Stuck in Our Hurt or Renewed in Our Hearts

14 points, 4 assists in 30 minutes of action at #24 Texas A&M my Redshirt junior year at Kentucky. It was after that game I almost quit playing the sport I had loved since I was a kid, mid-season, and had a full out mental breakdown. The entire day before that game I had cried so much my eyes were swollen. I remember sitting in the hotel bathtub the night before with the water running so my freshman roommate wouldn’t see her senior leader did not have it together. I was so afraid of anyone finding out my mind was everywhere before a big game. As a team we had been struggling that year and the following night we ended up losing by I believe two points to a ranked team. It should have been an exciting game for me to enjoy but I couldn’t find that emotion. It was not so much as a feeling, rather a lack of feelings at all. Somehow, I pulled out a great game and when it should have been a feeling of triumph I was only completely worn down. We didn’t win, but I knew I had once again fought hard enough to put the raging battles in my mind aside to make it through another game on the court. “This can’t be what God wants for me…” kept playing in my head. I felt guilty for being a Christian my whole life and feeling this way. When I got home the day after, my dad took me out for a nice dinner to talk some “sense” into me. Sense being, I could not quit on my teammates now! I remember forcing myself to dress semi nice and apply some makeup- things that had become less and less frequent for me. I knew he was right. He always is. I remember being really quiet for most of that meal and trying to find joy in this moment since at least I wasn’t in a high stress situation that had become the majority of my life. I can still feel what I was like in that very moment. Numb. Confused. Alone. Ready to run and not stop.. I only gave you my stats of that game to show things are never as they seem. Thank God for last straws. Somewhere in the midst of our lowest points we have no choice but to face whatever we’ve been avoiding. There I was, staring straight at it. There was no hiding it anymore. At this point, I had not labeled it vocally or maybe was in denial I could be struggling with this. However, now, I’m not afraid to say it out loud.

For most of my college athletic career I have quietly battled a loud depression accompanied by crippling anxiety. It single handedly robbed me of experiencing joy- a joy that God wants me to have daily. I’m not sure if this is something I would have struggled with had I not chose to play a sport in college, all I can share is a story of someone whose done both at the same time: Battled depression with anxiety and played basketball at a major division one school. I know that God did not allow me to go through this to hide it forever. The press release said “leaving to pursue her career” but my heart was saying “leaving because I’m broken, lost, and tired.”

I have to be honest with you. This has almost been like my journal for the last 9 months.. When I started it, I was severely broken and hurting. Now, I’ve been through a journey of healing and discovery. I have been praying I would know when I had all the words to say. I picked up a book this past spring and the words read: “running away from your story is the same as running away from your calling.” So here I am. It’s long. It’s personal. It’s real.

This is my story.

I grew up a huge fan of basketball. Specifically, Kentucky basketball. There’s nothing that could have stopped me from pursuing that dream. Achieving that dream was honestly incredible. I think that’s what made this all hardest for me. You know? How could I be so ungrateful? A million people would give an arm and a leg for my spot! Maybe that’s why I kept it private for so long. What I’ve learned is that people only want to ask how getting all the gear was, meeting all the celebrities were, having 15.3K followers is. When those things do not matter for your soul. Not one bit. Truthfully, we’re all made for something bigger than this world. My soul was aching for something bigger than this world could offer me. It just took a really hard situation for me to recognize it.

To know even more about me, the end of my sophomore year at Kentucky I was told I had an auto inflammation disease. Essentially my immune system overworks and I get sick a lot. Being overworked is a huge trigger, which is tough being a division one athlete. It also makes me more likely to suffer from depression. I remember once, the summer right before I found out. I had been crying in workouts which is so not like me, and when a coach pulled me aside I said “My body doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel right. I’m so tired of being this way.” I had been sick for almost 4 months straight. A lot of times I wanted to blame my depression on that. Giving a name to it made me be able to justify it. It bothers me that I had to put a different label on it to not be ashamed. I also thought it was something I would just have to deal with. However, being sick and injured as many times as I was was not normal. A lot of what we deal with is what we allow. I just wanted to pretend like for someone with my disease, it was. My days were starting at 5:15am and ending at 10P.M with little time for me during the day. I was quite literally sick along with exhausted. It was around this time I was even confronted about my hygiene. That being, I was particular messy, I didn’t care what I looked like and I was getting sick constantly. Of course, they would ask me. They meant it out of love and I knew that. What I didn’t know is that those are all signs of depression. My inability to do anything before practice was also a sign of anxiety. It wasn’t normal.

Depression hit me hardest my senior season at Kentucky. (Redshirt junior) I was having my best year of college basketball. I was starting for the University of Kentucky and life was what others from the outside would see as perfect. I had just gotten back to back double doubles, and then it hit me in January as I described. That particular moment was a wakeup call. College athletics at a high level is extremely taxing physically, mentally, and emotionally. As much as I wanted to tell my mind I was okay, my body was physically breaking down and I knew I was lying to myself. I realized that just because I seemly had it all did not mean I did. The world really had me convinced that stuff was supposed to make me happy, status would fulfill me, and my court success was an indicator of my importance and value to this world. I have a lot of opinions on the way the NCAA is set up, what it allows and how it puts athletes in potentially abusive situations and exploits them, but that’s for another day. I do think It was at this point that I had proven everyone wrong and achieved everything I ever wanted to (or thought) but still felt like something was…….off. I had done everything by the book, but it wasn’t cutting it. That’s because the worldly book doesn’t tell you about your spiritual needs. It was a physical, mental, and spiritual thing. If anyone watches us close or knows me, this struggle was obvious to see. By the end of my senior year the commentators were even commenting how miserable I looked and I didn’t even care. This is my state. I love this University. Why do I not feel it anymore. My depression had reached a point that I had forgotten the little girl who loved Kentucky so much. This was a devastating blow. Side note: I’m very aware there are thousands of college athletes who go through the taxing schedule daily and love it. Some have flourished and excelled. However, I also know there are lots of people like me who struggled. We’re all different.

For the longest time I thought my struggles while being an athlete were because of character flaws I had. I am my biggest critic. In ironic fashion, I am the teammate who can get through anything physically. I have been given a gift to never get tired. Conditioning has been my strong suit. I’m the teammate who is super competitive and hates the drama. I’m all about getting my hands dirty, sweating it out, and cutting out all the emotional stuff. I definitely was never the most talented, or athletic, or you know, whatever else super athletic people have. I was the teammate who would get so annoyed with others who would get upset over something someone said to them. To be honest, I kind of liked it that way. I liked having the edge. I took pride in knowing that my teammates might be more talented, but I know for dang sure if we go through the fire I have control to come out standing. Out of all the coaches I’ve had, that’s one trait they all noticed quickly. In a lot of ways, that’s what made me successful in college. I don’t stop. I don’t quit. However, it also made me ashamed to admit struggle. The last thing I wanted was for someone to say I was “mentally weak” because toughness is what I hang my hat on. The biggest thing for me was accepting it was okay I was hurting. I could easily run 20 timed suicides consecutively and finish first, but I wasn’t brave enough to say all of this was really taking a toll on me and I was questioning my self-worth. So much so, at times I had convinced myself that once the ball stopped bouncing, I would not be able to contribute anything else to this world. Truth be told, I was scared. I had worked so hard for my position and my name and I didn’t want this to steal that too. How messed up is that? I will tell you this. The strongest thing I have ever done in my life is when I decided to show people my weakness. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:7. I think It’s so important for people who struggle with this to know I regret a lot of things in life but not this one. It was my first step to freedom.

Playing at a power 5 school has its perks too. I feel like I’ve talked about negatives too long. So let me remind you, I loved Kentucky so much. I have met people who will be in my wedding one day. I can’t describe how amazing it was to put that 22 jersey on for my state, that I wanted since I was a little girl. I truly have so many great memories as well. Having people know you for athletic success is a great feeling. It’s a blessing to get free school and benefits. But then you go home and reality sets in that your whole life revolves around tangible things and if you’re like me, having an identity crisis. I have learned that if my life is centered around anything than my relationship with Christ and God’s purpose for me, things go south. When I was a little girl that’s all I wanted was to play at the highest level and I am so glad I can say I did. But it’s tough, man. If I could go back and tell myself one piece of advice it would be, “Put your identity in the right place so that no one or nothing can take it away from you.”

As I went through phases struggling with anxiety and depression throughout my college athletic career I always thought if I could make it to THIS end of the tunnel then I could gather myself and prepare for the next blow. I viewed it like an opponent making a run in a game. If I’m really tough enough to play here I have to make it through this run and hit back without showing weakness. It will only last for a bit. Buckle down, get through it. Until the majority of my life became about getting through it. Y’all, life is meant to be celebrated! It’s not meant to be just getting through it. God gives us a blessing to wake up everyday and share the love we’ve received. That is to be celebrated.

I also wasn’t sad sally every moment of the day. That’s not how depression works. Depression and sadness are also very different. It is hard for anyone to understand if they haven’t experienced it. I do not know the best way to help those who don’t understand. Instead, the best piece of advice I can give you is its very real and be thankful you don’t understand. It came and went. I still laughed and had plenty of friends. I still had a dating life. I still performed well on the court enough to earn a starting spot. I made a 3.4 GPA. I looked cute to class and all that jazz. Those are some myths I think are worth saying now. It presented itself in other ways that I expressed earlier and included me losing all joy for the game of basketball. I lost my joy for life. I hated the game for what I thought it did to me. I honestly was becoming a bitter person. I will never know if basketball truly caused it either, but I know it had been a long time since I had played the game healthy. Some people cope with food. Some people cope with consuming themselves into their dating lives. Others become alcoholics. I got animals. All of the animals. I was a zookeeper. I know I know, what in the world. So random and weird thing to lean on, but hey. I’m Makenzie Cann and I’m a zookeeper.

Now, I just finished my last season of eligibly at a NAIA division 2 school. I left a starting role at my dream school for what most people would see as, a lot “less.” Basically, after I narrowed my list of schools down where I would potentially transfer to it was 2 power 5 schools and Southeastern. It was the easiest decision I have ever made.

For those of you asking, I chose Southeastern because I felt God telling me this is where I was going to find healing. I was at such a low place after my last year at Kentucky I did not think a school would want me to play basketball for them if they knew. I had come to the realization myself I had things to work through, but was not fully ready to tell others. That was mostly because I was believing a lie that a division one athlete with depression would always be second rate or a failure. I looked at several division one schools for my 5th year and I kept telling myself I would be doing them a dis-service because I was too “messed up.” I didn’t feel comfortable with any of the schools. I talked to them on the phone but never took them serious. I was actually rather rude-I didn’t call most of them back and purposely ignored them. Basketball made me feel a terrible feeling I didn’t want anymore. I couldn’t fathom stepping on the court again. I just felt dumb for turning down a free masters, though. It was a God thing I picked up the phone with Southeastern. That place probably changed my life. I chose the one school I wasn’t afraid to tell them what was going on. I was afraid to tell anyone, but somehow that wasn’t the case with this school.

The first time I said out loud that I struggled with depression was in August of this year at our team retreat. I cried the whole weekend. Oh yes, more tears. For those of you who know me, I’m not the crier. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was the first time I allowed myself to feel that part of my life in 4 years. It was the first time I allowed myself to feel much at all. One of the most important steps I took to getting healthy was telling someone. I’ll say that again. It took me so long. I remember being in a full out sob at this point when my coach asked everyone what was the biggest fear for this year. I said,”I do not know if I have anything left to give on the basketball court. My tank is on empty. I’m not sure why I came here. All I know is this is where I felt God leading me.” One of the women there responded, “We do not care if you score a point for us. We want you healthy.” For so long I had been labeled by the fact that I played basketball at Kentucky and these people didn’t only care about what I could give to them. I literally had nothing left to give. If they only needed from me to hand over what was left over, I was useless. That moment was a picture of God’s love. I hadn’t earned it, I didn’t deserve it. Yet they gave me grace and showed me love so freely and they barely knew me. I’ll forever love them for it.

I also firmly believe Satan knows when we are about to have a breakthrough or are a threat to do good for God and he attacks. Satan knew if I could conquer this he wouldn’t have that influence over me anymore. He knew the danger people are when they realize they are worthy. And this last fall I fell into the worse depression I have had in 4 years. I battled anxiety and depression my whole career together. Anxiety tells you to never stop and depression tells you wave the white flag. It’s a little contradicting. I was so busy and living in fear so strongly that I wouldn’t perform or would be punished that anxiety would usually win out. Until I got to Southeastern and let myself be vulnerable. Depression beat out anxiety. I couldn’t get out of bed. I stopped eating. I missed some practices. I didn’t show up for some weights and I didn’t tell anybody because I was frozen. I have never felt this paralyzed in my life. This part of my story might be the hardest to tell. The worst part about healing is you just have to walk through it. One. Step. At. A. Time. This time I wasn’t going into to battle not only to survive, but to conquer.

When I was reading a book called “Believe Bigger”, I came across what the author said was a “split rock” moment. Basically, what this is, is when everything falls apart so much so that you know God has your full attention. I had prayed for healing I just didn’t think it would come in this form. My split rock moment came this fall. I was dating someone who I could really see being my husband and he thought so too. I was at a school in the sunshine state getting my masters paid for for free. I thought that’s what healing must be. Everything is great. Since I had been praying for this breakthrough, I was expecting continued everything is great. But like I said, God had a split rock moment for me. Kind of like that night in college station.

Once basketball started up for me this last September and classes got extremely stressful, I begin to fall back into what I call the pit. It makes sense why it happened now, for almost 4 years every time I stepped onto the court I was battling with depression. It just triggered it. I learned in psychology classes this is what is called a conditioned response. Split rock moment.

In part, at a high division one school you are told everything to do every minute of the day. I was told what to do in almost every area of my life. Do this. Go here. Take these classes. Be here then. Post this. Say this to the camera. Don’t say that. Eat this. Do this workout. Go to this event. You get what I’m saying? Everything I did was decided by someone else. This was super hard for me because after 4 years I had no idea what I liked to do. I had no idea who I was. My identity was lost. The only personality I had developed was the person they told me to be. I guess you can do that for a little while. But, I also knew God had a bigger purpose for me- a destiny where I would fulfill and use every gift he had given me. I knew this because God left those promises for me, and for you, in the Bible. I knew this because the Holy Spirit directed me. I felt an emptiness because I wasn’t me. If I don’t know who I am, it’s hard for me fully be the best me God has. At that point I had no idea what my gifts and talents were besides shooting a basketball. When I got to Southeastern, they let me do what I wanted. The only hours of the day I had something to do was practice for 2 hours and weights twice a week. My classes were and are online. I had days off why I was frozen in bed, or in the bathtub, or on the couch. At one point, my mom had came to Florida to write notes on my bathtub and bed that said “one step day by day, you don’t figure out who you are. Just one step.” Let me tell you, the most challenging thing is whenever you’re given the freedom to do whatever you want and you have no idea what you want because you have no idea what you like to do. Split rock moment.

I started classes in a graduate program I had 0 experience in. I was taking stats, financial management, and some more stuff I have no idea about. My first day it took me 8 hours to finish just that assignment for the day. I was panicking, and I was panicking because I thought I wouldn’t be eligible if I had to take these classes and fail them. Oh the drama! Yeah, don’t worry; I was always eligible! Also didn’t even come close to failing But you know.

I had never lived that far away from home- I grew up 30 minutes from Lexington and the University of Kentucky. When I transferred to UK one of the biggest factors was it’s home. It was a safe place. It was all safe. I love safe. Don’t you? I had all of my friends from high school, I had my family whenever I wanted. Whenever I came to Florida I had none of that. I prayed and prayed. I felt God use the verse out of Luke “take nothing with you for the journey.” I felt reassured for whatever reason I was in the right place even though things were down spiraling. A split rock moment.

I am not joking, some of that time in my life I can’t remember because I was that far into the pit. I gradually was going back to my old habits of being messy, irritable, exhausted, grumpy, and disinterested. Flat lined. I had gone back and forth even staying in Florida. I just really had no idea about anything. Then me and my boyfriend who I saw a long future with broke up. Yeah, yeah I know God has a better suited man for me, but I didn’t want to believe that then. Split rock moment.

There were days my coach came to MY HOUSE. To get me out of bed. Another time a coach came and walked Benny for me. Thank God for being in a place that understood maybe not what I was going through, but what I needed. Even if I didn’t know what that way at the time. I had a teammate of mine who packed my lunch for me since I basically had stopped eating. She packed me a pb&j sandwich, fruit & some other little things. She gave it to my roommate and made sure she watched while I ate it. I had lost a lot of weight yet again. I missed multiple assignments because I just couldn’t do them.

At this point I had been battling depression on and off for 5 years had lost desire to get up in the mornings and live. This might be cliché, but the thing that kept me going was my faith. I have been in church since I was little, and I knew the promises he has for us. I just kept telling myself “Nope, do not give into those thoughts. You have a God who has more for you- a plan and a purpose and he promised you that. You don’t have to figure out who you are this very moment but a little more daily. ” I truly do not know where I would be without my faith and those people in Lakeland. It breaks my heart to think people are battling this without knowing they have a God who loves them so much. And if you’re a Christian you can still battle these things. This I know.

I started seeing a counselor for the first time in my life. One week I saw her 5 times! She was awesome and so helpful. She still is! I used to think only people who grew up having an awful life or who went through a utterly traumatizing event needed a counselor. I also found a functional medicine doctor who treats my depression and parts of my disease naturally and it has been nothing but helpful. I realize some people have a lot of success with anti-depressants, but I did NOT! It’s all about finding what works best for you.

Looking back, I definitely know all of this was not a rejection but a REDIRECTION. A split rock moment. If things had not gotten so bad, I may have hidden away again. But I prayed for healing. I couldn’t heal hidden. I dedicated myself to self care, finding out more about myself, and growing. I’m still doing that. I now have a new perspective on things. I got to where I enjoyed basketball again. I proved myself wrong and passed 3 graduate classes in classes I had no experience in. I enjoyed the sunshine weather that makes my mood better, even if I’m thousands of miles from home. I now have a space to welcome a man who God had planned for me to enhance and encourage each other in our journey. For good and bad. (Haven’t found him yet but I’m looking!) I am thankful for that happening, because in the moment I was so in love with the idea of running away from my past and feelings with a partner who had a totally different life that didn’t remind me of my own. I would have been hiding yet again. Nope, not again. My God loves me too much to let me hide again.

So, if you’re like me, be thankful for those split rock moments because next came my blessings. My heart was broken from feeling like a failure in basketball, in the classroom, and in my relationship. It was brokenness that built up for a long time- it just all came out now. It’s a different level of hurt when you experience getting your heart broken by someone you care about the most, or something you’ve invested everything into, something that you’ve wanted since you were a little girl, but it’s a different level of healing and happiness when you get over and realize you never really needed that stuff anyways. Even if my blessings were something as simple as the desire and even excitement to just wake up in the mornings. I had seemly lost everything I thought I had to have and have finally gotten to a place that Iv never been happier. It’s like seeing the world without a big cloud covering it. In a lot of ways, the things we cling so hard to and are so afraid of letting go, are the things holding us back. Let go and trust God has better. People, places, things. I ended my final year of college basketball playing in the national championship game and it was one of the most fun times I’ve had in my life. We didn’t fly private, we rode in mini vans. We didn’t have a huge crowd. We didn’t get new gear every week. I wasn’t getting a big sum of money to live off of. My games weren’t on ESPN. It was also the most alive and loved I had ever felt in so long. I had Jesus. I was gaining my identity back. I’ll remember those girls and that experience forever. As I told them, we may have not won that last game, but I regained my life and that’s the biggest win I’ve ever had. It was so much more then basketball. Being able to put my regained joy back into the sport I loved was just a plus.

I look back on my time at Kentucky and have gradually reshaped my experience to not see it as a failure that I left a year early, but instead a platform to share and maybe help someone else. It’s so important as athletes that we develop other parts of our lives as were playing sports. It’s definitely something I’ll remember and put an emphasis on when I have kids one day. Even though our sports may be a gift or talent we’ve been given, it’s very unlikely our purpose or “why”. Our gifts are to be used to glorify God! Just a small part of why we are here on this earth. I also hope my transparency could encourage someone else who may be struggling to get help or speak up. I was scared to tell someone for so long I look back at those 4 years with regret on what I could have done healthy. I wish I would have known more about depression and what the signs of it were. I also don’t want to say that speaking up will magically fix it. Addressing the problem is the hardest part. The victory is what comes after. I pray my story can give you hope. Together we can rejoice in the victory or I can support you in the pit. Sometimes I feel I missed such an opportunity to advance the kingdom even more. There are very few women’s college basketball teams that have a bigger or more influential platform then Kentucky. But all I can do now is share with you. Let’s speak up. Let’s show more grace to the person next to us, because you never know what they’re going through. As long as I’m living out my purpose and loving others as God called me, I’ll be pleased. Even if I’m in a in a season of life where things aren’t great, I know there’s hope. I’ve already lived that.

When you’ve embraced who you are outside of your sport, job, whatever yours in, and instead in your relationship with Christ, you experience freedom like none other. Knowing who you are helps eliminate the chances you let someone else tell you who you are who isn’t the one who created you. I have a lot of accolades I have collected over the years and it means absolutely nothing other than God blessed me with amazing talent that I can use for his glory. I never found out who I was outside of basketball because I never had to. That was my number #1 mistake. Even if you don’t hoop, I’m sure you have something you put a lot of your identity in. Too much of my identity was in the wrong place for too long. Too much of my time was spent proving others wrong when I’m already enough. You’re already enough. We’re enough. No one and nothing can tell us who we are other than the man upstairs. I have to remind myself of that daily. I hope there is some younger athletes out there who get to hear it. You are so much more than your sport!

My hope is that after reading this you can focus less on the where and more on the why. I am so thankful I am loved unconditionally by a God who never left me behind. I’m grateful for healing and freedom. He saved my life. None of this is to throw a pity party, but to show how faithful he is! I don’t know what life looks like for me now, and I’ve given up trying to decide it for myself. I’m trusting he will bring me the best. I’m thankful for people who showed me love whenever I didn’t think I could be loved. Please do not be afraid to speak up. Please do not be afraid to check on your friends. Do not be afraid to seek help. Theirs freedom for me, and there is freedom for you. I’m tired of hiding. So, there it is. I still have a lot to figure out, but there’s what I know now. You are eternally loved and destined for so much more then whatever season of life you’re in right now. I’m living proof of Gods faithfulness.

Sincerely,

Makenzie

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