YOU ARE NOT WEAK, YOU ARE HUMAN

Written by Dylan Wolfe
06/28/20

Generally, I feel like I can’t consider myself an athlete anymore. And as self-deprecating as that sounds, I’m really as washed up as they come. I can barely run a 10-minute mile without feeling like my lungs are bleeding. If someone ever brings up soccer, I always talk about how good I was, and how great I could have been. I always catch myself getting a little embarrassed about how bitter I am about it. It’s something I’m working on. Writing this has helped me realize the silver linings of career ending injuries and how important taking care of your mental health is as an athlete. A big thank you to Steven Christie, for giving me this platform, and being a great friend. Here’s my story.


------

My mom put me in a rec soccer league at First Baptist Church when I was four and apparently I had a knack for it. Sources say that I was the lone hero to emerge from the collective swarm of toddlers and would somehow manage to score a goal. My mom was the coach, so you can imagine how proud she was of me. I dabbled in other sports as I grew up, but I knew it was always going to be soccer for me.

 
 

I joined a soccer club, Dynamo FC, to see if I could really take the game seriously, and by the age of 13, my all time favorite coach Jimmy Carson, was the first to tell me I had the talent to play Division I soccer someday. To be completely honest, it was the first time I really had the faith in myself to pursue a big dream like that. So I hustled.


I had no real set goal on where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do for college, but all I knew is that I wanted to play soccer. By my junior year of high school I had quite a few offers on the table, primarily from schools in the Midwest, but I didn’t really know if I was meant to stay in Naptown or Naptown adjacent for my formative college years. I sought out the east coast. I missed my junior prom to go to an ID clinic at Princeton and no, it didn’t work out.


In the summer going into my senior year at North Central High School, I finally committed to play soccer at American University in Washington, DC. I was so excited to not only be in a new city, but to be able to play soccer at a high level. I was always told to commit to a school that I could see myself at without soccer, and AU just felt right.

 
 

Throughout high school, when I wasn’t playing club soccer, I was playing for the high school team at North Central. NC soccer is not only where I learned how to be confident in my play, but it also taught me what type of camaraderie I wanted at my future university. Nothing would pump me up more than to score a goal on the end of the field where all my friends would cheer me on from the “Senior Couch” (a historically ratty Goodwill couch where North Central soccer hecklers resided). That shit was my bread and butter. Not only did the fans make the experience worthwhile, but the team itself did too. The sisterhood that came with being a North Central Women’s Soccer player is what made me want to pursue a collegiate career even more.


I felt like the luckiest girl on earth to know exactly where I was going and what I was doing for college while everyone was scrambling over the Common App. I didn’t have to stress about soccer anymore, and I could finally enjoy the beauty of the game without hoping someone important was watching. I was committed. I was cruising for my senior year. Or so I thought.

 
 

-----

It was our Senior Night, a beautiful night in early September where I, and the other 10 seniors, would be recognized with a ceremony, banners, signs, and even a cake for our participation in the NC women’s soccer program. It was the most anticipated event of my high school soccer career. Everyone I ever loved was in the stands (and on the Senior Couch) that night, and the contentment I felt in that moment was pure bliss. We were playing against Center Grove, and the whistle blew.


Five, seriously, FIVE minutes into the game, I got bodied off the ball and tore my ACL. Just like that. I don’t remember the pain much, but I do remember the silence of the crowd being louder than the sounds of my own screams. I cried the whole night, obviously. I called my coach at American and broke the news.


Before then, the most I had ever injured myself was a broken finger and a sprained ankle, so I was way out of my league here. But everyone tears their ACL in soccer, right? So I figured I would be okay and have no trouble returning to play by the time college preseason hit. 


Oh god I had no idea what was about to come. 


I went in to do the routine ACL surgery, and I was pretty optimistic. I had heard of so many of my peers and professionals coming back from ACL reconstructions. It was gonna suck but it was gonna be doable. I went under for the first time in my life, and woke up on the other side in a lot of pain, but nothing insane. I slept on the couch that night, watched a lot of Supernatural, and hoped the next day would be better. My surgeon wasn’t into prescribing opioids to minors, so I was taking glorified Tylenol for pain management, which I knew was better for me in the long run. Surgery #1.


About a week into recovery, I still hadn’t stopped bleeding and I started to get concerned. Pools of blood were seeping through my bandages and it seemed my swelling was just getting worse. My incisions weren’t healing and I was in a lot of pain, but I had no other pain to compare it to. This was the worst pain I had ever been in, how was I supposed to know if something was extremely wrong?


I went back to my surgeon for my routine post-op check up. He didn’t like the way it looked either. He thought I was beginning to get an infection. The tissue surrounding my incisions weren’t healing so I needed to go under again for a washout so that I could get re-stitched. Surgery #2.


Another week passed, and my swelling was still horrible. Blood and *graphic warning* puss was literally flowing out of other incisions now, and all my mom and I could do was keep wrapping more gauze on my knee. I went back to my surgeon, and the infection had gotten worse. I needed another surgical washout of my joint. This meant removing all of the contaminated soft-tissues in my knee that may have been affected by my infection. Surgery #3.

 
 

I woke up with a wound VAC on my knee because all of the surrounding tissue on my leg was necrotic. I needed this device to assist the closure of my now expanded and pretty deep wound. I seriously don’t know how to describe the science behind a wound VAC, but just imagine a tube hooked up to my leg that was attached to a little portable bag that sucked up all the nastiness and kept my wound sterile. And made super loud noises all of the time. And it was really uncomfortable.


None of the oral antibiotics were fighting my infection fast enough, and I had to start going almost daily to the Infectious Disease Center to get my antibiotics administered by IV. My leg was so swollen and in so much pain from all of the washouts that I resorted to a wheelchair, which was a big blow to my ego.


After two more weeks, I still wasn’t feeling better. We checked in with my surgeon again and he was worried. I was due for another washout, and stronger antibiotics. Surgery #4. I was immediately shipped to the Children’s Hospital, and waited in my Indy 500 themed hospital room from 9AM until 9PM for an open operating room. The pain after this washout was indescribable. In the morning they put a PICC line in my arm, a semi-permanent catheter IV that led straight to my heart. I needed stronger antibiotics. They taught my mom how to administer my antibiotics at home.

 
 

Showering was the hardest. I could only bear showering once a week because stairs were impossible. I made-do with baby wipes until I got my strength up. When I finally did get upstairs for a shower, my mom seran wrapped my knee, wound VAC, and PICC line so they wouldn’t get wet. My mom (God bless her) found a folding chair for a toddler and put it in the shower so I could sit while she showered me. 


My body seemed like it was rejecting everything. I sweat through my blankets twice every night. I cried a lot. After Surgery #4, I was either at OrthoIndy, Infectious Disease, getting IV drip, or getting my wound VAC dressing changed every day for at least two months. 


I started to not look like myself. The most I could bear to eat was a piece of toast, and by the beginning of November I had lost close to 30 pounds. All of the muscle I had gained over my soccer career was gone. 


I went back to school for the first time in over a month, and still was wheelchair bound. By Christmas, the wound VAC finally came out, and I could get back on track for preseason. Throughout all of this, people always said to me “Wow Dylan, good for you, you are so strong, so brave, etc.” 

 
 

I really was so grateful that the situation didn’t get worse than it did. I was hopeful that I would still have a shot at a collegiate career. Of course I felt sorry for myself, but in the back of my head I was gassing myself up for the sickest athletic comeback in history. I had SO much hope for the future and I was overall in good spirits. But this was when I began to struggle with my mental health, and primarily, my relationship with food. 


For the next 8 months, I was a monster. I rehabbed and lifted and ran and did everything I could so that come August 1, I would be passing that fitness test at American. Muscle-wise, I was beginning to look like an athlete again. Food, to me, was fuel. And that was my only relationship with it. If the food I was eating wasn’t making me stronger or faster, the guilt I would feel would be immense. Despite all of it, I got cleared that following June to play soccer again, which was all I wanted.


-----

I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be some crazy, amazing, emotional comeback story where I tell you how many goals I scored after overcoming all of these trials, where I tell you I carried American University Women’s Soccer to the Patriot League Championship, where I tell you I fought through the pain and had the most rewarding Division 1 experience. This is none of that. 


I got to AU, and by some crazy twist of fate I passed the Man U run-test (by the end of it I had quite literally pissed my pants from exhaustion). My knee was in incredible pain from two-a days. I rehabbed my knee in between sessions. I popped Advil religiously, struggled with stairs, and kept questioning my abilities as an athlete. But honestly, I thought this was the pain I was supposed to feel coming back from an ACL surgery (and 3 washouts?). I just really had nothing to compare it to.


I played in three collegiate non-conference games, but something still felt wrong. I asked for an MRI, and what I feared was true. The ACL literally was dissolved by the infection. The only reason my knee was stable was from the scar tissue holding it together. Internally, my bones were just sliding around and smashing into each other. No wonder it hurt! It was already time for my second ACL reconstruction. Bring on surgery #5. I was nearing a mental breakdown.


I can’t begin to describe how absurd the collegiate surgery recovery process is, but I could write a whole second piece about that. Long story short, I was getting pushed to return to play in 5 months (9 months to a year is usually recommended??). Five other girls on my team were ALSO coming back from ACL reconstructions at the same time as me (Concerning, no?). If it weren’t for them, I probably would have given up completely. 


We made the most out of our situation, and compensated with horrible, dark humor, that only the “hab gals” would understand. My best friend, teammate, and soul sister, Dara and I had our ACL surgeries one month apart. We scheduled our rehab together and our locker room mental breakdowns together. We laughed, cried, and cried some more through our 3 hour long sessions in that godforsaken training room. Misery really did love company. But the relationship I built with her is one of the most special things I gained from the whole experience, and recovering together and knowing someone really knew how I felt, was what made the whole experience somewhat bearable. Dara was the first real friend I made at American, and she will be my best friend for life. 


Despite my horrible mental state, I was getting through it because of my teammates and that sliver of hope of having a redeeming soccer career in the near future. I put my head down and blindly obeyed my trainers and coaches in the recovery process. I let them ignore me when I told them I was in pain. 4 months post-op I was integrated into non-contact practice. I felt stronger than ever and was ripping shots upper 90 like it was riding a bike. I was also lifting more than I ever had in my life. Too much it seemed. 


At 5 months post-op, I was instructed to max out my back squat in off-season lift. I couldn’t get back up. In a panic, I shot back up, hyperextended my knee to the side with all of the weight under me. Pop. ACL torn again.

 
 

---

It was at this moment that my life began to hit a turning point. I was wondering if my body could really take this anymore. That summer I consulted with multiple doctors, all saying that the damage in my knee from my past 5 surgeries would be too much to play collegiate soccer. I had no cartilage left in my knee, and was suffering from osteoarthritis at the age of 19. It was at that moment I realized I had to hang up my boots for good, or get a knee replacement at 25.


In this mourning period of the loss of the love of my life, soccer, I also lost a part of myself that started to take physical form. I didn’t know how to have a relationship with my body as a NARP (non-athletic regular person as we say at AU). I began to battle an eating disorder that consumed my life. I began to distance myself from a lot of teammates and friends. I was in an unending cycle of weight gain and weight loss. I was depressed, and found unhealthy ways to cope with this loss. I was able to stay on the team as a manager, but struggled deeply with the daily reminder that I could never reach the potential that I thought I could. Throughout the rest of my career at American, I was able to put on a happy face, and cheer my sisters on from the sideline or film booth. 


The one thing I needed most, however, was therapy. And it took me four years to admit it to myself. As athletes, we often have the mindset that everything we face, must be faced without weakness. When it came down to dealing with my eating disorder I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t come to talk about it with anyone else-- not my friends not my family not my coaches. It wasn’t until I talked to Carly Perry, an AU Women’s Soccer Alum pursuing a PHD in Sports Psychology, that I realized I wasn’t alone at all. For me, this “food for fuel” mindset is what I struggled with the most as an athlete. After I retired, I had nothing to fuel for, and I deemed my body worthless because I could no longer perform for my program.


What we really lack as athletes, and honestly as Americans, is the proper access to reliable mental health resources. At AU it was lacking in the Athletic Department and the University as a whole. It took me a whole year after my final ACL tear to muster up the courage to go to the AU counseling center. I was afraid someone I knew would see me, or worse, ask me what I was doing there. It took every ounce of me to go to that appointment, to only be referred to a “specialist” far outside of my realm of transportation, and outside of my insurance network. I gave up on myself. 


College athletes are perfection seekers. I would hear remarks echoing through the locker room of my own teammates struggling with eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphia, and crippling anxiety. For a lot of collegiate athletes, whether male or female, there’s a feeling of expendability— that we are merely assets that can be thrown aside if we don't perform to a certain expectation. Showing any sign of weakness meant that you could lose that starting spot. 


Getting the flu, mono, and strep, are all excusable illnesses when it comes to taking a day or seven off to rest. However, there’s no leeway for an illness that can’t be seen on the exterior. There’s no leeway when you are so anxious that you can’t focus on your next step let alone ground yourself long enough to make a play. There’s no leeway when you’re so depressed that it takes every ounce of your strength to get up and get to the locker room on time. There’s no leeway when your addictions prevent you from showing up to practice at all.


But the main thing I want to say is this: everyone has mental health. There is still HUGE amounts of stigma surrounding mental illness. We will all face stressors in our life outside of our control that will impact our mental health, athlete or not. Ask your teammates how they are-- and then how they really are, just so they know that you see them.


My story isn’t one of triumph, it's one of clarity. Even though soccer has been rooted in my identity for my whole life, I wish I had realized earlier that I, Dylan Wolfe, have value without soccer too. I am more than my athletic ability. My sport made me wiser, gave me mental toughness, inspired my drive, made me a better leader, and a better friend. After realizing this I have been able to accept my injuries, make peace with the loss of soccer, appreciate the game from afar, and promote my own mental health along the way.


I hope one athlete, or one aspiring athlete, can read this, and know that they are not alone. Lean on your support team, know that your feelings are valid, and seek help if you need it. You don’t have to be perfect. You are not weak, you are human. 

 
 
LOGO%252520FINAL_edited_edited_edited.pn
 
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter

©2020 by Naptown's Notorious