Mental health matters every day of the year

Gaels rugby star comments on her struggle with mental health

Nadia Popov won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 PanAmerican Games.
Nadia Popov won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 PanAmerican Games.
Supplied by Nadia Popov

It was the most important game of our season — the OUA semi-final.  

Every season, we set our sights on making it to the U Sports national championship. And every year, we have the potential. But in order to get there, we had to win a critical game against the McMaster Marauders, a formidable force in the OUA. 

Having lost to them in regular season play, the odds were against us, but we were determined to outwork our long-time rivals. 

Before the match, the atmosphere in the team room was intense. 

When I looked around at my teammates, I reflected on what could’ve been my last chance to make a national championship. I knew we were ready. We had just the right balance of pregame dance battles and a fierce focus that always produces our best performances. 

We came out flying. Every hit, every ruck, every run was on point. Our unity was unbreakable, with every player executing their role with unmatched heart. I had the game of my life, scoring two tries to secure our ticket to nationals. When the final whistle blew, the score read 20-10 for Queen’s. Everyone was cheering and crying and bursting with excitement. 

But I felt nothing. 

In a moment where I would normally be overflowing with emotion — and embarrassingly drowning in a puddle of happy tears — I was numb. This is the most frustrating part about living with a mood disorder like depression. 

Anhedonia is a fancy word for the inability to feel pleasure, even when doing the things you love. Rather inconveniently, these familiar symptoms of depression resurfaced at the outset of this season’s OUA playoffs. I had previously been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder while centralized with the Canadian national team, but this was the first major depressive episode I experienced since my return to Queen’s in 2016.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at warding off the darkness — which at one point consumed me — but this was a not-so-gentle reminder that mental illness can strike even when we do everything right. 

At the time, I was on top of my classes and feeling incredibly engaged in what I was learning. I got to spend every night playing the sport I love with my best friends, who I love more than anything else in the world. I was taking care of my mental wellbeing through mindfulness and self care, listening to what my body and my mind were telling me. 

I was happy — until I really wasn’t. 

Luckily, this time I was prepared. I knew what I needed to get through the fog and back to feeling like myself again. 

After returning from the game against McMaster, I booked an appointment with the varsity sports specialist at Queen’s Athletic Therapy. I knew my visit to the doctor wouldn’t make my depression magically disappear before the OUA final, but it was still important to check in to talk about how I was managing my symptoms so I could continue to perform both on and off the pitch in the meantime.

Based on past experiences, I knew the only cure for my low state was self love, patience and time. But there were also tangible steps to cope with my physical symptoms —  adequate sleep to combat my exhaustion, eating even when my appetite was lost. 

Most importantly, I let people around me know I wasn’t feeling great and they made sure to check in and lift me up when I needed an extra hand.

Three weeks after that Friday night win against McMaster, we were on a bus from the Calgary airport to Lethbridge, Alberta, for the U Sportsnational championships. 

While the rest of the team was silent, Sadie Stephenson and Mikela Lehan harmonized into an impromptu performance of “Hallelujah.” It was beautiful. 

In that moment, I felt pure joy. 

Staring out the window at the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by my rugby family, the fog of my depression lifted. 

That week was a wild, snowy ride, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Playing ankle-deep in ice and snow alongside the people I love representing the school we love, I was happy. I felt like myself again, able to fully feel the beautiful joy and sorrow of playing what could be my last game as a Gael with my fellow graduating teammates. 

It was an experience that will stay in my heart and soul forever. 

Mental illness doesn’t care who you are or what important things you have to do. It can happen at any time, to anyone. The more we learn about ourselves and each other, the greater our ability to persevere through mental health challenges when they arise. No matter how dark things may feel, with the right support, patience and self love, it does get better. 

Mental health matters every day of the year, so be kind, take care of yourselves — and take care of each other. 

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