Excerpts from Sarah Carlton’s speech at Porter-Gaud High School in March 2015:
Good morning, my name is Sarah Carlton. Today is March 2nd, 2015. January of 2014, I decided to quit soccer forever. Around this time last year, my mom was seriously discussing with Mr. Hyde the fact that I was probably going to have to repeat my junior year. A fifth year of high school, terrifying thought, right?
I was struggling in all of my classes, and dropped AP US history midspring because I was suffering from debilitating headaches and crippling depression that made me unable to be an active participant in my own life.
I grew up on the sidelines of my sister’s soccer games. It never occurred to me that I would play anything else. I fell in love with the game from the beginning, and I wasn’t going to stop until I was the boss, just like my big sister.
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If you know me, you are aware that I am extremely competitive. I am competitive about how competitive I am. So naturally, freshman year, when a player kneed me in the right temple, leaving me dizzy, confused, and seeing black splotches for moments after, I didn’t leave the field. Instead, I was infuriated and continued playing considerably rougher than before.
At the last whistle, the adrenaline wore off, and I was hit with overwhelming nausea and a headache unlike I had ever had before. The right side of my head was swollen and spongy, which really freaked me out ...
The day I returned, I took an elbow to the right side of my head, the same side I had hit before, leaving a goose egg that drained into a black eye I could be proud of. This second hit so recent after the first made the situation worse by re-injuring my brain and not allowing it to heal completely. But it was the playoffs, so I didn’t rest from sports or school, causing my grades to lower toward the end of freshman year.
Migraine headaches begin
... The only real lingering symptom I had over the summer were headaches, maybe a few times a week. A relaxing trip to the Bahamas sounded like just what I needed, but instead it exacerbated all of my symptoms.
Riding on the boat gave me a migraine, snorkeling gave me a migraine, tanning on a beautiful beach for too long forced me to shrink back to our anchored boat and sleep by myself in the shade. But I got marginally better, and 3 months out from the time of injury, I thought that I was pretty much healed.
Immediately, with the start of school and soccer, everything got worse. The headaches became more frequent and more extreme, and I had uncontrollable mood swings. ... If I shot the ball way over the goal, got a bad grade, immediate tears. I cried after practice most days, and I felt so sick I couldn’t eat. I thought I was going crazy, and the headaches were now constant.
... It was October, midway through the club season, and we decided that I needed to stop playing soccer for the time being and rest my brain, and hopefully I would be ready for high school season in the spring. My doctor decided I should completely abstain from any physical activity, and thus began a very dark period of my life.
Saltines and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
When I try to remember those months, I see blackness. I can’t remember my sixteenth birthday, adopting my dog ... I barely limped through school. My daily headache and fatigue was so extreme that it was a tremendous feat for me to get out of bed in the morning and go to school.
I went straight home after school every day to a dark room, went to sleep, maybe woke up for some saltines, ramen, or “Grey’s Anatomy,” and then went back to bed. I didn’t hang out with friends, I wasn’t social at all really. The idea of entertaining and socializing with people was entirely too exhausting, and I was short tempered because I felt so terrible all the time. I couldn’t keep up with my school work because I either had a migraine, or was so scared that if I did do it, the pain would return.
I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my teachers about what was going on with me because I didn’t really know how to talk to them about something so painful and personal, or I thought they would think I was exaggerating, slacking off, or asking for special treatment ...
There’s not really any exact healing period, where a month goes by and suddenly my brain is mended and I can go back to normal brain activity. No one expects a person with a broken leg to run, but it’s hard to understand why a girl that got a concussion six months ago is still having trouble writing a paper.
Some of y’all have experienced a debilitating migraine before. But for those of you who haven’t, it is completely unlike any normal headache that subsides with some Advil and a nap. It is the worst pain I have ever experienced. You know when you slam your finger in the car door, it’s impossible to stop thinking about the pain because it throbs with every heartbeat. Well, imagine slamming your head, again and again in the car door. Your eyes hurt and go blurry, you feel nauseated. The pain is inescapable and encompassing. I used to tell my mom it felt like there was a screwdriver stabbing through my temples and twisting and turning my brains around ...
I slowly came out of my dark hole in late December, when I was finally able to run again. I played soccer that spring for (Porter-Gaud) and had a really great season, and made it to the state finals for a second time. It had always been my dream to play soccer for Davidson College, like my sister, and I went to Davidson soccer camp that summer, just like every year since I was twelve.
On the last day of camp, Coach pulled me aside from the other players and told me that there was a place for me on his team. It felt like everything was falling into place. ... I felt better, I was playing the best soccer of my life, I thought I was finally recovered. But as soon as studying and the stress of school work resumed, the headaches started coming back. My doctor and my parents told me that I needed to avoid heading the ball as much as possible, especially off of punts and corner kicks.
Headers a specialty
Heading corner kicks into the goal like Abby Wambach was my specialty, and as defensive center mid, it was impossible to avoid taking headers. It was part of my job, and I wasn’t going to avoid a header at the cost of my team or possession of the ball. To make matters worse, at a soccer tournament towards the end of the season, I cracked my head on a tent pole when I was running to sub into the game, and the next game I took a hard hit to my head again – what is commonly known as getting your bell rung. I was left dizzy and out of it.
Christmas break was fraught with the same horrible pain and headaches, and after years of it, I was tired and exhausted and sick of being sick all the time. I was tortured by the idea of quitting because playing soccer felt like the only thing I had, the only thing that could make me happy anymore. It was my dream to play soccer in college, and it was so hard for me to even think about giving it up.
But after years of pretending that I was OK, pretending that I was getting better, I confronted myself with the fact that I wasn’t getting better. I had been hurting myself for a long time, and it just wasn’t worth it anymore. When the idea of playing soccer in college made me wince because of the pressure to endure the pain, I realized it was time to say goodbye to soccer, and therefore, a very big part of myself.
... (After Christmas), I plummeted into a deep depression, something I hope you will never have to experience. Depression is more than sadness. It’s constant. It changes the way you see the world and the way you see your life. I thought of myself as worthless, a waste of space with no purpose. Going through my daily routine was like trying to tread water with someone pulling you down. I never went to a full week of school. Often I would come in late or leave early, or not show up at all. Every day was such a struggle that it caused me to have anxiety about the future; I couldn’t imagine living very long if this is what life was like.
But even if you think things will never get better, they do. With the help of my doctors and the support of friends and family, I made my way out of the dark pit of depression.
The reason I told this story is because we are lucky to have such a close community here at Porter-Gaud, and I want you to know that help and support is available for whatever you are going through. After all this, after a year of zero soccer balls, tent poles, or knees to the head, I am finally almost okay again. I have all good grades, a pretty good attendance record, (still a fair number of tardies), awesome friends, and my loving family. Being able to join the Cyclone cross country and track teams was a blessing. … I never thought that I would play a college sport after I quit soccer, but I am proud to say that I will be running cross country and track for the Sewanee Tigers next year.
It is important to me that you understand that I don’t regret anything that happened. In spite of all the pain, everything turned out just as it should. I want to thank everyone that helped me through this. … But most of all, I want to thank my dad and my mom. They are the best people that I know, and I don’t know who I would be without them. Mom, I want to thank you for always being there for me, whatever I needed. I am lucky to have you.