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The turning point: How I learned to listen to my pain

When Alexi Pappas felt pain, she ignored it. Till finally, she couldn’t.

Oct 8, 2021 UPDATED

Denying pain has been a pattern in my life. 

When I was little, in the final months before my mother took her own life after battling bipolar disorder, my role in the house was to be silent. I couldn’t cry or ask for things like a normal four-year-old, lest I trigger more chaos in our household. It was much safer to just be fine

This habit followed me throughout my life. 

As a distance runner training for the Olympics, ignoring physical pain was par for the course. Then, after the Rio Olympics, when I plummeted into a deep depression, I refused to admit I was in pain. Post-Olympic depression is fairly common among athletes after the high of the games, but I just couldn’t admit that I was hurting.

At my lowest point after the Olympics, I was barely sleeping. 

Eventually, I seriously injured my hamstring, running 120 miles a week of an average of an hour of sleep per night. When it got so bad I could no longer deny it, I reported my painful symptoms to every coach and physio I interacted with, but the answers I got were all the same: that I was out of shape, that my leg was just weak, and once I regained my fitness my body would be fine. 

But there are consequences to denying pain.

This type of pain-denial response is very common amongst the support network that buttresses elite athletes. Nobody wants to tell an Olympian they’re injured; injury means failure. The result is that we convince ourselves that pain is not pain; it’s nothing we can’t handle if we’re tough enough. I know so many athletes who flip this switch in their mind, essentially self-gaslighting and denying their own reality. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a woman with brown hair holding her hand over her face.

But there are consequences to denying pain. In fact, the worst thing an athlete can do when they’re injured is to pretend like everything is fine. Training and competing through an injury always exacerbates it, and often leads to more injuries. 

It took literally years of one injury after another, and a diagnosis from a doctor—one who came from outside the world of distance running—for me to finally accept my hamstring was injured and required surgery. 

My MRIs revealed that my hamstring was actually more torn than Usain Bolt’s was when he medically retired (Bolt shared his MRI on social media), and when the surgeon opened up my leg, he was shocked that I was even able to walk, let alone run 100+ miles weeks up until the week of the procedure. 

After surgery, I took the break I never allowed myself to take. No cross-training, just rest and healing. And now, several months later, I am running pain-free for the first time since 2016. 

If we truly want to be healthy as athletes and as human beings, we must never allow anyone to deny our pain—especially not ourselves.

But I am not free of my shame. 

I kept my surgery a secret until now. I wrote about some of the darkest secrets of my depression and family history in my book, and yet, even after writing Bravey, I still didn’t feel safe sharing news about my surgery with the world. I was ashamed.

But then I remembered the lessons I learned during my therapy for my post-Olympic depression. When I was depressed, I avoided seeking help until my father insisted. He saw what happened to my mom and he was determined that I would get the help she never got. It was in therapy that I stopped thinking of pain as something to deny or hide, but something to listen to and learn from—and most importantly, something I could not fix alone.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of Alexi Pappas wearing a black sports bra with her hair in a bun.

My experience has taught me that though they’re extremely human experiences, shame and denial are not conducive to health and happiness. If we truly want to be healthy as athletes and as human beings, we must never allow anyone to deny our pain—especially not ourselves. If your body is in pain, you might have a physical injury and you need to see a doctor to stay healthy. If your mind or heart is in pain, you might have a mental health injury, and you need to see a therapist so that you can stay healthy. 

And just as regular training is important to the body, keeping your mind healthy so you can combat shame is an ongoing process. It sounds obvious, but so many of us—myself included—forget this simple truth. 

Sometimes, part of life is learning new things and sometimes it’s understanding what you already knew.

Article originally published Oct 6, 2021. Updated Oct 8, 2021.

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