Returning to Play Isn’t So Simple

Grappling with trauma is a part of the process.

Photo: Daniel Thai —

Content warning: sexual assault. This article was submitted anonymously.

For me, ultimate’s return to play has been a whirlwind of joyful returns: tan lines, the rush of scoring, and new friends and crushes. A return to my community, my people, and remembering what my body is capable of. Returning to talking endlessly about frisbee and frisbee culture, much to the dismay of my few non-frisbee friends.

But it also brings with it an unwelcome change—I am again looking over my shoulder to see if the person who raped me is at the fields.

Let’s rewind a bit.

In late 2019, a series of events forced me to admit that what I had tried to write off as a bad hookup with another frisbee player was actually sexual assault. Initially, I tried to tell myself that, yes, I was raped, but that was in the past! Too late to get upset now! As January grayed into February, though, my body and memory had other plans. I had flashbacks, stopped eating, started drinking too much. My normally boisterous energy converted into a frenetic mission to self-destruct in every way possible. By the time COVID-19 forced my city into lockdown, I was suicidal and at war with myself. Unwilling to confront the person who hurt me, I was enraged at my violated body, my cloudy brain, my nerve endings that kept telling me their hands were still on me.

While it came with its own hardship, the pandemic provided me with a perverse sort of cover. I wasn’t asked why I was so erratic and depressed, because who wasn’t? Working from home meant I had more time for therapy and crying on the floor afterwards. No one noticed that I was running too fast and eating too little—posting in the team fitness group chat was proof we were “staying connected during this difficult time.” The people I felt comfortable forming a pod with and the people I could tell what happened to me were the same short list. I drifted through those months in a strange cocoon. It feels like a small dose of cosmic mercy that, as my internal world crumbled, everyone was too busy to notice. Yes, I was isolated and deeply unwell, but at least I had some privacy.

It took a lot of work, but eventually I was able to find my way out of the fog of trauma and self-loathing. I worked to repair my relationship with my body, learning when exercise would help me spend time in my body and when it was a way to punish myself. I trusted more people with my story, realizing that every time I told someone, I avoided swallowing a mouthful of shame. Sessions with my incredible therapist left me feeling drained and raw. I kept at it, though, and I stopped feeling that night on my skin. I asked a lot of my friends in those months, and they delivered every time. I am so, so grateful to them. The seasons changed, and I changed with them. I started to feel like I had tucked my rape neatly into a box and slid it to the back of the closet forever.

And suddenly—thankfully—vaccines were available faster than I anticipated. First, I was in a warm-up league. Then I signed up for summer league. Then I was trying out for club. I ran full tilt back into the frisbee world, thinking I was uncomplicatedly thrilled to be back.

Except I was getting anxious at summer league. Except I suddenly only had negative things to say about my body. Except I couldn’t stop remembering the thing I told myself I had moved on from. The box had come unsealed while I was making small talk at summer league. The world changed and my trauma changed with it.

I confess that I don’t have a solution or call to action to round out this piece. This essay doesn’t get an ending because my story is ongoing. My relationship to what happened to me is still unfolding as life uncurls and shifts.

I’m back in the same community as the person who hurt me. While I have successfully avoided them so far, the inevitability of seeing them is a cloud hanging over me. It’s hard to ask for help with something that hasn’t happened yet. Things are on an upswing again, though. I’m finding the courage to tell my teammates what happened to me. I’m using all my coping mechanisms. I’m calling my therapist when that’s not enough. I am fighting the voice in my head declaring I failed and relapsed, because only the second part is true. Return to play took me on a detour, but not backwards. Every survivor is allowed to stumble as they find their way towards wholeness, including me.

So why did I write this essay? Why did I present to you a collection of loose ends instead of a nice, neat bow?

Because I can count on one hand the number of friends I have told my story to who didn’t say something similar happened to them. I can’t be the only person who has complicated feelings about return to play. I can’t be the only person struggling to hold both the rush of playing a sport I love so deeply with people I love even more, and the choking fear that a person who disregarded my consent is at the same fields.

Return to play means returning to community in a way that feels different now. I doubt I am the only person swimming in these cloudy waters. I wonder how many other people nervously check roster announcements for a name that makes their stomach drop, or keep their head on a swivel long after their league game has ended. If you are having mixed feelings about RTP, this essay is for you as much as it is for me. I see you and share your hurt that this community is as complicated as the rest of humanity. I hope we get to play some simple, joyful ultimate soon.

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