Lady Army

The soccer pitch has always been a safe space for me. I have been privileged to play the beautiful game for over 35 years. Despite the occasional distant scent of skunk, the green grass and humidity of the summer has always given me a lot of happiness. Sprinting down the sidelines as my heart is thumping in my chest, breathing heavily but charging forward to anticipate a pass or striking to finish a shot is an incredible feeling! I am an intense player, but the nature of my sport has always provided me with a place to centre myself. I have battled depression and I still struggle with anxiety, though my teammates have been diligently helping me manage.

For years I watched public figures speak about their own struggles and how they coped, but I never could admit my own! I watched incredible athletes explain how they managed their own conditions, and I quietly absorbed their journeys. I remember reading about Silken’s struggles with depression and anorexia in Maclean’s magazine in 2014. I was shocked to learn that one of my heroes was not immune to mental health issues. Silken has always been one of my favourite athletes. She has amazing physical strength, an indomitable spirit, and her smile is contagious and sincere. But she is also, apparently, very human. I read Unsinkable in one day.

I couldn’t put it down. If one of the strongest women I had ever heard of was struggling, maybe it wasn’t such a reach that I could be, too.

This realization came a mere two years after I began to face that my marriage was crumbling and I was dealing with a lot of emotional trauma. I had lost about 20 pounds and was existing on coffee and hope. When I wasn’t constantly stressed out and panicking, I cried a lot and I prayed a lot. I had four young children and was doing my utmost to stay positive and productive for them. Initially, I only told a handful of people about my depression: my doctor (who was excellent and did not disregard my feelings or my experience), two of my closest friends, a teammate and my Mom. At the time, I was working as a Settlement Counselor at an agency in Toronto and due to the circumstances of my personal life, I had to leave my job. In addition to no longer having a job that I loved and was good at, it meant I also lost an incredible array of co-workers (some of whom are still dear friends) and a support system. I felt unstable, anxious and very sad.

Luckily, I had some armour to battle my own demons: my soccer team. I enjoyed their company, appreciated their concern, and was grateful for their friendship. I am the only person of colour and the only Muslim on my team, and I choose to wear a hijab (a headscarf that covers my face and neck) when I play. I stick out on the pitch but never once have I felt isolated or excluded from any event or situation on the field. If anything, playing soccer with incredible women makes me feel like a part of something bigger and greater than myself. Although I am extremely proud of my identity, there is something undeniably wonderful about being part of a cohesive unit

One very cold evening in the fall after a match, I remember trembling outside the soccer facility in Oakville, Ontario. I was having a panic attack. My friend came up to me and asked if I was OK. I told her what was happening with me. She held my arm and said she “knew something was up”. I confided in her about my mental health struggles and she was wonderfully supportive. She helped me steady my breathing. She stood with me for a long time. She also struggled with depression and said she understood what it felt like to spiral. She advised me to take it one day at a time – one hour at a time – if I needed to. That is what I did. A couple of years ago, when my marriage finally came to an end, the first people I told, other than my immediate and chosen family, were my teammates. I was still reeling with shock but the decision to end it was important.

That evening, I went to play a game. It may sound bizarre that while an almost-19 year relationship was ending, I went to go play soccer. But I desperately needed it. And those who cared about me understood.

After the match, I told my team what was happening. Coincidentally, we had planned to go out for our seasonal get-together. My dear friend and our fantastic goalkeeper put her arm around me and said, “We are going to feed you snacks and listen. And we love you.” I have been fortunate to have teammates that text me to check in, who message me and ask how I and my family are doing. Their check-ins are important because they prove that I have women I can rely on. Another one of the forwards is an incredibly considerate person and she checked up on me regularly. She also happens to be on staff at my daughter’s school and would keep a watchful eye on her. That meant a lot. She also would yell at me if I didn’t cross the ball in a timely manner, and remind me to run faster and be more effective during the match, but although she challenged me as a player, she supported me unconditionally as a friend. To say I am forever grateful to these women for giving me a gateway to recovery, happiness and stability is an understatement. When we finish a goal or complete a smart play, I am so proud. When we all sit around and strategize during half-time, I focus on this and am able to let whatever is plaguing me be shelved. I can revel in the ecstasy of an endorphin-high and congratulate myself for playing 90 minutes. After every match, I feel proud that I am able to keep up and am hopefully still contributing. I take the small joys and hold them close.

I try to handle my mental health the best way I can, with honesty and without shame. Although I was diagnosed in 2009, I did not ever publicly admit that I had anxiety or experienced depression until 2017 when I sat on a panel at a student journalism conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was extremely liberating to say it out loud. I was seated beside two women (Jan Wong and Sarah Ratchford) and a non-binary person (Lee Thomas) who became different kind of teammates for me. As we talked, we realized we shared similar experiences with a disproportionate amount of online abuse that we receive as journalists. I won’t forget that moment because it made me feel less alone, and although I knew that everyone’s struggle with mental health is different, there was camaraderie on that stage. A similar type that I get to feel every week when I play.

Mental illnesses are not like other afflictions where there are visible symptoms. Because society so often uses ableist and unkind language around issues of mental health, we are preconditioned to think that anxiety or depression are for weak people. We are told that that feeling overwhelmed shouldn’t be frustrating, and that we can “push through.” I tried to push through for a very long time and it didn’t work. As athletes, weakness is the antithesis of how we want to be known. I was afraid that admitting my condition would render me a failure. And my anxiety made me imagine the worst. What would people say? How could I not just keep it together? So many people have a lot on their plate and don’t have anxiety, why was I depressed? Was I not thankful for all my blessings? I really struggled with this in 2014 when I tore my Anterior Cruciate Ligament. My teammates carried me off the pitch and stayed with me, consoling me. I was in pain and I was panicking immediately. In addition to being injured, I was very cognizant that soccer might be out of my reach. What would happen to me? I needed those 90 mins in my life. Those plays, that ball, that euphoria upon scoring was so crucial to my wellness. The thought of not having it made my chest tighten and my shoulders tense up.

I was so stressed about how I was going to manage anything when my outlet, my soccer, was not possible. My physician was very competent, empathetic and really heard me. We devised a plan for pre-surgery, and a post-surgical plan that included goals at different intervals of my rehab and physiotherapy. I was so focused on getting back to soccer, that I didn’t realize that the process was part of my healing as well. I was back at it six months later and feeling good about it.

As a sportswriter, I was relieved to read Silken’s book and her honesty around her own journey. In fact, on the sports podcast I co-host, “Burn It All Down”, we had a segment on Episode 23 in October 2017 for mental health awareness week and I spoke about Silken Laumann and what she meant to me, what her words did for me. Being able to talk openly about my anxiety gave me a strength I didn’t know I had.

In the summer of 2018, I was returning from a trip and as I stood in line for Canadian Customs, I looked back and saw my she-ro standing there. I was so excited and all I could say was “I love you!” and “Thank you!” I tweeted Silken a few hours later and thus began a correspondence and my participation in the Unsinkable project. I hope that I might be able to offer some ideas and support to other people out there. I hope for them to hear that they are loved and heard: that they are not alone.

I am at a point where I can speak about my anxiety and therapy with my kids, my co-workers, and now have a wonderfully supportive partner who helps me strive to be a better person, but who also understands that managing my mental health is something he can help with. He always encourages me to play soccer and emphasizes the importance of things like self-care and spiritual fulfilment from praying. Being taken care of emotionally is also something that I am relishing.

My soccer life is another part of my identity, and I reap the rewards of having supportive teammates. They aren’t a complicated family with drama. We get together, we plan, we run and we enjoy each other’s company. For me, it is exactly what was required!

This year marks my seventh year with this squad. Some of the players have joined more recently. Some of the players left due to pregnancy. Two were diagnosed with breast cancer, a few moved away, and because we are all aging powerfully, there are some injuries. But this is a group of women dedicated to the two hours in which we play, we sweat, we celebrate, we lament, we laugh, and we inadvertently support each other in many ways. I know that I have benefitted from this group of women. In fact, during that summer season in 2012, I believe that this team was the reason I didn’t spiral into a very severe depression. Just knowing that I had a group of women who did not judge me, blame me (except when my shots went way too wide) and encouraged me constantly, was a validation and a lift that I needed. I did not use medication during that period but drank a lot of St. John’s Wort tea. I also went to the gym regularly and used therapy (I still do) to manage. I am very cognizant that these are resources that a lot of people do not have access to. Physical activity has always been a lifeline for me. In this particular case, it was even more important for me to do what I was good at, especially when I was feeling so low. I also pray regularly and that spiritual connection is so important in my life. I need to strengthen that and keep myself focused on being grateful while acknowledging that I have work to do.

Playing soccer helped me manage everything. Some of the bonds created with this team are very important in my life. We don’t always see each other socially but we are friends on Facebook and Instagram. Usually after the summer matches, will sit in the parking lot to reflect on the game and share news about our lives. They drink beer and I have my Perrier. And I know that there are a group of women that would help me if I needed them. Much like how they support me on the field. That’s why they are part of my Lady Army, a term for the phenomenal women in my life I am blessed to know.

I continue to play with this team, almost 12 months of the year. After the summer season ends in late September, we begin our indoor season. We lose some players to hockey but essentially there is a consistent group of us. These women are a constant in my life. They probably don’t even understand what they have meant to me, and sharing my vulnerability and my challenges is invaluable. And because of my connection to this sport, and with these women, I consider myself the luckiest soccer player alive.