Michelle Akers: A Conquering Spirit – living with chronic fatigue syndrome
Sylvia R. J. Scott
In 1991, Michelle Akers was at the top of her game. She had been named the best woman soccer player in the world and had become the first woman player to have a paid endorsement. Yet after leading her team to victory for the first FIFA Women’s Soccer World Championship in China, Michelle returned home completely exhausted. She rested and changed her diet. However, as time progressed, the fatigue headaches, gastrointestinal imbalance and metabolism problems progressed as well. Two years after the initial symptoms began, Michelle collapsed during a game at the Olympic Sports Festival in San Antonio, Texas. Diagnoses progressed from mononucleosis to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and finally, in the spring of 1994, to Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS).
Her perseverance, dedication and relentless pursuit of excellence, the attributes that defined her as a great athlete, turned out to be the same traits Michelle called on to reevaluate her priorities and rekindle her relationship with God. CFIDS had worn her down to nothing, and she did not have the physical strength to continue under her own power. Her spirituality became the most significant step toward recovery. “I will say my faith was the beginning and is the center of my ongoing recovery and how I deal with CFIDS on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
An identity crisis
“I can honestly say these few years were pure hell for me. I went through a divorce. I struggled to get through the day or hour, depending on how bad I was feeling. I desperately searched for medical answers and help but found very little. I frequently asked myself, what happened to that strong, dynamic, tireless Michelle Akers? Will I ever see her again? And who am I now? I was alone. I was scared. I was in agony.” In a 1996 journal entry, Michelle described the long-term effects of CFIDS: “The last few days I have been intently studying CFIDS and its emotional/physical effects on its victims. I have realized on a deeper level that this disease is not only physically debilitating and emotionally gut-wrenching, but as the days and months pass by, it gradually steals away who you are and how you define yourself. It not only makes you sick, taking away your lifestyle, career and friends. It also kills your identity.” As time progressed, reluctant to plan personal appearances or group activities in advance, Mich elle would ask herself, “Will I ever be me again?”
An emotional farewell
On August 24, 2000, the greatest women’s soccer player in history announced her retirement. The 34-year-old internationally renowned female athlete ended her historic 15-year career. Michelle was scheduled to compete with the United States Women’s National Soccer Team in the 2000 Olympic Games. However, one month before the Olympics, Michelle accepted the fact that her reinjured shoulder was not healing properly and her longtime battle with CFIDS had taken a toll on her body. “After winning the gold medal in 1996, I promised myself to never again play in the condition I was in during those Olympic games,” said Michelle in her official retirement announcement.
Nearly 10 years after the initial onset of chronic fatigue, Michelle admits: “I found myself at the end–physically and mentally–with a body ready for a M*A*S*H* unit. It has been a hard-fought year, and the decision not to go to Sydney was just as agonizing, but I have huge peace in knowing I fought to the very end and had nothing else to give.”
Michelle Akers’ struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome constantly interrupted her training. Her ability to play and compete in women’s soccer on an international level, despite the debilitating effects of CFIDS, is a testimony to her extraordinary mental and physical endurance.
“This year just seems to have been a non-stop climb of Mt. Everest with 80-mile gale winds at my face. But even in saying that, I know that to climb a mountain, one only needs to put one foot in front of the other and hopefully, if you do that long enough, you will eventually reach the summit. That’s how it has been in years past for me, and that’s how I fully expected it to be this year. I knew it would be tough and I knew I would want to quit at times, but I have always been able to find something from somewhere to pull me through,” explains Michelle. “I rehabbed and worked my rear off to miraculously make the Olympic roster, but after falling on my shoulder a couple of times and reinjuring it, and on top of that having to deal with Achilles tendonitis (in both feet), chronic bum knees, and a raging blood pressure condition (neurally mediated hypotension associated with CFIDS), I realized maybe I wasn’t going to be able to fight through this after all,” she concludes.
A leap of faith
Michelle hopes her ability to play at the Olympic level inspires people with chronic fatigue. “Chronic fatigue has been one of the cruelest, most devastating experiences of my life. The only reason why I’ve survived is because of God’s work in my life. That’s the only reason. It was a huge comfort to me when I was sick as a dog, puking my guts out, unable to move, that God was constantly mindful of me. When you have this illness, you lose everything. Some days I’m so sick I want to die. Or I want to go to sleep and never have to wake up, because I just feel so awful and I know it may never get better.
I know I will always have CFIDS. It’s out of my control. God’s in control. He’s the one handling my life, and I don’t have to work so hard to manage my life because God loves me–sick or healthy.”
During the initial stages of the illness, Michelle learned allopathic physicians don’t always have the answers to chronic illnesses. She researched and met with physicians from different parts of the country, integrating alternative, holistic and complementary therapies.
“I had to learn to be my own doctor and take responsibility with the treatment. Finding the answers takes time. It is important to be patient, ask questions, and take your time.” Michelle methodically worked through her options. She began by changing her diet, beginning with an elimination diet and then moving on to a moderate hypoglycemic diet. She is allergic to dairy and now follows a diet tailored to her needs.
“I am mindful of what I need to keep my body working at top-notch condition. When traveling, I carry my own food on flights. At restaurants and speaking engagements, I ask for food in advance. My immune system is boosted. I am not getting as sick as much as before, and I feel strong. I have adjusted my lifestyle and focus on healthy living. I still juice once or twice a week, mainly carrots and apples, and on occasion have a wheatgrass juice. Because of the blood pressure condition, I salt everything to help keep hydrated. And I limit myself to two cups of Starbucks morning brew,” she laughs.
Michelle’s CFIDS symptoms have decreased substantially and have hit a plateau over the past two years. She estimates that she crashes one week out of each month. Michelle attributes her diminished energy level to the blood pressure disorder known as neurally mediated hypotension (NMH). She is now working with an integrative medicine physician in Florida and is being reevaluated. Her dairy-free diet, increased salt intake, and constant hydration have helped to minimize symptoms.
The NMH is Michelle’s biggest complaint right now. If she is dehydrated, the NMH symptoms become more pronounced due to the low blood volume reaching the brain. Blackouts, fainting, extreme fatigue, gut irritation (bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea), difficulty concentrating and weakness are some of the symptoms she experiences. No one has yet addressed why this disorder seems to accompany people with CFIDS. Finding an answer is a priority, says Michelle.
Michelle’s failure in fighting her illness on her own taught her the importance of surrounding herself with a good support team. Initially, she says, she did not allow the people closest to her to know what was happening or how she felt. She eventually learned how to trust and rely on other people to carry her through the downtime with the illness.
Michelle’s advice now is, “Be honest with everyone. Choose two or three people and fill them in on what’s happening. Let them be there for you. I now rely on these people to carry me on when I am too weak to work it myself. You need a support team to help you achieve a comeback. I know I would not be able to make it alone.
“I compare the comeback from CFIDS to that of recovery from a major injury. Being an athlete accustomed to long odds and having CFIDS to boot has only made the challenge of a physical recovery and comeback more fervent. It is an encounter I refuse to walk away from without a fight, and I don’t necessarily recommend that challenge to you. The path is difficult and the price costly. And besides, sometimes, rest is the answer. And sometimes, following the doctor’s advice is the smart thing to do.”
Michelle’s support team includes a physical therapist, a licensed massage therapist, a nutritionist and friends and family. She says it is essential to incorporate friends and family into your personal team. “Recovery is possible for everyone. It is a matter of catching it before all the systems are irrevocably damaged and persevering with patience, faith and determination,” she adds.
Michelle considers her journey with chronic fatigue to be a blessing and an opportunity. “I learn more from CFIDS and the people who have it than anything else I have ever experienced. It is a continual and constant challenge and one I take on with a warrior mentality each and every day,” she says emphatically.
Looking beyond the field
Michelle Akers underwent shoulder surgery in November. She plans to take a year off from playing soccer, limit her schedule, and recover emotionally and physically. She is on injury reserve and hopes to be picked up by a women’s soccer team in a year.
Her Soccer Outreach International (SOI) ministry is a big part of her life these days. She is using her professional soccer stature as a platform to reach kids, inspiring and motivating them to become leaders with character, faith and purpose.
Michelle is considering taking a role as a TV sports commentator or returning to school to earn a degree as a physician’s assistant. She’s pursuing these options while building her farm near Atlanta, Ga.
“There is a reason for all of this. I work at getting well. I explore all the options just as I am exploring all the options with what I am going to do with my life. I have a sense of peace of where my body is now, and know it is worth the wait. I am doing exactly what I need to do because my illness has made me focus on my relationship with God, being more available to him, and fulfilling my call in life.”
Sylvia R.J. Scott is a writer and publicist based in Westchester County, N.Y. Size struggles with chronic fatigue and keeps busy researching holistic treatments and approaches to the disease.
All about Akers
Michelle Akers played for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team from 1985-2000. She was a member of the World Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1999 and was a gold medalist in the 1996 Olympics.
Michelle now resides in Orlando, Fla. Look for her book, The Fame and The Glory, Michelle Akers with Gregg Lewis (Zondervan Publishing, 2000).
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