Transitions can be hard. All of us go through many uncharted periods during our lifetime whether it is going to college; changing a career; becoming a parent; caring for parents; enduring a breakup or grieving the loss of a loved one. These life shifts are unavoidable. Acknowledging and understanding them can help you navigate the changes.
One the most difficult times in my life was transitioning out of a sport I loved. I was a professional figure skater. My commitment and love for skating was absolute for the better part of 20 years of my life. My family and friends referred to me as “the skater”; a label I proudly took on and permanently etched in my own sense of identity.
I was obsessed with figure skating. I loved working up a sweat in a cold rink; picking out music and costuming for my next program; being challenged by seemingly impossible elements; hanging with skater friends; having one on one attention from my coaches; missing school for competitions and even the smell of Zamboni fumes.
As much as I gave myself to skating, skating seemed to give back in so many ways. Skating afforded me numerous opportunities to perform, make money, build a socially supportive community and see the world doing something I loved. People clapped for me at the end of a work day. The attention was intoxicating and addictive on every level. Being a professional figure skater was a sexy job that elicited a lot of “wows” and “that’s so cool.” It was cool, and I breathed in every part of it until I retired at 28 years old.
At the time, I felt ready to leave the skating world. I was young and optimistic about “getting a real job.” Like many competitive figure skaters, I was imbibed with a sense of discipline, focus, sacrifice and a relentless work ethic. My thinking was if I applied my same work ethic to my next job, it should all work out. How could things possibly go wrong?
My first job was at a local TV station. My logic for pursuing this job was that a TV station might have some of the glamour and excitement I experienced as a performer… NOT. I worked in traffic, not as in road traffic (that might have been significantly more exciting) but as in scheduling commercial time. My job at the TV station was an emotionally painful year that made me question whether I would ever enjoy meaningful work again. I switched jobs and worked at a consulting firm in their graphic design department. It was another bad fit that was made more miserable by my neighboring coworker who had weekly temper tantrums that involved smashing his keyboard whenever he made a typo.
My transition from skating into the “real” world did not go well at first. I felt like a baby leaving the womb of figure skating. I struggled to survive in a new world without the insulation and safety of everything I had known. My emotional reaction to this transitional experience was surprising to me. I didn’t anticipate the grief I would feel leaving my sport. I didn’t know how to define myself if it didn’t have to do with skating.
My sadness blindsided me and I somaticized my grief. I visited the doctor weekly complaining of a sore throat. I catastrophized. I was convinced I had strep throat and that the infection would spread to the rest of my body and, of course, I would die. After my 4th or 5th visit to my primary care, she exasperatedly told me I was seeing the wrong kind of doctor. I felt angry and embarrassed, but she was right. I needed a therapist!
Reflecting on my 28-year-old self, I now realize that I was a text-book case of someone struggling through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. I experienced the emotional rollercoaster of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. My grief was not a linear process and my emotions vacillated between stages. I denied the difficulty of my transition from skating. I was angry with the struggle to find something as meaningful. I bargained. I questioned whether I should have left skating. My mind was filled with “what ifs” and I often felt lost in an intense fog of sadness that this part of my life was over. Over time, I found acceptance and I came to peace with letting go.
Transitioning from skating was an uncomfortable struggle but it taught me how to cope with the more turbulent waters that lay ahead my life. Here are some of the helpful tools I learned along the way:
- Identify that you are going through a transition and accept that it may not be easy.
- Be patient with yourself, there is no quick fix – allow yourself to process and flow through your stages of grief. Give yourself time to identify and explore your emotions, thoughts and beliefs.
- Take a pause in your life – stop planning, goal-setting and looking for a solution. Just breathe and live your life as is.
- Lean in to the transition and learn to embrace the possibilities of growth and change.
My transition from skating eventually led me to my current career as a psychotherapist. Although clients don’t clap for me at the end of a therapy session, I experience a more meaningful reward. I am rewarded with the privilege of working with people; hearing their life narratives and helping them find peace within their hearts just as I have found in mine.