight, it wasn’t my fault either, but I felt like it was. I felt like I was letting everyone down. I was a fat mess. A stupid fat mess.
On a night out, a group of lads had seen me at my heaviest and sung ‘Nelly the Elephant’ at me as I walked past. My mum (and I know she hates me telling this story, but it’s super relevant) once told me I had to go to rugby training, because ‘I weighed as much as she did when she was pregnant with me’. And that was at my lightest.
I resolved not to give a shit about my body anymore. I was going to the gym, eating healthy, and it didn’t seem to make a difference. I stopped responding to texts from the girls and basically fell off the side of the earth, hiding in my work and doing teacher training, where I gained more weight.
My dad suggested I go an see a hypnotherapist. If you think that sounds crazy, well, so did I. I thought ‘what’s the point? It’s not going to help. It’s a magic trick.’
But I went anyway – because you don’t say no to my dad – and I had my first session free and another three sessions for £40 after that. I cried pretty much that entire first session. I told the hypnotherapist that I hated my body, that I hated myself. And he told me, to give myself permission to go to the gym and get better. He asked what my parents would say to support me.
And it worked. I went to the gym. I started losing weight. I could run up and down the stairs without being out of breath because I gave myself permission to. I was coaching rugby full time, I did my ref course. I felt better. Happier. I dropped out of teaching and did my MA in creative writing – the best mistake I could have made! I finally understood how lucky I was.
But I still wasn’t playing rugby. And I still wasn’t horse riding. I’d tried loaning a horse, but it threw me, kicked at me, tried to bully me out of the field. And I just wasn’t confident enough. I went for a lesson with my old riding school, and had a panic attack whilst sat on the horse. Couldn’t breathe. Felt like my chest was trying to cave in on itself. I got off. Took some deep breathes. Got back on. Had a brilliant lesson, jumped, cantered, loved it.
And then in June of this year, Spencer invited me to play rugby again. This, though I didn’t know it, would be the real test to see if I’d kicked my anxiety squarely in the nads.
I think she messaged me on facebook – or text me, I can’t find it now. But she invited me to join the Old Elthamians and my immediate response was ‘Hell. Yes.’ Folkestone didn’t have a team anymore, everyone was off playing elsewhere or not playing at all. This was my chance to get back into rugby properly.
Of course, the first week was fitness testing. And I failed. Big time.
I had strong-ish arms and strong-ish legs. But when it came to running the mile, I felt sick. I was basically walking by halfway through the first quarter. And by half way round I had to stop. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t stand up straight, I couldn’t see straight. If I’d eaten more that day it would have resurfaced.
And the girls on my new team cheered me on. They congratulated me – even though I was quite clearly the weakest link in their team. I’d thought it was going to be humiliating. Demoralising. But I couldn’t have asked for a nicer bunch of girls to back me. I went home exhausted, and with a smile on my face.
Then I got the flu. Flu, in the summer. That sounds like an excuse. So I went to the gym, and made myself sicker. Then I had a meeting with my tutor in Bristol. So that was week three missed as well. And by week four, I’d torn my ACL. (The muscle in your knee that you need for any kind of movement apparently!) How? By standing in the kitchen. My knee made a weird popping motion to the side, and the damage was done. Another two weeks of recovery.
I was still getting texts from girls on my team ‘are you coming to training?’ ‘are we seeing you this week?’ ‘come along anyway, help out. Support.’ – But I didn’t want to just watch. I wanted to keep up. I wanted to play. And as the weeks rolled on, I was falling further and further behind – and I’d started as their shittest player anyway!
So this Wednesday was my first training session back. I’d missed Monday’s fitness training because I had a committee meeting (because I’m social sec now), and Spence had said she couldn’t give me a lift, so I’d have to make my own way.
That’s fine, I thought. I’ve been before. The girls will be happy for the numbers if nothing else. My morning was pretty chilled, Netflix, a bit of editing and lots of tea. At lunch, I had a meeting with another young writer I’m really excited to be working with, but driving back from our meeting I started crying.
The old phrases ‘fat mess’ ‘stupid’ ‘crap player’ ‘lazy’ rolling around in the back of my head. With new phrases like ‘slow’ ‘worst player’, ‘they wouldn’t even notice if you never showed up again’ ‘they’re just saying you should play so they’ve got numbers’ ‘why bother?’. And I cried the whole way home. By the time I got home, I thought I was over it. Posted a facebook status (which I never do) calling Anxiety a wankmaggot – like name calling made me super mature and able to handle it.
But the truth was, anxiety was using phrases I’d said to make me think I didn’t want to play rugby anymore. That it was too much trouble. A waste of time. That I didn’t really enjoy it anyway.
It made me feel completely alone too. Like I could die, and people would be annoyed I’d inconvenienced them. I thought about taking the ten-minute walk to the cliffs by my house. Jumping. Leaving a note on my computer that said ‘Happy now?’ like it was someone else’s fault. And then I felt guilty. What the fuck did I have to be upset about? I’m not homeless, or drug dependent, I’m a little overweight, over-emotional, and attention seeking. Get the fuck over it.
I was making tea, and mum tried to give me a hug. I told her not to touch me. Not to pander to me. I was being pathetic. She sat me down and talked to me. Really listened. Really cared. Told me I was putting too much pressure on myself not to feel. Too much pressure to be amazing at rugby. Because I was acting like I was scared. Not scared of the drive – Bristol to Kent is three to four hours, this was nothing like that. Not the people – because they’d been nothing but lovely to me. Fear of failure then. Of letting people down.
So I had to ask myself: Does the pressure need to be there? No. Will the girls care? No. Will they be disappointed if I don’t show up – probably not. Or is that anxiety creeping in again? Could I ask them? No, that’s not their problem.
What do you want then? Deep breathe. I want this. I want to get fitter, I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I can’t let it win. So I packed my stuff, I shaved my legs and I went to training. I got a few comments about being a ‘stranger’, but people seemed happy enough to have me around. They remembered my name at least.
And yeah, the training session was hard. My knee starting hurting almost immediately. I avoided contact to begin with, but took on the tackle pad when it came to swapping people out. One girl could move me. Whether it was weight, or skill, or just planting my good leg in the way, girls were hitting the pad and bouncing off. I could do this.
We split off into forwards and backs. Had to work in pods. Take the ball, hit the pad, go down. I could do that too. But my knee collided with the floor and suddenly I felt like I was on fire. Like Someone had rubbed gunpowder into my knee. I couldn’t straighten it without it burning. I had to bow out. And I felt, again, like I was letting everyone down.
Now I’d had quite a positive response to the Facebook post. People, especially other rugby girls, sharing their support. I didn’t want to leave the pitch. That felt like giving up, and letting those people down too. I felt stupid. Pathetic. And it hurt so much.
Eventually, the training ended. I dropped one of the girls off at the train station, called my friend and told her I was fine. I was fine. I’d done it. I’d gone to training, I’d given it my all. I’d hurt myself, but no one had died. That was a win.
The next day my knee didn’t hurt at all. And I was left with this deep, deep fear that it had all been in my head. That I was putting up physical roadblocks in the way of getting fitter. Because I feel trapped in this flabby mess I call my body. I’m stuck on the days when I could make every breakdown and high levels of competition. Run fast enough to be in the right place at the right time, make a tackle worthy of Spencer mentioning it in the newspaper article she was writing.
I went to a BNI business meeting, and one of the members who has me on Facebook came up and gave me a hug. Told me he’d seen my status and thought I needed it. I told him I’d just had a stupid wobble, and he said ‘we all have those’.
So to Priscilla, Claire, Yvonne, Bex, Katherine, Lina, Mark, and Andy – thank you so much for taking your time out to give me the nudge I needed when I needed it most. You’ll never know how important those comments and messages were to me at that moment.
And as for whether I let the anxiety win or not – I’ve no fucking idea. I’ve got serious DOMS today, which has annoyed me because I could/should have done more at training. But I’m also kind of smug, because I know somewhere in me is the capacity for good rugby.
And if you’re looking to join a really good, high-quality rugby team full of girls, let me put you in touch…
So what can you take away from this (frankly grotesque and self-indulgent) essay. Everyone has their own shit, sure. But it’s okay to ask for help, to feel inadequate, or insecure. So long as you know you can ask for help from those around you. And if you see someone is having a hard time, spare them a kind word, a quick message or a hug. It might make more difference than you realise.