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  • Writer's pictureJosh Oldridge

Athletes in dark places: Me

Okay, athlete is a strong word, but …

Ever since I can remember, I’ve played sport. Basically anything at all that gets the legs moving and the pulse rushing – right from running around the playground and cycling up to the next village every day to see mates from school, to wobbling over a few waves on a surfboard and university badminton. One ever-present has been football. While I’ve never been good enough to make it to semi-pro level, I’ve always squeezed in as much as I can; whether it be league matches, training, social kickabouts, or even just finding a nice wall and slamming a ball against it alone for twenty minutes. For years, I’d been playing football four or five times a week, almost without fail. I never had an injury until I was twenty-five. I didn’t realise how lucky I was.

On a sunny afternoon in August 2018 (this is a bit after I’d had and recovered from that first injury), I received a knock to the foot in a preseason friendly. It wasn’t the worst tackle ever, but it was far from the best. The referee blew for a freekick. My teammate put the ball down and wanted to restart quickly. But I knew straight away something was wrong with my foot. Something had happened to it in that tackle. I hobbled up to join our attackers to try to win the header from the freekick, but had to come off straight after. I took off my right boot straight away to alleviate the pressure on it and it actually seemed to improve quite quickly. I could almost run, and was about to come back on later in the second half, but decided I’d better not. Then, driving back from the match, it ballooned up, reddened, and the pain intensified. I swung into the hospital on my way home, where I was told it was a bruised foot and I’d have to rest it and refrain from any sport for three weeks. This was a bit of a blow – that was ten or fifteen sessions of football I’d miss. At least.

Six months later I kicked a football again. I’d been suspicious right away that it could’ve been a misdiagnosis. Sometimes I feel it’s my fault for not speaking up and explaining the pain I was having accurately enough. Three months after the incident, in November, I was referred for an MRI, where the doctors discovered I’d had a stress response in the top of my foot (very similar to a stress fracture often with just as lengthy a recovery time). Finally I got some proper physio treatment and started to play again in February this year … only for my ankle - weakened and underused - to sprain for almost no reason on just my third session. The tough ligament running around my ankle decided to shear a touch of bone off the end of my fibula as it did. It put me out for the remainder of the season. It almost cost me my degree.

Along with the bouts of pain and the physical difficulty of walking about ten flights of stairs to get into uni (if you’ve walked up to Penryn campus from Penryn itself, you know what I mean!), I started to really struggle to get motivated. When something you love and is such a massive part of your life is taken away from you, it’s only natural for this to happen. Also, because I wasn’t doing sport and wearing myself out, I couldn’t sleep. At first this was a lighthearted matter – sometimes I’d bump into one of my housemates as they arrived home from a night out and I’d hobbled downstairs to make a 2am cup of tea. But it quickly turned into a real problem. Nodding off at 7am was not uncommon. And what do you do for all that time while you wait for sleep to come? Yes, a little work and reading, but mostly, you think. Night after night I lay staring at the ceiling thinking. Hours and hours. I was not quite depressed – though sinister thoughts did try to creep in and ensnare me (but I have my own methods of staving them off and preventing them from manifesting into a real slump. If you’re down there, you will get out, and you will learn your own methods of keeping the real lows away in the future, too. I promise) – but I was far from happy. I missed a ton of lectures. It’s difficult not to when three hours of sleep constitutes a good night. I read up around insomnia during this period and have since, and am sure I had some version of it (possibly acute, possibly psychophysiological). It caused a vicious cycle of not being able to sleep, not being productive from not sleeping, trying to be productive but realising I was too tired to be, then laying in bed trying to sleep but only getting angrier and more anxious because I couldn’t.

Insomnia is more common that I first thought. A study by insurance firm Aviva found that over 30% of UK adults say they have some form of insomnia. And it doesn’t just mean trouble falling to sleep, as I thought previously. There are different types of insomnia covering more or less anything related to sleep troubles – waking up in the night, waking up too early, even trouble napping when tired. In a way I am proud to have struggled through six months of insomnia and still obtained my degree. But I shouldn’t have. I should’ve asked for help earlier. This is the main reason for me sharing my troubles with insomnia and its affects: if you think you may be suffering, it’s very possible you are. Help is available. GPs don’t as readily prescribe sleeping pills anymore, but finding the root of the problem is something they can help with and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is an option. Don’t let it get you down. Sleep well. It's important.

This article has some surprising stats on insomnia in the USA as well as some tips on keeping well rested-up. I like their motto and completely agree with it: Better sleep = better life:

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