Friday, March 16, 2012

Looking Under the Blanket.

March 24th, in case you're wondering.
I just bought a ticket to the first Boston Derby Dames bout of the season. Yes, that's exactly what that means.

Updating this blog is taking me a lot of effort, because I couldn't force myself to do it before today. I waited until now for a lot of different reasons. I was too busy with captaining duties. I was too tired. I didn't want to sound like a whiner. I was waiting to have something positive to write about. I wanted to be diplomatic. I wasn't sure what my plans were. I'd update when I was ready. Writing it down made it feel too final. I'm updating today because buying my first ticket to a Boston bout in almost five years feels like a milestone. This is an appropriate moment to get it over with.

(Deep breath)

I'm not bouting this season.

(Yeah, that feels more final already.)

Why? It's so complicated. Last season cost me too much and didn't give enough back. I'll start my recap with the events around my last post. I reached the zenith of my love for roller derby when I became captain of my home team. Some people probably think this is a small goal. What about making the travel team, Dread? Maybe you could shoot for going to Nationals? Hell, go for broke and aim to win the hydra. Sure, those are amazing goals, but I'm not that skater. 

Evidence of one perfect year. This was a tough act to follow. 
I've never been a very physical person. I am prone to illness, injury, and weight gain and I'm a slow healer in all of those departments. While I enjoy skating the bike path and strength training, I don't like sports at all. I'm more the tutu-wearing derby player than the compression leggings type. I joined derby so I could hit people with my butt, and was surprised that playing derby apparently made me an athlete. That's not to say I slacked or only showed up for parties. I loved the exercise and fought my way into derby shape so I could hang with the skaters who had been athletes all their lives. I worked harder than I've ever worked for anything so I could become a good skater, and by the start of last season I kinda almost felt like one. Being elected captain felt like evidence that I had achieved "good skater" status, and I was so incredibly proud of myself for attaining that goal. 

It did not go well from then on. I was no longer freshie mama, and instead I helped decide which skaters to cut during training. The Nuts became the first team to draft a returning skater from another team who wanted to go back to her old team. My co-captain and I were a poor match. I got hurt and then got really sick. I sat on the bench for almost the entire championship bout. I lost the captain election for 2012. If I could have described the worst derby season possible (excluding permanent injury or major illness) this would pretty much be it.

I had hoped that taking my first off season ever would allow me to lick my wounds and find the joy that had been scraped out of me after a year of hard use. I skipped freshie training and gave life outside of derby a test drive. Other than the looming anxiety over what to do when the rosters were due in January, it was wonderful. I luxuriated in my free time, saw my friends, pets, and family more, and learned to sew. My boss remarked that I looked healthier than I had ever looked since she'd met me, and I took barely any sick days all year. I started enjoying work again, telling my husband almost daily stories about the funny things my students did. I was really, really happy.

I agonized over whether or not to skate again when the season started up in January. I didn't want my last memory of playing roller derby to be sitting on the bench shooting pained looks at my announcer husband, but I was frighteningly content without derby in my life. At the last minute I decided to go back for one more season and "just skate." I'd play on my home team, do small committee jobs, never be head of security again, and enjoy the sport I'd fallen so deeply in love with five years ago.

This is where my retired readers are probably groaning. Every skater wants that year. When you're burnt out from doing too many jobs, or you're coming off of a really bad injury or illness, when you're rubbed raw from all the politics and festering slights from years of working with the same people, you think you'll "just skate" and plan a glorious last hurrah of focusing entirely on yourself for a change. Maybe you fantasize about joining another league, or maybe you consider leaving all of your committee jobs except for the one with the least responsibility. I always pictured being one of those wise old vets who chimes in during strategy talks and speaks up if the team forgets the lessons learned when the league was new(er). It was a reachable goal, even if catching up after a couple of months off skates would make the start of the season a pretty steep uphill battle.

I went to my first practice. I was worse than I expected in some ways and better in others. I took it easy in a few drills because of a torn biceps tendon that I sustained carrying my sewing machine around. Then I fell doing a jump I had never tried before, and when I realized that I had re-injured my arm I immediately thought only one thing:

"This isn't worth it."

I think it's safe to claim that I've collected more injuries than the average skater. I've broken my tailbone and my nose, I've torn my medial meniscus and my MCL. I've developed patellar tendonitis in my right knee and plantar fasciitis in my left foot. I've dislocated my thumb, lost both big toenails, and bruised my diaphragm. I've shaved the skin off of my shoulder, calf, elbow, and both hands so deeply that I'll always have wide, flat scars. These injuries have affected my ability to walk, sit, sleep and do my job over long stretches of time in a few cases. Looking back at all of these, I never once got angry at derby for inconveniencing me or risking my ability to function. It was always an inevitable side effect of my love for playing, much like how tinnitus is the price of going to a lifetime of amazing shows. 

This was unexpected, as I had already eaten dinner.
So I took myself off of my team. I knew that there were skaters in the draft pool who would willingly cut off their right arm to play, and would love my roster spot in a way I couldn't anymore. My team had a really sweet surprise party for me and gave me very thoughtful parting gifts. Then I went home and tried not to think about roller derby because processing what had happened was too much for my brain to handle. 

Now it's sorta kinda over? I'm an "inactive" or "non-bouting" skater on my team. This means that I'm still on the team forum and I can participate in team practices if they allow me to go. So I'm not technically retired, but I haven't skated since I sent my "stick a fork in me" email and I still don't know when I will. 

It's funny, but I was borderline elated about being free until I went to Brown Paper Tickets and clicked the "check out now" button. Before buying that single ticket I'd felt more relaxed, more whole, more myself than I'd felt in years. Underneath it all I knew that I had a lot of sadness inside me, but I think I was purposely concealing it from myself because I wasn't ready for it to be real. In an email to a friend today I compared this experience to waking up in the hospital after a grievous injury - relieved to be out of danger, with an IV to dull the pain, but all the while knowing that my missing legs are hidden under layers of bandages and blankets. I put off surveying the damage as long as possible because it was just too hard. Today I looked under the blankets. Now I can finally see what I've lost.

I can still be involved with my team by helping out and skating at practices if they'll let me. I could be involved with the league by volunteering my time. If I want derby back in my life I could try out again and hope to be drafted onto a team. The thing is, right now those ideas all seem as absurd as trying to strap skates onto a pair of legs that have been amputated. It's almost like I have some kind of weird reverse phantom limb syndrome. My skate legs are there, but I don't feel them anymore. Instead I just see the stumps and feel the raw edges of wounds.

Why is derby like this? Most retired skaters I know act a lot like veterans of war - hurting, broken, and haunted. Most don't feel like they can function in the derby community now that they're no longer in combat on the track. Coming back to manage, ref, or work on a committee is too painful, or those doors are closed to them against their will. Many even develop a genuine hatred for what the sport has become, even though in many ways it's exactly what they dreamed of when they were new. Why does this happen? Where can true veterans of the fastest growing women's contact sport in the world go for support after they wheel themselves out of the memorial hospital? Which type of vet will I be when the wounds heal?

Like most things, you get out of derby what you put into it. However, no one ever warned me how much I'd leave behind. I put almost all of myself into derby for almost five years, and like a crucible, it transformed me. I've always been a delayed reaction kind of girl, and I'm sure that the transformations will continue long after I go to the bout on March 24th. I'll try to be a better blogger and post my thoughts, because I've only seen a few blogs on this topic past the big, painful "I'm not skating this season" post, and I hope the writing will help me understand what's happening to me as it happens.
Isn't it strange the way joy and sadness look a lot alike?

I'll close this post with an offer, because as you are now so once was I and all that. Wherever you are in your derby career, one day you'll be the one ordering the ticket and trying to find someone to sit with at your first bout back on the other side of the pink tape. If you need a friend to talk to, drop me a line at da.dreadnought (at) gmail (dot) com. We can be there for each other because I'll need some support too. 

May you call your last jam when you want to, not when you have to. May you have the warm arms of a loved one to hold you when you click "check out now." Remember that I'm here if you need me. I like helping.


Anonymous said...

Derby is a weird beast. Its easy to obsess about, and put every fiber of your being into it. Some people use this as therapy, some people just like skating, some people just like hitting people.

I don't know if more established sports have the same kind of drama that infiltrates derby, or if thats just the type of personality it attracts.

I think I was similar to you Dread, I mostly just wanted an excuse to skate, but never was as much into the sport of it as much as I just liked skating. Now that I've been out of derby for quite a while what I miss isn't bouts or the intensity, or excitement if someone wins, its the people I met, and the skating.

Either way, its good to look back upon that time with fondness but know why things changed.


(PS loved this post)

emchen said...

i'm crying at work.

i love you, bud.


Anonymous said...


You very eloquently articulated what has been on the tip of my tongue (and tear ducts) for months. Though my reasons for leaving are slightly different, there are undertones of injury and broken relationship that bear resemblance. I've been simultaneously wildly obsessed with, and yet frightened of truly "looking under the blankets." I've actually been thinking of you throughout this pain, so your note earlier was fortuitous. I'm looking forward to being wounded healers together. Lovingly, Hearty

Anonymous said...


You were the first skater who ever gave me the time of day, and have always epitomized the sort of derby person I want to be when I grow up. Your presence was an innoculation against the politics and bullshit and drama, and you will be sorely missed.

Thank you for sharing, and good luck in your process-


Anonymous said...

Dread, you're right that this is a big, big problem for roller derby, made all the harder by the fact that no one really wants to think about it until they find themselves leaving. But there is life beyond roller derby, and I wish you all the best in your future adventures (which I have no doubt will be many and awesome).

You have always been a voice of reason and sanity and compassion. Your support has made the difference for any number of other skaters (including my wife). The Derby Dames are screwed.

Mr. Mayhem

Unknown said...

From the first time I had seen you skate, I had this feeling in my chest that I was overwhelmed by, I had seen before my eyes a skater that used her physical strength to knock opponents on their bums with her powerful booty, ready to wrangle the troops to battle a positive force of and on the track, an exception personal always ready to lend an ear and advice, one of the nicest and most genuine ladies I have had the pleasure to get to know "yes, this is the skater I am meant to be like the skater it would be an honor to be like. I have a handful of skaters that I look up to and admire and you are one of them...I support your decisions and would love to see you come to a trt practice on sunday mornings.I could even pick you up.
Pugs n' kisses
Ophelia Bonesbreak

Irate Pirate/Freesia said...

Oh Dread,
I adore you more than I Can express. You give me hope for my retirement days. I know there is "Life beyond Derby"... I still think you're the greatest, and I still look up to you.

And, I'll sit with you. Just name the date!

Anonymous said...

I am the proud mother of this amazing young woman and I couldn't love her more. She inspires me every day with her strength, the power of her mind and the size of her heart.
I'll sit with you forever Jessie
Dreads mom

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. I've been searching for skaters like me and I really thought I might stand alone.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Well written! I too have made that derby exit after many months of contemplating the idea of not playing derby. Part of me feels empty...part of me feels free. Derby drama, micro-managing and bullying top the reasons for me leaving my league. I know over time I will think less about derby...and more about what new adventure is ahead of me. Thanks for posting!