I have something to prove.
I’m inviting this letter to myself because I can’t hold that which I need to write. It takes years of combing through pain in a path’s past, present, and future to understand that resurfacing and reshaping it is often more painful than the initial wound. Sharon Salzberg says that “The healing is in the return … not in not getting lost in the beginning.”
In June 2021, I crouched down on the asphalt with my Molten basketball (my favourite type of basketball) and looked up at the meshless, rust dusted rim. I’ve always loved the way the yellow leather forms loops around the orange ball. I was about to play basketball for the first time since March 2020, when I took off my Stanford uniform for the last time. I knew I had buried basketball at that moment. I was desperate to get away from it, and I feared unpacking why.
As the warm June breeze whipped around my curls, I felt lost, afraid, uncertain, bare, angry, alone, and confused. I tucked the stray curls into my bun the way I always did for practice or games. My hands twisted my laces into familiar loops. I started dribbling the ball close to the court with just the strength in my fingertips. It was all still here. I loved this game. Why had I given up on it so easily?
It occurred to me, then, that the bravest thing I could do is choose to return, and prove that I could despite my past. This time, the pillar that would make me brave would be grit — I could only make this choice if I was doing it for myself. The question became: why would I do this for myself?
Over the past two years, I’ve done everything except play basketball. I sprinted towards work and writing opportunities to escape the fact that athletic retirement feels like I cheated on my math test. I fell back on writing, which I do genuinely love. I wrote blogs, poetry, academic neuroscience and sports psychology research, news, op-eds, and features for a variety of platforms and organizations. I even wrote and published a science-fiction novel, good God. Still, my thoughts always tumbled back to: I was a good athlete. Maybe even a great athlete. I played for Stanford University (which won the National Championship for Women’s Basketball in 2021) and Team Canada. I was told I had Olympic potential. So what stopped me, dead in my tracks? Basketball, unfortunately, wasn’t a bandaid, or even a balm.
I’ve had this deep, harrowing, haunting ache since I was young. Depression. I’m still frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t control its rapid evolution as I got older. It relentlessly burrowed further into me, dulling, weakening, and emptying my soul. In 2017, my freshman winter at Stanford, suicide felt more reassuring than life. I quickly found myself in the hospital, on a 5150 hold.
In the weeks leading up to that moment, I had wandered numbly every night, to the beat of the last plan I ever intended to make. When I was released from the hospital, and my thoughts were slightly more clear, I accepted that my life as I knew it was over, the height of which was my basketball career. To avoid pain, I ran (sprinted) from the part of me that was a hooper.
Regardless of whether or not it was said, I still feel the weight of “it’s a shame that she didn’t accomplish what she set out to do.” I allowed myself to believe that my brain didn’t work anymore. And I let many people ‘inform’ me that I was now incapable. I accepted that I wasn’t me anymore.
On the surface, I know what the words “be better than you were yesterday” mean. Yet, like anything, the perspective from the surface is limited by the iceberg that strikes the vessel, in contrast with the velvety, thick, and opaque water.
Being better is a bit arbitrary. When we strive to be better, rather than grow, we blind ourselves to how the past is very much a living part of our mind, body, and spirit. Though we only have one current self, our former selves are beneath the water, lifting us. This doesn’t make them inferior. In my case, one specific former self scares the hell out of me. I forced her under the weighted waves simply because I didn’t believe she could breathe the toxic air anymore. I believed that the passage of time deemed me better than her. Perhaps I wanted to spare her. Perhaps I wanted to swallow all that air so that she didn’t have to breathe it in.
I knew this was coming — the fork in the drive that I’ve been fumbling, falling, and failing toward for about 5 years now. I didn’t know how I was going to navigate it until I realized how tightly wound subsections of my life were. Now, I’m tearing down my house of experiences, and reconnecting recycled bricks into a path forward. It’s interesting which bricks fit seamlessly with others.
As basketball wasn’t and isn’t a bandaid, neither is writing. Did I ever think that being an author and a hooper — two drastically different pieces of my identity — were connected? Not one iota. But here we are.
I set out with a few questions:
Q: Who is this former self? Who am I so afraid of and for?
A: She was young, and possibly a bit naive, but she was fearless, strong, confident, and assertive. She was the part of me who was a fucking baller. Where did she go?
Q: Why am I so drawn to writing now?
A: I found answers where I didn’t expect to. Confidence, fearlessness, strength, and assertiveness have always been there in my writing. During the four years at Stanford when I felt disconnected from basketball, I wrote. And wrote. My former self, who I’m so afraid of, learned to breathe under the water — the surface of my page. She streams into my pen now, instead of the court. She didn’t drown. She is me.
I needed to keep writing to figure out who I was without her as much as I needed to write to understand who I was with her. Writing has allowed me to return to and sculpt my relationship with basketball. Skill only goes so far. Writing a book allowed me to see the things that basketball didn’t give me. Writing a fiction book allowed me to go places that a memoir can’t go. Though basketball might have been a highlighter, I saw the things that I had all along. The interesting piece of this is that when mental illness gripped my very existence, I never lost my ability to shoot or dribble. Most things are 90% mental. I allowed that part of me to be sucked under the current.
I’m not proud of my effort. I was in pain, and perhaps not in the right place — physically or mentally — to try again. Mental illness changed me. In what way, though, is a conversation I avoided. In truth, I didn’t want to know. Trying again and finding out that some things were beyond repair was scarier than not trying at all. It isn’t now.
By this point, I had grown with basketball for ten or so years. I didn’t know who I was without it. So, recently, I took a few steps back.
When we start out in anything, we feel like we’re alone. We feel like we’re learning to fly without wings. Then, we stumble across something or someone who is just like us. They become our wings. We become theirs. And so, we need each other to fly — physically, mentally, and emotionally. We complement each other, highlighting each other’s character, and make it easier to be confident. We become more of ourselves.
Over the years, we believe we’re nothing without the other. In reality, we’ve grown so much with each other that we’re ready to fly on our own. We need to, to grow.
But parting doesn’t mean that the strength of the connection is gone. Our ability to lift each other and illuminate each other’s qualities isn’t lost. We just don’t need each other to be okay, which makes us stronger together than we’ve ever been before.
That, truly, is how I feel about basketball.
These feelings tumbled into the fiction backbone of my book because the root of this strength is vivid, unobstructed memory. It is the most valuable currency across the toll bridge between the past and present. I’ve wondered how many stories exist inside me, where the main character is a former self who needs to be heard. Importantly, these stories are most valuable when they are finished. I know mine isn’t finished. And what if? What if someone needs my story next, to learn how to fly on their own first before returning to something they love?
I know some people will call me crazy. But I’m not dreaming about the glory days. I’m taking a hard look at the past, and choosing to finish a story.
I might fail. I’m fully aware that there are ways in which I struggle differently now. I need to pay attention in different ways. But I’m okay with failing. I’ll be okay if I try to compete and find out that I truly can’t anymore.
What I’m not okay with is not trying. I’m not okay with the way I gave up. I refuse to share my novel with the world, but then not share my former self, who wrote it.
I’m not doing this to prove anything. I’m doing this to prove that I didn’t lose a piece of myself when I went into the hospital that day. I’ve just got to teach her to breathe on land again. I’m going to find out if she can, for myself.
We become the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve been telling myself the wrong story and avoiding listening to the right one for years. I have my own wings now, which means that I’m better equipped to ride on basketball’s wings again.
I’m re-entering something that terrifies me. But this is simply the next loop in my path — beginning, curving, and crossing itself with more velocity, endurance, and patience than before. Basketball changed in my absence. I changed in its absence. Maybe we can change each other again.
Back in June, I spent a long time running my fingers over the yellow loops on the basketball. The last time I held a basketball, my fingers were rough, worn, and padded by callouses. I smiled. I could feel more of the grooves and stipples in the leather now because my fingers were smooth. They’d healed. I stood, walked over to the net, and took a shot — my first shot in 15 months. It went in.