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Isabelle Harper: The Sport That Used To Define Me

TW: suicide

We hear about the stories of athletes taking their own lives; we remember the names and stories of Lauren Bernett, Sarah Shulze, and Katie Meyer, to name a few. This was something two years ago I could never imagine doing. On November 13, 2022, my name almost became one we remember–one of the many people whose lives were cut short due to battles others couldn't see. I feel overwhelming empathy for these athletes and others who are struggling silently.

My whole life I wanted to play soccer at Gordon College. My mom taught there, and I grew up going to the games, excited for one day when I would be on that field. Soccer was my life. It was where my identity lay. It was the place where I was most confident and happy. Committing to play at Gordon was a day I’ll never forget. I was so excited for what was to come. I could not wait to start my college career.

This excitement quickly turned to nervousness and hopelessness when during the spring and summer before I went to college I developed chronic and debilitating back pain. The pain was so intense I began to have seizures. I went from being a successful athlete to not being able to walk over the course of a few months. This pain I now know was caused by an injury in track my sophomore year of high school; however, the pain only started right as high school was ending. A shot-put had been dropped on my back and had misaligned my sacrum. For months I went to doctor after doctor, searching for answers that were not found. I was so scared. All I wanted to do was to go to college and play soccer. It was what I had wanted and worked towards for so long. I was so scared of this injury and what it would do to my soccer career and life.

Despite a summer with seizures and constant pain almost every day, I showed up for the first day of practice. I was surrounded by a new family that I instantly loved. I became close with my teammates so fast and created friendships I could not imagine my life without. I ended up sitting out that first day. My coach did not want me trying to pass fitness tests when my injury was still undiagnosed.

One day of sitting out soon turned into weeks of sitting on the sideline watching. I watched as my new friends and roommates began their college careers. They were doing what I had dreamed of for so long. I went to about thirty doctor appointments that semester and still got no answers. I went through a few misdiagnoses where I would become hopeful only to find out the doctors were wrong and they still did not know what was causing my pain and seizures.

My team went on to win the CCC championship. I was so glad to be on a team with such talented and kind teammates, but I could not keep intrusive thoughts out of my head. I’m not really a part of this team. They don’t need me. I’m not contributing anything to my team. I’m worthless. I’ll never be able to play again. What’s the point of living without soccer?

After we played our last game, I came back to our dorm and decided there was no point in trying anymore. After almost a year of fighting this pain, there were still no answers and no hope. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep waiting on the sideline for something to change. That night I gave up. I decided that if I couldn’t play soccer, I did not want to live. I could not see a life for myself without soccer. I just wanted my pain to end. The physical pain, the seizures, and the emotional pain and depression that had taken over my life. I was on a variety of pain meds and was not thinking rationally. I tried to end things. I tried to make it all stop, to escape the life I was living.

I thank God to this day for giving me my roommate, Grace. She saved my life and I am forever grateful. It wasn’t until I was home and had to look my younger sister in the eyes and tell her what I had tried to do, that I realized how badly I needed to recover. In one night I almost destroyed the lives of so many people. I had let soccer become the center of my life, and I lost sight of what was really important.

We later found out that some of the pain meds I had been on cause suicidal ideation. I was confused. Was this me or the meds? Was I only acting because of the medicine? It ended up being the combination of my deteriorating mental health paired with the strong pain meds. After my suicide attempt I was sent home, isolated from my friends, lost in my crippling mental illness, struggling to find hope each day.

Over the next few months I was in recovery. I spent hours in programs slowly changing my outlook and perception on my life. I began to start to see how much more there is to life than sports. I started to realize that my identity does not lie in being a soccer player. That playing soccer was just something I do, not who I am. This change did not happen overnight. While I quickly got clarity on the situation and how many lives I could have hurt, I am still in the healing process from losing soccer and almost my life.

Unfortunately, my story is not one with a perfect, happy ending where the doctors figure out what’s wrong and I can play again; but it did not end that night I chose to give up. I got a second chance which I am so grateful for. I finally found out that I suffer from a functional neurological disorder. Essentially the injury I had in high school had healed in a way where my nerves sensed pain even though nothing was physically wrong. This nerve disorder was very confusing to understand since nothing is physically “wrong” and my nerves are just misfiring off pain signals from the trauma the shot-put being dropped on my back had caused my body.

During my sophomore season, I was still unable to play due to the pain and seizures. This led me to make the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I decided to step back from soccer. All I could do was sit on the side doing physical therapy and hope things would get better. I was at a point where my body was not in constant pain anymore and the only thing which triggered the pain was pushing my body back into sports by building up my strength. I was pushing my body to do something it was not able to do anymore.

One night after a workout where I tried to push through the pain, I had twelve seizures. My body kept saying no, but I kept pushing, forcing it to do something it couldn't do. I realized then that I did not want to live this life with constant pain and seizures. I wanted to live for the sake of living, not for the sake of my sport. Deciding to quit soccer was what my body needed, but it was also because of the toll that this injury had taken on my mental health. My body and mind could not keep up with the expectations I had for myself.

I’ve had to accept that my body is unable to play collegiate soccer. It cannot build up the strength required and the actual movement of soccer is something my body can no longer do. I am now trying to focus on what my body can do. I can walk to classes again, travel, hike, and even play some pickup soccer with kids. I’m now able to envision a life for myself without soccer. It took time, healing, and a lot of hard work to get to where I am now mentally, but I can promise you it’s worth it.

I’ve fallen in love with traveling which is something I would not have gotten to explore as much while doing soccer. I’ve been able to experience places and adventures I could have never imagined that first fall of my freshmen year. I’ve learned how to live. I’ve gotten my life back. I’m always going to miss playing soccer, but now I am able to see myself thriving and living my best life even without the sport that used to define me.


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