To understand someone, you have to see yourself—some part of you in them.
~Steinbeck, East of Eden
I had an experience today that gave me pause. Thinking about it now, I wonder, “Did that really happen?”
I got a phone call at work. The woman on the other end of the line said she was calling from Canada and that she had some questions about iron deficiency in athletes. She introduced herself as a “high-performance athlete” and someone who works with elite athletes. “Do you have a few minutes?” she wanted to know. I am really glad that I took the time to talk to her. She started off by asking about the results of some recent blood work testing her iron status. She wanted to know what the numbers meant and how much she needed to improve before she could resume training. She called me because I am an “expert” in iron deficiency in athletes. But as the details of her story emerged, it became apparent that she was really asking something different—something much more important. Fortunately for both of us, I had an answer to her question: Is there hope?
I’m sure most of us, by the time we’re middle-aged, look back on our past with some regret and wish we’d made different choices. There are times I wish I hadn’t let an apparent strength—the ability to suffer—take on a life of its own and become a paralyzing weakness. I feel guilty for the “wasted” time and for what I’ve done to my health. I cannot ignore the consequences. But, not all of those consequences are negative. Today, because of my experience, I was able to offer empathy and hope to another human being.
In bits and pieces this woman’s story came out. She’d been training for inline skating—doing structured workouts—from the age of 15. Everything had been written down by her coach on a piece of paper for her to follow. She has won numerous Canadian national titles. She is a world champion and world-record holder. People were jealous of her success—they wanted to be her.
But, as she put it to me today, “People have no idea.” She has been hospitalized for eating disorders. She has had too many concussions to count. Last year, after fracturing her skull, she decided it was time to retire at age 31. Her body was breaking down and she needed to get healthy. Today, she is unemployed and on the verge of becoming homeless. No doctor will take her as patient; her case is “too complex.” She’s terrified of no longer being a world-class athlete, even though she knows it was killing her. The idea of doing something for herself—making choices based on her long-term health and happiness is completely foreign and scary. It is something she has never done. I no longer live in that terror, but I remember. Most people will never understand how resting, eating, or simply being alive can take more discipline and determination than suffering through a hard workout or willing yourself into the “pain cave.” But, I do. And, I know that eventually what seems impossible for this woman now will become more possible, then doable, and maybe, someday, natural.
At one point in our conversation, she started to cry. This woman who has accomplished so much made a simple statement that was really a question, “I don’t know if I can do it.” My answer to her: “You can.” I told her that it will not be easy. To say otherwise would be a lie. The transition from “athlete” to “human being” is really hard. In some ways being a machine seems so much simpler. But, machines eventually break down beyond repair. Human beings are mortal, but we have the opportunity to make a difference by sharing a moment of grace.
Like it or not, each of us has a story. There are days I wish I’d followed a different storyline. Today was not one of those days.