Kace Boland: Redshirting for My Mental Health Recovery

The day I committed to play volleyball at Georgetown was undoubtedly the single greatest day of my life. In an instant, three grueling years of early mornings and late nights had become worthwhile. I was well acquainted with the grind. I began playing for the first time at an age when many Division I recruits are already committed. As such, I quickly learned that it would take my all to carry my collegiate dreams to fruition.

When I arrived at Georgetown for my first preseason, I was unfazed by the incredibly long and taxing practices. They were tough, but I was ready for it —so much so that I genuinely loved my first preseason. I embraced the challenge of every session and quietly returned to the gym at night for hours of independent technical work. At the end of the day, I knew the immense pressure I was feeling was temporary; that preseason was designed to break me, and that the upcoming season would bring pride and relief.

As I had anticipated, the end of preseason delivered an unreal sense of accomplishment. I was elated at the chance to finally heal some persistent overuse injuries and contribute to my team at my fullest capacity. I quickly found myself foolish to believe that a Division I regular season would bring relief in any sense, but I was able to persevere through the aches and pains and earn court time —something I never expected out of my freshman campaign. I came in as the worst player on our roster, so it took several additional hours of diligent preparation outside of practice to break into the game day lineup. I didn’t go out with the team on off days, I got extra reps in at odd hours, and I micromanaged my diet to an unfathomable extent. For a while, it worked, and I didn’t care when it began to wear on me mentally. I felt indebted to my program for taking a chance on me as a recruit and I was committed to doing everything in my power to better myself as a student-athlete. My self worth rested entirely in my identity as a Georgetown volleyball player.

Soon enough, my insane routine proved to be unsustainable. I was so anxious and physically exhausted that I was struggling to perform on the court… Yet somehow, I was blind to my self-destructing habits. When extra reps were no longer serving me, I turned to something I could fully control: my body composition. Surely, if I took command of this last variable, I’d be able to keep up with my teammates —or so my budding eating disorder led me to believe. My caloric intake dwindled, as I strived to be unattainably lean. I also began running 20-30 miles weekly, in the middle of the night (hoping not to be seen by athletic staff) to improve my endurance. I would often see my roommate in passing, as I returned from training straight through the night and she left for her morning lift. Yet, my play was worse than it had ever been.

I distinctly remember a practice where my coach gave me the same correction four consecutive times, and I neglected to apply it every time. It was a simple fix; I was foot-faulting at the service line. I could hear him, but I was so dissociated and delirious that I couldn’t process the words he was saying. As an athlete who once prided herself on being coachable, this was humiliating. Never in my life had I hated volleyball practice like this. I was stuck in a cyclic, neurotic, self-sabotage. 

Shortly after volleyball began to slip, school did as well. I developed a chronic, stress-induced headache condition so excruciating that I would throw up or pass out every day. My grades slipped and my memory and cognition were shot to the point that I was assessed for post-concussive brain damage. I couldn’t even remember my home address for the intake forms at the appointment. A combination of anxiety, malnourishment, depression, fatigue, and overwhelming headache pain sent me into episodes of depersonalization and derealization. I would stay up for days on end engaging in bizarre, compulsive behavior with little to no recollection of it after the fact. For me, this typically looked like forgetting about all of my appointments and classes to wander around D.C., read medical literature, and train. I didn’t feel like a real person with real surroundings — I felt as though I was watching myself go about my life from outside of my body. Most notably, these episodes were marked by simultaneously feeling unusually content and being consumed by suicidal ideation. My brain was completely shutting down to protect me from my own self-torture. This scared me enough to finally pursue serious psychiatric help. Ultimately, my treatment team ordered an abrupt end to my first volleyball season. 

Stripped of my athletic identity, I was devastated. I had pushed friends and teammates away, my grades were horrendous, and I truly didn’t see an end to it all. My eating disorder and OCD had blinded me to what my body was screaming for all along: rest. As time away from volleyball proved that to be true, I carried tremendous guilt for behaving the way I did and allowing it to take me away from my teammates. I wanted to rectify the situation, but struggled to pull myself out of my disordered eating habits. As I spiraled into my most severe depressive episode, my doctors decided that I needed inpatient eating disorder treatment. I took a medical leave of absence from Georgetown and embarked on an incredibly difficult, three-month journey to restore my mind and body.

I was unable to make the return deadline for the fall 2020 semester and ended up having to extend my leave for a full year. That news initially shattered me, but I have grown to be grateful for the time away. Each day provides the chance to take back little pieces of my personality. I am learning to forgive myself for letting my eating disorder hijack my collegiate career. I now have my teammates, coaches, professors, and medical staff at Georgetown in my corner, as I fight to reclaim my mind and body. Slowly but surely, I am becoming the student-athlete I was recruited to be.

If I could go back to my freshman year preseason, I would tell my younger self to not lose sight of what brought me to Georgetown in the first place: my love for the game of volleyball. My entire season could have been salvaged had I shown myself more compassion. I didn’t need to run more, eat less, or put in a ton of extra hours; I simply needed to show up as healthy as possible to make the most of the hours I had.

Being a collegiate athlete is hard. However, you’re gifted a tremendous network of support when you commit to wearing your school’s name across your chest. Utilize those resources. My Georgetown athletic trainer, dietitian, psychologists, psychiatrist, and physician saved my life. If you ever find yourself in a position where you need to step away from school and sport to heal, know that there is no shame in that. Good teammates and coaches will not only accept, but embrace your decision to do so.

My depression, anxiety, OCD, and eating disorder are not going to go away over the course of this redshirt year. But, with the unwavering support of my team behind me, I will be a stronger student-athlete come fall 2021 —not despite my battle with my my mental health, but because of it. Please reach out for help if you need it. While difficult times are inevitable, at the end of the day, you are inherently deserving of joy in your sport. Bettering your mental health is never an easy road, but it is always worthwhile. Your happiness is worth fighting for.