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Oh, But Darling, What If You Fly?

Holli Cuevas encouraged her daughter, Lyndsey Lee, with the saying “Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?” even though she didn’t fully understand what her daughter was going through.

They say ACL injuries are one of the hardest injuries to come back from in soccer. Imagine tearing the same ligament twice. Imagine the emotions, the heartbreak and the will power it takes for an athlete to overcome that injury in order to get back on the field. Imagine doing that twice in one year.

Soccer was everything in Lee’s life. The dream was to play Division 1 soccer. But in her junior year of high school, that ligament snapped and Lyndsey’s life would begin to change. The rehab and the time off the field was nothing compared to what Lee was about to go through both physically and mentally.

Lee returned to the game she loved early after rehabbing hard for five months. But once you’ve experienced that snap and feel your bones collide, you never forget that feeling.

“I turned the wrong way and once you’ve done it once you know when you do it again,” Lee said. “It was my first time back on the field and I knew it was done.”

But what Lee didn’t know was what her body and mind were about to go through after her second surgery. There wasn’t a trigger. There wasn’t one pinpoint situation Lyndsey can remember that started it all, but that second surgery changed Lee’s future and health moving forward.

Pain medication, the healing process, the time away from friends and the game she grew up with, took a toll on her body and her mentality about her figure.

Once Lee was able to train again, she did just that. Lyndsey did everything she could to be healthy. But what was thought to be getting in shape turned out to be more.

Lee was considered to be obsessively over exercising.

This over exercising allowed Lee the chance to play soccer in college, but not quite at the highest level or so she thought.

Lee was offered a spot at Pearl River, a junior college. She thought that’s the best she could do coming off two ACL surgeries, but when her club coach mentioned Head Coach Mohammed El-Zare and Southern Miss to her, all it took was a phone call to have her hooked.

With D1 soccer again in her sights, nothing was going to slow her down. What originally started with obsessive over exercising, led to her disordered eating.

Lee lost muscle mass after her surgeries and that’s what started the over compensation with working out to get to what she thought her body needed to look like. Lee began to notice the change in her body. The pressure she put on herself to compete at the highest level made her train that much harder.

“You don’t even know you’re doing it,” Lee said. “I just wanted to play so bad that I was doing everything I could to build muscle and get my knee healthy again.”

At first, Lee stopped eating as much as she used to. Then came the constant want and need to exercise when she ate.

“I never used to care what people thought of me or was self conscious of what I ate, but that was something that changed after surgery” Lee said.

The amount of exercise equaled the amount of food she ate or vice versa. The more food she consumed, the more she would exercise to balance it out. The constant amount of exercise resulted to almost no body fat and her weight was extremely low for her height.

That triggered the binge eating.

“My body went into starvation mode and I was trying to make up for the food I didn’t eat. But when that happened, your mind thinks, ‘I need to get rid of the food I do eat and I need to throw up’”.

Despite all of these ideas running through her head and all these false notions of what her body needed to look like to be an athlete, Lyndsey met her childhood dreams.

Lee didn’t let her eating disorder get in the way of her performance on the field or in the classroom.

Lee earned quality minutes on the field starting eight of the 16 games she appeared in her freshman season with Southern Miss. Lee also recorded eight shot attempts and two assists in 651 minutes on the field.

No one ever suspected there was something going on in her head. Despite her first season’s success, the eating disorder became more prominent in her life when Lee started to notice her eating habits had changed and her portion control was something she started to care about.

After a great opening season, Lee was stuck in the position of whether or not she could handle this problem, something she still didn’t know she had, on her own or if she needed to seek professional help.
Lee decided leaving Southern Miss was in her best interest after her first semester.

The decision to leave left everyone with questions: her mom, coach El-Zare, her teammates and even herself.

“Is this something I can live with the rest of my life?” Lee said. “Is soccer what’s causing these thoughts and these problems?”

Lee decided to go back to Pearl River thinking she could handle the issue by herself with friends she grew up with surrounding her. But that wasn’t the solution.

Lee was still not able to control her eating habits. She still questioned what was going on with her. Lee kept asking herself, “Is this the life I want to live?”

Was a life full of anxiety and depression the life she wanted to fight on her own?

A phone call to her mom was all it took for Lee to get the help she needed.

“I didn’t want to live my life like that,” Lee said. “It meant more to me to be open and go get help rather than to be embarrassed and try and hide something for the rest of my life. I treated people differently and I was unhappy because I was so frustrated I couldn’t fix myself.”

Counseling was the first step to understand what was happening in her mind.

“It’s a mental disorder and until you acknowledge it and get help, you can’t just stop it”, Lee said. During counseling, Lee was told that in-house treatment would be the best option in order to control and fully understand what she was going through both mentally and physically.

Lee spent 90 days at Canopy Cove, a private, residential eating disorder treatment center in Tallahassee, Fla.

“It was an emotional strain, but we did what we needed to do,” Cuevas said. “I told her I would do my part and all she had to do was focus on getting better and that’s what she did.”

While at Canopy Cove, Lee was diagnosed with anorexia, induced bulimia and excessive over exercise.

Canopy Cove had Lyndsey on a strict schedule. Eat. Therapy. Eat. Therapy. And repeat.

“I never felt like I had an issue growing up that caused me to have this disorder and that’s what I struggled with understanding,” Lee said.

Lee recognized through treatment that her personality characteristics had something to do with her disorders. Being a perfectionist was a key factor into explaining why her thought process happened the way it did.

“If I’m going to school to get good grades, then I’m going to get good grades,” Lee said. “If there’s a healthy way to eat then I’m definitely going to do it. That’s just the way my thought process worked.”

But treatment helped Lyndsey realize that there is a middle ground she needed to find in order to live a balanced and healthier life style.

Lee was secluded from family while at Canopy Cove and when the therapists said playing soccer after leaving wouldn’t be in her best interest, Lee was discouraged. They just shot down the one thing that’s been her dream since she was 4 years old.

Lee wasn’t going to let that get in her way and encouragement from her mom was all she needed.

“My mom was the number one person helping me get through everything and even when I had professionals telling me I don’t need to be playing sports again, she was there telling me I have never let anything someone said stop be from following my dreams, so why start now,” Lyndsey said. “I wasn’t going to start after two surgeries and treatment?”

The fear was in Lee’s mind. Her health was in question. Her hard work to be healthy again was at risk. Was soccer worth it?

“I felt like I had nothing left in me,” Lee said. “I could give no more. I couldn’t do anything else but think of these problems. All of my effort was drained in the fog of dealing with my eating disorder.”

And that’s when the inspiration came in.


“That stuck with me because I always asked, what if I fail?” Lee said.

The positivity stuck. The treatment had given Lee a healthy mind and body back. Lee took a few weeks off after leaving Canopy Cove to make sure she would be able to handle the outside world on her own and maintain a healthy regimen.

Once she felt like she had control, Lee got back into training. The first thing on her mind was getting back on the soccer field.

Lee called coach El-Zare to get back on the Southern Miss soccer team and also explained to him what caused her to leave after freshman year.

“I told him I would do whatever it takes to be on that field because I wanted to be apart of something that was bigger than myself,” Lee said.

Coach El-Zare saw a healthy, different person from her freshman season. Her character and personality shined through everything else.

“It wasn’t about her skills on the field because everyone knew she had them, but it was about seeing the positive change in her and how happy she was that made it an easy decision for me to get her back on the team,” El-Zare said.

Lee is back on the soccer team at Southern Miss and completed her second season with the Golden Eagles in 2016 where she played in all 17 games and started in 12. She had 24 shots, nine on goal and had two assists in her junior season.

Lee is still fighting her diseases and has them under control but considers herself still in recovery.

“I’m more aware of it,” Lee said. “I’m more open to talk about it. Knowing that I have this amazing support team here makes it so much easier to handle.”

“There is always a lesson in everything,” Lee said. “God was teaching me humility through this. It took me a notch down and made me appreciate everything I had.”

Talking about it helps Lyndsey. If anyone ever needs someone to talk to, Lee feels like she is a person to come to.

“I’m so open to talk about it now and help others going through something like this,” Lee said. “I don’t want people to feel trapped in this. Food is supposed to keep you going, not bring you down.”

Lee wants to be an inspiration to those who are going through the same situation and an outlet for comfort for those who need it.

Soccer was the end goal and the dream that kept Lee fighting.

Lee made it to her goal because she believed she could fly.

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