OLDS — When you meet Tabitha Martin, you’re greeted with a warm smile and a laugh.
However, the road hasn’t always been easy for the fifth-year outside hitter for the Olds College Broncos women’s volleyball team, particularly as the uncertainty of the past three years uncovered issues with anxiety and body dysmorphia.
Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition in which a person worries extensively about flaws in their body they perceive that others may not even notice or agree are there.
Martin and the women’s volleyball Broncos are participating in Make Some Noise for Mental Health, the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) conference-wide initiative to promote mental health awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns.
The Broncos hosted two Make Some Noise for Mental Health game nights already with a third planned for tonight, Jan. 26. The Broncos women's hockey team plays host to Red Deer Polytechnic at 7 p.m. at the Olds Sportsplex.
Martin has gotten better at recognizing when she isn’t herself, but she admits to having a harder time putting a voice to those feelings.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself as a leader to be like ‘I’m OK, I have to be strong,’ but it’s also when I’m most vulnerable with my team where I find the most connection with them,” she said.
“I think it’s important for people who are in leadership or power positions to be like ‘I’m not OK, and you may not be OK, but it’s OK.’
“It doesn’t matter how many years you’re in, it doesn’t matter what position you’re in, it doesn’t matter . . . anything, we all struggle.”
A panic attack brought Martin’s struggles with anxiety to the forefront at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was so confused, I was like ‘What is happening? Why am I feeling this way?’ but I don’t know why, and that’s when I started to panic,” she said.
To keep her mind at ease while trying to capitalize on an opportunity, Martin turned to home workouts to find positives in an increasingly uncertain world.
However, Martin said she went too far in the wrong direction, particularly with her diet, because she thought it was acceptable.
While Martin would occasionally joke about her lack of food intake, her support system was confused by how she’d changed, with everything coming to a head when she returned to campus.
“It’s funny to look back now because you wish you could do so many things differently, but I would go a couple days without eating, or I’d have a granola bar and feel like ‘That’s good today,’ and I was at practice, and I was constantly feeling like crap,” she said.
“I definitely had a lot of hard conversations, and I think the most important thing about growing with mental health is being open to those hard conversations, and it’s not until you’re ready to have those that you’re going to grow, because if I didn’t hear what they were saying, I might be in the same situation I was in.”
Martin’s internal questioning repeatedly led her to the same question, so simple, and yet equally complicated: Why?
“I feel like I was a second person,” she said. “I was someone totally different of what others were viewing me, and they were viewing me the way, in my head, that I was hoping for.
“Like I was hoping for people to like me, and they did, but then why wasn’t I happy enough? Or why didn’t that satisfy me, in a way?
“It was really hard to be thinking: Why can’t I get out of this, why is this continually happening, it’s just the why.”
Ultimately, a knee injury (a torn medial collateral ligament or MCL) suffered during the pandemic opened the door for Martin to regain control and reel in her anxiety, as she could focus on herself without worrying about anybody else’s opinions.
“A lot of anxiety is outsider efforts or control on your life,” she said. “I know for me, I get anxiety about ‘what will this person think of me?’ or ‘What will I do here? Will they like me? Am I gonna do good?’ But at the end of the day, you can only control yourself and your efforts.
“You can’t even control your emotions, really, but you can control how you respond to them, so that’s taught me a lot about how to cope and how to continue to grow.”
However, the MCL recovery process also meant staying on the sidelines, which brought another challenge to her battle with anxiety: establishing her identity and interests away from the court.
“Even when gyms were open or volleyball practice was happening, I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I was alone, in that sense, because my whole life, and many athlete’s whole lives, we describe ourselves as our sport.
“When that was taken away in a sense, it was like ‘who am I without this?’ and that’s when I think the most growth I had really started.”
Today, Martin is more confident in herself and she credits her parents, Angela and Bruce, and her brother and sister for being there when she needed them, as well as making use of on-campus mental health services at the Olds College of Agriculture & Technology.
While she stills sometimes struggles with the question of why, Martin's message to anyone who might be struggling ahead of Make Some Noise for Mental Health is simple: Don’t be afraid to acknowledge it, and don’t be afraid to show emotions.
“There’s no embarrassment in saying ‘I am struggling,’” she said.
“There’s no downfall of being vulnerable and acknowledging what you are going through, it actually provides you with so much more strength.
“It’s always hard to get through that embarrassment, because you don’t want to be embarrassed, but it’s important that you do to realize where you could go with it.”
This article, edited by the Albertan, was written by Olds College sports Information and Esports coordinator Geordie Carragher.