Talking about Mental Health™ is not easy. Especially when it’s your own. Especially when your unhealthy coping mechanism is to pretend everything is fine, like the true British-born train wreck that you are. But here we are; me, about to open up a side of myself that I rarely talk about, and you, somehow interested in my self indulgent ramblings.
Now, everyone’s experiences with Mental Health™ are different, of course. And I’m no expert by any means. So I will take the opportunity now to offer a disclaimer. These are my personal experiences and any similarities to other experiences, fictional or non-fictional, are mere coincidence. With that out of the way, let’s continue on our (read: my) journey of self discovery.
I started playing Roller Derby around six years ago, when I was 24. I had just watched Whip It, after seeing it on the shelf at my job at CeX. I bought it for £1, which I think is pretty cheap for a life changing revelation. The day after I watched it I was talking to my then-boss about it and she delightfully exclaimed “I think there is a team in MK!” I found their website and emailed my shoe size and I was one step closer to my dream of Drew Barrymore punching me in the face.
I almost didn’t go. A big group of people I didn’t know? Wobbling about on eight wheels? Falling down and being laughed at? No thank you! My anxiety had successfully kept me indoors for years and it wasn’t going to let up now. But there was a part of me that needed something. A hobby. A drive. A tribe. So far in life I had hopped around from group to group, not really fitting in, not feeling comfortable, not feeling like I could grow and discover myself. So I went. I took the bus. I got lost. And then I got found.
Falling over had never been more fun! No one laughed. In fact everyone I talked to was so friendly and welcoming that I felt silly for ever thinking that was a possibility. I had thrown myself into a situation that scared me and nothing terrible had happened. In your face anxiety. I ached a lot the following day. More than I ever really had, being a couch potato. I had a shaky start, uncertain and wavering for the first few weeks. Its difficult to imagine that you’re ever going to be as good as some of the people that have been skating for years. But progression comes at a different pace for everyone and on the second intake cycle I knew I could see how far I had come in the last ten weeks. This is the time I met my now-spouse. Then-me was blissfully unaware of the importance of that meeting, content to work on perfecting my T-stops. I’m still blissfully unaware most of the time, but I have killer stopping power.
I tried reffing, before I was min-skills passed. It brought my dodging and backwards skating skills up but I couldn’t hack the stress. I took everything personally. I still take everything personally but I have learned tactics to help convince my paranoid brain that not everyone is out to make me feel bad. Sometimes it works. I cried a lot when I was reffing. I cried when a skater shouted at me. This wasn’t the sort of behaviour that I was used to being on the receiving end of. Some people can let that sort of thing roll off them. Not me. I stopped reffing. I don’t regret the experience, looking back. I know a lot about the rules. What I don’t know, I pretend I do and hope no one notices.
My first ever game was in Guildford. A cherry popper. My then-friend-now-spouse was on the opposing team. We had travelled over together and I was worried about not being on the same side. I didn’t know anyone else on my team and it was out of my comfort zone to mingle with that many strangers. Like it had been out of my comfort zone to go to my first ever session. I felt the fear and I did it anyway. I got Best Jammer. My first and only roller derby award to date. I don’t need another award. This one is proof enough to me that I can step out of my comfort zone and kick ass when I need to. I’m more than happy with that.
A few years in and I had hit a plateau. My skills just weren’t getting any better. I was frustrated, watching others excel and improve whilst I struggled. New fresh meat cycles would bring in other people that would learn faster than me. For a while I thought about giving up. Growing depressed about the thought of not being as good as I wanted to be. I was comparing myself to others and it grew into an unhealthy resentment. But I couldn’t bear to give up on my passion. So I looked for new ways to challenge myself. I started teaching other people to skate.
Finally I was looking at the skills I wanted to learn in a new light. Breaking them down for other skaters that needed help figuring out how to change their technique, to improve their skills. I was learning more at this point than I think I had learned so far. My social skills blossomed. I felt more confident and sure of myself when speaking in front of others. I planned sessions and delegated tasks. I was voted in as Director of Training. I was in love with the sport again. Watching people excel no longer frustrated me. It made me proud. I had taken a situation where I had felt out of control and turned it to my advantage.
The End (But Not Really)
After a year and a half as Training Director I decided it was time to stop. My anxiety was becoming out of control. Feeding into my depression. Affecting my work as well as my enjoyment of the sport I loved. I decided I needed to focus on myself again. It was a difficult decision for me as I enjoy teaching others to skate, but I couldn’t be relied upon to turn up to training, let alone be in a state to help others.
The passing of a team mate and friend hit me hard. The idea that someone’s Mental Health™ could deteriorate to the point where they felt there was no other option but to take their own life had always felt like something from a TV show. Or the news. Something that happened to other people. This was the same illness I had. More severe, of course, but still. I made an appointment to see my doctor. Something I hate doing. Admitting there is something wrong. But I have an award that proves that I can get outside my comfort zone for at least one hour (with a twenty minute break in the middle). The appointment lasted ten minutes. I came out with a post it note with two websites written on it an a prescription for Sertraline.
That was a year ago. I still take the medication and it helps me maintain a sense of proportion about the things I worry about. I still train (most weeks) and skate and that helps me feel invincible. I hang out with my team mates, my friends. They help me feel loved, accepted and never alone.
If you asked me when I started Roller Derby, around six years ago when I was twenty four, why I wanted to play, I would have told you that it was because I wanted to be cool. Ask me now and I will tell you, I play Roller Derby because it helped me learn who I am. That person is definitely not cool but they are strong, honest, true to themselves and better than ever because of their team and the amazing sport they all play.