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Abbie Bost - Behind the Smile

Updated: Apr 18

“On the other side of the storm is the strength that comes from having navigated through it.”

– Gregory S. Williams

Athletes face many challenges during their career, college athletes often face even tougher challenges. Many of these challenges are visible to others such as physical injuries or not performing at their best. However, one significant challenge that is not so visible is mental health. Not only is this challenge not often visible, but it is also often not discussed, shared, or considered acceptable to talk about. I know this because I have been facing this challenge in silence for a while and I am now feeling ready to share my story. Mental Health is something that I think is very important to talk about and for it to be a subject that others can feel safe sharing. My goal in sharing my story is to possibly help someone who may have been through similar challenges or may be currently facing a mental health challenge.

As a junior in college, I have been struggling with mental health issues for some time now, and they have become more prominent during my college years. However, my struggles began during my sophomore year of high school, a time when suicide and death seemed to happen all too often among my peers. This experience instilled in me a constant fear of losing the people I cared about, and I became fixated on ensuring their well-being while neglecting my own. Consequently, I found myself gradually slipping away mentally as I tended to the needs of others.

During that time, I didn't pay much attention to my emotions, believing that it was just a temporary phase and that I would overcome it soon. Whenever I felt mentally cloudy, I found comfort in playing hockey, which had always made me feel invincible. However, when negative thoughts and emotions, such as "I'm not good enough" and "no one wants me here," started to creep into my safe space, I still ignored them and convinced myself that

everything would be alright and that I just needed to focus on taking care of my loved ones. Unfortunately, this only led me to neglect my own well-being once again.

As a highly empathetic person, I have always been able to deeply connect with others and feel their emotions, which allows me to offer support and comfort during tough times. However, I began to realize that this quality had become excessive, and I was absorbing the emotions of others to an unhealthy extent. The constant worrying about the well-being of those around me and anticipating negative outcomes left me feeling extremely anxious and unbalanced. I recognized that my desire to help and support others had led me to prioritize their needs over my own. I had this sense of responsibility for the emotions of those around me and that was taking a toll on my mental health, and I needed to find a way to balance my empathy for others with my own self-care.

Initially, I had some awareness that mental health was a genuine issue that many people struggled with, and I became even more aware of the issue after losing people to mental health struggles. However, I held the belief that I was somehow immune to it. I had what appeared to be a perfect life - a supportive family, wonderful friends, and a thriving sports career in which I was heavy in the college recruiting process. Despite this, I still found myself feeling unfulfilled and unhappy.

It took me some time to realize that I needed to vocalize my struggles and find help. Fear of judgment prevented me from doing so for a while, but eventually, it became too much to bear. Seeking help was a significant step in the right direction. Initially, I resisted the idea of seeking therapy because I feared being viewed as weak, a concern I now know is shared by many. Additionally, since this was an area that was not familiar to me, I really didn’t know where to start to try to get help.

I decided to share my feelings with my Mother, and with her assistance, I was able to locate a therapist who aided me in processing my emotions and provided me with coping strategies. I never imagined that sharing my thoughts and feelings with a total stranger would be beneficial or necessary. However, having a person that I knew would not judge me, or that I wouldn’t have a feeling of letting down, to confide in and obtain guidance from quickly became invaluable to me. I realized it was acceptable to seek help; acceptable and important.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was regularly attending therapy sessions on a weekly basis, and it had become a part of my self-care routine. However, as the world came to a standstill, my therapy sessions also ended. As a high school senior, I had just finished my final youth hockey season and was looking forward to the next chapter in my life. With the pandemic hitting, the future became uncertain, and everything was put on hold.

Despite the sudden changes, I initially felt that I was in a good place mentally and emotionally. The pandemic provided me with the opportunity to spend more time with my family and focus on my personal growth. While the pandemic was affecting everyone's lives in different ways, I felt fortunate to have my mental health intact, even if it meant missing out on some traditional high school events such as prom and a normal graduation. Although the COVID-19 pandemic had forced many individuals to experience a significant amount of stress and uncertainty, I managed to find comfort in spending quality time with my family. The time spent together allowed us to bond and support one another during this uncertain time. However, as my freshman year of college approached, I began to feel a mix of emotions.

On the one hand, I was excited to embark on a new journey and make new friends, but on the other hand, I felt scared about leaving home for an extended period of time. I knew that I would have to adjust to a new environment of being away from my support system, and I was anxious about the challenges that would lie ahead. I recognized that moving away was necessary for my personal growth, and I knew there was going to be an adjustment period, but I was determined to continue to prioritize my mental well-being while adjusting and enjoying this new chapter of my life.

Fast forwarding to a few months into my freshman year, even with the COVID-related changes, I was feeling the best I had felt in a long time. I was confident in almost every aspect of my life, and most importantly, I was feeling great and confident in hockey, playing my best games yet. I loved everything about college hockey. Being constantly surrounded by the sport, which I am passionate about, made me happy. I loved being part of the team, practicing and spending time together every day was truly something special. Even on the toughest days, going to the rink and being on the ice always made things better.

Despite the fact that being surrounded by the rink and hockey was great, I was not ready for what was to come later in the season. It would eventually force me to take the longest break from hockey that I had ever taken and ultimately alter my future in hockey.

Prior to playing college hockey, I had always been hesitant to sit out of games due to injuries. My mentality was to tough it out and push through the pain, as I didn't want to be perceived as "weak" or someone who was faking an injury - a mindset that is shared by many elite athletes in their respective sports.

Playing as a goalie in hockey is a physically demanding position, and unfortunately, it led to some long-term issues for me. I suffered a few concussions along the way, which, as it turned out, would come back to haunt me later. In addition to that, I had been experiencing regular aches and pains in my hips for a while. I tried to treat it on my own, but over time, the pain became more intense and persistent, to the point where my usual remedies were no longer effective.

Even with my discomfort, I was hesitant to address my hip issues. Hockey goalies are known for requiring hip surgery, and I was afraid of receiving that diagnosis. However, I couldn't ignore the pain any longer, and I sought out an orthopedic surgeon for an evaluation and hearing the word "surgery" was a scary moment for me. Looking at my x-rays and knowing that I needed surgery made my heart sink, as I was concerned about what it would mean for my future in hockey. Although I was aware that recovery would be a long and challenging road, both physically and mentally, I refused to give up on the sport that had given me so much joy and purpose. Thus, I made the difficult decision to go through with the surgery, hoping that it would help me continue doing what I love.

Towards the end of my freshman year of college, I underwent surgery. The surgery was a major milestone for me since I had never undergone any surgical procedure before. The thought of undergoing surgery was a source of anxiety for me, and I wasn't sure what to expect. The days leading up to the surgery were filled with mixed emotions as I had to come to terms with the reality of undergoing a major procedure. I was not only worried about how my body would react during the surgery, but I was also worried about the recovery process and the amount of time it would take me to return to full strength. I knew that the road to recovery would be a challenging and lengthy process, but I tried my best to be positive and optimistic about what was about to happen in the next couple of months.

In the following months after surgery, I devoted most of my time to physical therapy and rehabilitation in the hopes of being cleared to return to the ice as soon as possible. The recovery process was a rollercoaster ride both mentally and physically. While one week may have gone exceptionally well, the following week could be filled with pain and doubts about my ability to return to my sport.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during this time was the tendency to compare my recovery process to others who had undergone the same surgery. Unfortunately, this only served to exacerbate my worries and fears. In particular, I found myself struggling to cope with the fact that some of the people I knew who had required the same surgery seemed to have handled their recovery better than I was and returning to the sport faster, even though my surgery was more extensive than the "normal" surgery that is done for this injury, it was still something I struggled with and found difficulty being patient with myself on the recovery. Once again I felt that I was being judged as weak and felt the strain on my mental health.

Sticking to a consistent exercise routine proved to be a crucial factor in my recovery, as it ultimately led to my clearance to return to the ice and resume playing the sport that I loved. Nevertheless, upon re-entering to hockey, I found myself increasingly impatient to achieve success on the ice. I felt an enormous pressure to replicate my past accomplishments, and I was determined to become even more successful in the upcoming season, despite having undergone hip surgery.

Unfortunately, this pressure to succeed ultimately backfired. By pushing myself too hard too soon, I ended up causing more damage to my hip over the course of the season and also caused injury to my right hip. My eagerness to impress my coaches and teammates resulted in my overexerting myself, which limited my ability to finish out the season. Ultimately, at the end of my Sophomore year of college, I was forced to undergo another hip surgery; putting my future as a hockey player in jeopardy.

Receiving the news that I would need to undergo another surgery was devastating. I had already been through the process once, and the thought of having to repeat it all over again left a heavy burden on me. As a hockey player, the possibility of not being able to continue playing the sport I loved was a harsh reality I had to face. It forced me to consider what my future would look like and how I wanted to live my life beyond hockey.

It was a confusing time in my life, but I came to the realization that my long-term well-being was more important than my short-term goals. I needed to ensure that I would be able to function and lead a healthy life after my time in hockey was over. I had to decide if I was going to try to continue my college career as an athlete - It was the most difficult decision that I have ever had to make, but ultimately, I knew choosing to step away from competing was the right decision.

Even being fairly certain that I had made the right decision, I couldn't shake the overwhelming fear that I was disappointing those closest to me and making a decision I would regret. Hockey has always been the first thing most people ask me about since it had always been a constant in my life, and it had helped to shape my identity in many ways. The thought of losing that part of myself was scary, and it left me feeling alone in my decision-making process. Was I letting everyone down? Were my parents not going to be proud of me anymore? What would people have to talk to me about now? These were the questions that played in my head over and over again. Hockey was more than just a sport to me; it was a vital part of who I was. The idea of no longer being a hockey player made me feel as though I was losing a piece of who I have always been and what I was known for. I felt as if I was truly losing my identity.

While my teammates and others around me were pursuing their collegiate dreams, I was left with the fear that I was letting everyone down. The pressure to perform and meet others' expectations weighed heavily on me, and I struggled to find people that understood what I was going through, so I kept silent once again.

Opening up to others has never been easy for me. It took me a long time to be able to share with my parents how I felt as I was worried they would be disappointed in me. To hear that they were proud of me for making a decision that would better myself, which in their eyes was much more important than any sport relieved some worries of mine.

I have always felt like I had a different outlook on life compared to people my age, which made it challenging to relate to them. As I've grown older, I've realized that building relationships with people who are older than me has been beneficial. They tend to have a more mature approach to life, which makes it easier to relate to and communicate and share my feelings with them. Looking up to them has allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of life and has helped me navigate through difficult times. Feeling as if I have a mentor has been a big part of my support system.

I was very fortunate during this time to have a supportive coach who I felt comfortable enough to confide in. Sharing my worries and discussing my future with my coach, who not only understood how it feels to move on from the sport you love, but also showed she cared more about me as a person rather than an athlete meant everything to me.

Although giving up playing hockey for a while was a difficult decision, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to take a step back and re-evaluate my relationship with the game. As someone with a deep passion for hockey, it was tough to be away from the ice, but it gave me a chance to see the game and my teammates from a different perspective.

During my junior year of college, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to intern with my team. The experience was eye-opening as it gave me a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes of coaching. Through the internship, I was able to develop a deeper understanding of the game and the strategies that go into developing a winning team, which strengthened my passion for not only ice hockey, but sports in general. Getting to know the coaching staff on a personal level was also a highlight of the experience. Their guidance and mentorship helped me develop not only as a hockey player but as a person as well. Having genuine people in my life at the rink was something I treasured during this stage of my life.

I have shared pieces of my story with some of my teammates and others in my life, the support I received from my teammates, coaches, and family during this time was invaluable. They encouraged me to take the time I needed to focus on my health and explore other aspects of the game. It was a time of growth for me, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow in a different capacity.

Especially since I was about to face the most demanding period of my life, which left my hip injuries seem unimportant at the time. As I have mentioned before I have sustained concussions during my time playing the sport. The most recent of which was during my freshman year in college. As a result, I started experiencing an uptick in headaches and sensitivity to certain things that had not been an issue before. Initially, I didn't think too much of it. It wasn't until the beginning of my junior year in college that I began experiencing unusual symptoms that I couldn't quite understand.

I began experiencing an array of bizarre symptoms that affected my daily life. These included intense chest pains, headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and brain fog. Initially, I tried to ignore them, hoping they would go away on their own, but the symptoms persisted and worsened over time. My migraines intensified both in symptoms and frequency, often with aura that resulted in my sight being affected significantly during the episode. I decided to seek medical attention and went to multiple doctor appointments to try to figure out what was happening and why I was experiencing these symptoms. The doctors ran various tests but none of them provided any conclusive answers. My symptoms continued to truly disrupt my daily life and made it challenging to keep up with my college work and

extracurricular activities. The uncertainty and frustration of not knowing the cause of my symptoms weighed heavily on me, and I started to feel hopeless and helpless.

The breaking point was that one day, I woke up feeling very off and had a strange headache that persisted all day long. Despite feeling unwell, I went to bed that night hoping that I would feel better in the morning. However, I woke up in the middle of the night unable to sit up in my bed and unable to lift my left arm. It was a terrifying experience, and I felt like something was seriously wrong with my body.

I initially assumed that my symptoms were related to my migraines. However, when I woke up the next morning, I still had a decreased feeling and function on my left side, especially in my hand. I couldn't feel it very well, had limited strength, and experienced a loss of coordination. I was alarmed by this and didn't know what to think. I quickly realized that I needed to seek medical attention once again to figure out what was going on and why this had happened. I was anxious and scared about the situation, but I knew that I couldn't ignore it. I visited multiple doctors and underwent various tests, but none of them seemed to provide any concrete answers once again.

After a long and uncertain journey of doctor appointments and tests, a specialist was finally able to pinpoint the issue. He conducted a series of tests, including one that traced the blood flow to both sides of the brain, which revealed that there was a decrease in function on the right side of the brain. This provided an explanation for the strange symptoms that I have been experiencing.

All signs and symptoms led to a belief that I had experienced a TIA(mini stroke), which left me with a loss of feeling and function in my left hand. As a 20-year-old, this was a difficult diagnosis to accept and come to terms with as I was once an elite athlete loving the game and now I couldn’t even tie my own skates – if I wanted to skate I had to ask a teammate or my coach to tie my skates. It was embarrassing and again put a strain on my mental health. I was sad, scared, frustrated, confused, and even angry. I had to quickly switch my focus to my health and having to deal with the sudden and unexpected loss of function and the implications it had on my daily life.

As of the time that I am writing this, I am still experiencing constant migraines and loss of full functionality of my left hand and arm. It is a challenging time both physically and mentally but having my support system is helping me during this process, and it means more than they will ever know. As I progress along my path to recovery, I cannot express enough gratitude for the unwavering support of my family, coaches, teammates, trainer, friends, and doctors. Although it was a challenging journey to find the answers I needed from medical professionals, it ultimately taught me the importance of advocating for myself and never giving up.

I will be starting an extensive rehabilitation and therapy program soon that I hope can help to alleviate the migraines so that I can function fully and help me to regain as much function as possible in my hand and arm. I know that I will need to be mindful and very aware of where my emotions are through this process, and make sure that I also focus on the importance of my mental health. I am realizing that the coping mechanisms that I have learned at each stage along my journey is helping me to deal with this current challenge, seeking the help when I did earlier made the difference today.

Despite the challenges I've faced, I see them as opportunities to learn and grow. One of the toughest things I've had to deal with is managing my health and overcoming various obstacles. I have faced several health and mental health challenges along the way, but each of these obstacles have required me to develop resilience and a deeper understanding of how to manage and overcome adversity. By sharing my experiences, I hope to help others who may be going through similar situations and to let them know that they are not alone and that they will be okay.

The message that I feel needs to be shared is that life can be overwhelming, and it's easy to feel like things are out of our control. However, by taking things one day at a time and focusing on what we can control, we can navigate through difficult times with greater ease and resilience. It is important to recognize our self-worth and remember that we are capable of overcoming challenges. We are all unique individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses, and it's okay to ask for help when needed. There is never going to be another you- so embrace who you are in every way, don’t compare yourself to others- just be you!

In times of struggle, it's important to remind ourselves that we are not alone and that we have the ability to persevere. We may not always understand why we are facing certain challenges, but we can trust that there is a purpose and reason behind it. So, I encourage you to never give up and to keep pushing forward, no matter how tough the road may seem. Most importantly, never feel that asking for help is a weakness when in fact, it is one of the bravest things you will ever do. By believing in yourself and staying determined, you can overcome any obstacle that comes your way.

-Abbie Bost

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