Still here: Sarah Lepine's mental health journey & return to the game she loves

October 6, 2022

Sarah Lepine’s headphones are at full volume. She has had them in her ears since the drive to the field, and they’ve stayed there as she goes through her pregame routine. Her pregame playlist blares so loudly that she wonders if her teammates can hear it as they get ready to play. Her blonde ponytail spills out from the hair elastic atop her head, as she bends down and ties her cleats.  

 

First, her right cleat, pulling the laces so tight that her feet will surely numb soon after taking the pitch. Then her left cleat, her fingers whitening as she grips the laces, tightening them as snugly as she possibly can. Her Calgary Blizzards jersey is tucked in perfectly to her shorts, its number 15 displayed clearly on her chest. 

 

As she walks to the edge of the pitch, her feet already numbing, she adjusts each of her shin pads. The guards sit two inches, exactly, above her shoe sock. They, too, need to be as tight as possible. Lepine removes her headphones, and Guetta’s song is replaced with the sounds of her teammates chatting, balls being pinged around the grass, happy laughter, and talk of strategy filling the crisp air.  

 

This is where she is supposed to be, she tells herself. Soccer is the game she loves. Her friends and teammates are beyond important to her. Yet, her heart races, her mind is foggy, and she can’t bring herself to enjoy the pregame festivities. 

 

As a teammate rolls a pass to her feet, inviting her to warm up, Sarah Lepine smiles, bravely.  

 

Her cleats and shin guards and jersey and hair are exactly where they are supposed to be. But on this day, and the day prior, and the day before that, she isn’t sure she is.  

 

-- 

 

For as far back as she could remember, soccer had been her joyful place. She was good at it. Quick. Technical. Athletic.  She was a sprinter on the track & field team at Crescent Heights High School, where she was an honour roll student in the classroom. Her favourite part of soccer was her favourite part of school; nothing made her happier than being surrounded by her friends in a social environment.  

 

Somewhere between her Grade 10 and Grade 11 years at CHHS, there was a shift. The nerves and discomfort she had become used to before a big track meet or soccer game became more regular.  

 

As hard as she tried, she couldn’t get her mind to slow down. She couldn’t focus on one thing. She couldn’t think clearly. Outwardly, nothing seemed amiss. She would still arrive at school and seek out her friends, trying to participate in whatever the topic of the day was. But inside, it was as though there was someone playing defense in her mind, preventing her from participating in the things that brought her joy.  

 

Verbally participating in conversation required great courage. Soccer practice became a source of tremendous pressure. And the classes where she had regularly earned A’s from her teachers? Unable to focus and incapable of controlling her daily thoughts, Sarah would try to will herself to be motivated to study, or complete the required homework assignment that would greatly influence her final grade. But she couldn’t. 

 

When Sarah’s phone would ring, she wouldn’t answer. She couldn’t answer. But she struggled on her own, because the idea of opening up about whatever was going on inside her was too embarrassing of an idea to even consider. Her parents were there, constantly checking in on her day-to-day life, but she gave them no indication that anything was amiss. Days turned to nights, and back to days, often without her getting a moment of rest. 

 

Like momentum in soccer, it felt like the field was tilted against her, and she was trying to kick a ball uphill. To get a handle on how she was feeling, start to assert herself academically, and find joy in this life she loved so much, she would need to find the energy to do so. But when the rest of the world was sleeping, Sarah was sitting awake, too exhausted to close her eyes.  

 

By her Grade 12 year, it was routine. She would get home from school, climb the stairs to her bedroom, and tuck herself under the covers. Then, the blonde, athletic, intelligent, popular 17-year-old would cry. And cry. And cry. Surrounded by trophies she had won on the track and on the pitch, with walls adorned with pictures of her friends and family. She would weep. Every day. Alone. 

 

-- 

 

12 games, 11 starts, three points. An ideal freshman season of college soccer by just about every metric, yet Sarah Lepine was in a haze.  

 

She was competing for SAIT in the Alberta College Athletic Conference, playing a huge role for the Trojans in their undefeated season, and spending her days upgrading her high school classes. Her marks had suffered in her grade 12 year at CHHS, so she was forced to bump those averages up before she could even consider a direction. 

 

That was fitting, because she felt directionless. Her struggles hadn’t gone away. If anything, they had deepened, but she had gotten much better at numbing herself and finding a way to blend in with the crowd.  

 

Her club teammate Sage Meyers was also a freshman for the Trojans, and they vowed to continue their soccer journey together. It was a source of comfort for Sarah, but a bandaid for a bubbling issue that showed no intention of lessening its hold on her life and her happiness. 

 

In the summer of 2019, Meyers and Lepine made the decision to jump to the U SPORTS level and sign with the UNBC Timberwolves. The chance to play soccer at the highest tier of university sport in the country was an opportunity Lepine knew she wanted. It was the game she loved. It was an adventure. But she had little faith that it would alleviate the darkness that was clouding her mind.  

 

She was right. Being away from Calgary meant that her familiar comforts were no longer an option. She loved her Timberwolves teammates, but the bubbly, smiling 19-year-old was slipping. Ups and downs turned to just downs; the unrelenting pressure got heavier and heavier, and her smiles, even the fake ones, began to fade. 

 

In high school, she would find respite from the outside world by retreating to her bedroom and climbing into bed. At university, she would leave class and hurry to her dorm room, where she would gather her tiny frame under her covers and lay there for hours upon hours. If training was in the afternoon, she would feel such anxiousness that she would spend all day in her single bed, skipping class and preparing for the practice. 

 

Her teammates didn’t know she was struggling. How could they? Sarah would arrive at training with her hair in her signature top pony, charming her fellow TWolves with her warm personality and participating in drills with a smile on her face.  

 

They didn’t know she had started to experience anxiety attacks, laying alone in her UNBC bedroom, short of breath, pains in her chest, and tears in her eyes. 

 

-- 

 

In the spring of 2020, the world stopped. While university soccer may have been a long way down the list of most important things affected by the COVID 19 pandemic, the cancellation of the 2020 U SPORTS season meant the lives of student-athletes across the country would surely be altered forever. 

 

Sarah Lepine was back in Calgary when the announcement was made, suddenly facing a life without her one reason to get out of bed. It was nothing short of confusing; she felt anxiety all day before a training session, yet the absence of that routine and that social circle was sending her deeper and deeper into a state of despair. Despite her parents and friends being present and full of love, she did her best to not share her burden with anyone else.

 

The chest pains that had started to plague her in Prince George became more severe and more regular. At one point, Sarah was certain she was having a medical emergency, and went to the hospital to find out what was causing her such trouble. She was informed she was suffering an anxiety attack, manifesting itself with such seriousness that she would surely need to confront it. But, again, she kept it to herself. 

 

When Meyers suggested she move to Vancouver with her, Lepine jumped at the opportunity to try to outrun her despair. What she didn’t realize was that she couldn’t escape what was inside of her, and the move to Vancouver would send her to the darkest corners of her mind. 

 

There was nothing unusual about that day. She had tried to look at the online courses she was technically enrolled in at UNBC, but couldn’t find the motivation to do her homework. She had worked a shift serving at a restaurant, where she used all the tricks she had developed to convince those around her that she was thrilled to be there. And then it crossed her mind. 

 

I think I’ll kill myself. 

 

No, no. You won’t. You can’t. 

 

You can. This is too hard. 

 

You could never. Think of all the people you’ll hurt. 

 

I think I’ll kill myself.  

 

That was the first time Sarah Lepine considered taking her own life. But certainly not the last. Every day, many times over, she would negotiate with herself about the pros and cons of what it would mean to commit suicide.  

 

She had lost all motivation. She had said goodbye to all joy. Her grades had plummeted. She was partying regularly, trying anything to distract her brain from its reality. She had no desire to even look at a soccer ball. Money would come and money would go. She didn’t need it. She didn’t see a future with herself in it. 

 

Every day, it would cross her mind. Every day, she would try her best to fight it off. Not because she felt like living, but because she could not confront the idea of taking her sadness and despair and placing it on the shoulders of those she’d leave behind.  

 

I think I’ll kill myself. 

 

No, no, you won’t. You can’t.  

 

You can. This is too hard. 

 

You could never. Think of all the people you’ll hurt. 

 

I think I’ll kill myself. 

 

The intrusive visitor in her own mind seemed to hail from the darkest parts of her, sneaking into her thoughts and encouraging her to die. She was able to identify those fantasies as irrational, if not alarmingly convincing; life was not a worthy endeavour, she thought.  

 

But, some days, that voice was deafening. And close to winning. In a battle of will, her love for life was being drowned out. 

 

I think I’ll kill myself. 

 

No, no, you won’t. You can’t.  

 

You can. This is too hard. 

 

You could never. Think of all the people you’ll hurt. 

 

I think I’ll kill myself. 

 

-- 

 

In January of 2021, Sarah forced herself to get out of the situation in Vancouver, and made the move back to Prince George. At UNBC, despite the lack of a season, there was routine, there was a social circle, and there was soccer.  

 

She was hopeful that by changing her circumstances externally, she could put herself in a better place internally. But within two weeks, it was clear that would not be the case.

She had never been closer to making the fateful decision to end her life. Used to the mental jousting inside her own head, Sarah found herself losing that battle, finding less and less reason in the need to see another day. Thoughts of overdosing on pills were running rampant in her mind.

Recognizing that her isolation was increasing her odds of following through with suicide, she reached out to a group of teammates, asking if she could hang out. That evening, without telling them about her struggles, Sarah spent the evening fighting an internal war, but doing just enough to stick around for another day.

Later that week, she decided it was time to confide in Meyers about what she had been struggling with.   

 

Speaking on the phone to her friend, Lepine blurted out that every day, all day, she considered a world she was no longer a participant in. Meyers, ever the supportive friend, urged her teammate to seek treatment, going as far as telling Sarah that if she didn’t book an appointment, she would call and do it herself.  

 

Lepine agreed, and visited the UNBC Medical Clinic the next day. She shared what the last four years had been like, and even detailed her daily struggles with suicidal thoughts. With every word, she felt her armour falling to the floor; the armour she wore, intending to keep negativity out, had actually been ensuring it couldn’t escape.  

 

She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and prescribed medication to help her handle both. Finding herself apprehensive about being “fake-happy,” it was Meyers who assured her it would help her be herself again.  

 

Sarah committed to not only taking the medication, but also using the momentum of sharing with the doctor, opening up to people in her life about her struggles. 

 

The medication was helping. Therapy was helping. Cognitive behavioural therapy was helping. She shared her heart with her parents. She told her twin brother. With U SPORTS soccer returning for the 2021 season, she shared with people in her life.  

 

Every day was still a battle, and on a night of particular shame and struggle, she opened up to her teammate Avery Nystedt. Nystedt was incredibly supportive and served as her first ally in Prince George. She spoke with TWolves team leader Kalista Kirkness. Connor Lewis from UNBC Men’s Soccer became a source of support and insight. Then, she talked to Michael Henman of UNBC Men’s Soccer, who had shared his own personal story of mental health and internal struggle in an article penned in 2019. She had read his story, and many details of his battle resonated deeply with her. Henman was tremendously encouraging, suggesting she talk to UNBC coach Neil Sedgwick.  

 

Sarah didn’t want pity from her head coach. She didn’t want to be viewed differently. She didn’t want to appear weak, and she certainly didn’t want him to think she was making excuses for her commitment or level of play. Sitting in Sedgwick’s office, her legs shook as she told her coach about how hard it had been to focus on soccer. How difficult it was to find the motivation to face the world. How she loved soccer and loved the team, but she had fallen into a place where she didn’t love anything.  

 

Her fears would be dispelled as quickly as she verbalized them. Neil Sedgwick assured her he did not see her differently. She was not weak. To him, it was the strongest thing he had ever seen her do.  

 

-- 

 

Motivation is a funny thing. It’s intrinsic. It comes from within. It can be fleeting, but it can be regained. On opening day of UNBC Timberwolves 2022 training camp in late July, Sarah was feeling motivated.  

 

With her mental health requiring daily attention, Sarah had been actively attending counselling, and confronting the bad days much differently than she had in the beginning of her struggles. When she needed to take time for herself, she did it. But she was no longer charting the course alone; the loneliness of anxiety and depression could be fought by transparency and an understanding that her path was far from unique.  

 

With every counselling session, she was inviting positive thoughts to take up residency in the real estate of her mind, right next to the fears and negativity that once ruled the block. It turned out, while acknowledging their might, she could deem them near-powerless by taking back the very mind and soul that made her, her.  

 

Being alone was now something she looked forward to. Not so she could isolate herself and exist in her fears. But, instead, her alone time was a time to think, reflect, and be with herself. And, finally, to appreciate herself. 

 

Psychology classes had a new meaning for her. It was no longer a field of study, but rather a passion. Why don’t we treat counselling like we treat going to physiotherapy, she wondered. Why is mental health not a bigger part of curriculums for young people growing up? Why are we stigmatizing mental illness, forcing those living with it into a life of isolation and pain?  

 

She had a direction. She had found motivation. Educating and empowering, while normalizing and destigmatizing. Using her own struggle and own journey to light the path of those following in the darkness behind her.  

  

On the pitch, however, there were no guarantees. Sarah knew that. Just because she was in the best place she had been in a long time, and playing the best soccer of her life, there was no guarantee she would make the roster, let alone play in a Canada West game. But she was okay with that.  

 

Looking back at where she had fallen to, with no desire to ever play the game again, just being in training camp with her teammates was enough. They were her friends, her supporters, and her allies. Not so long ago, Sarah had spent all day, every day considering ending her life. But, the Timberwolves all knew of her journey, and had made it crystal clear that they had her back.  

 

-- 

 

Sarah Lepine’s headphones are at full volume. She has had them in her ears since the drive to the field, and they’ve stayed there as she goes through her pregame routine. Her pregame playlist blares so loudly that she wonders if her teammates can hear it as they get ready to play. Her blonde ponytail spills out from the hair elastic atop her head, as she bends down and ties her cleats.  

 

First, her right cleat, pulling the laces so tight that her feet will surely numb soon after taking the pitch. Then her left cleat, her fingers whitening as she grips the laces, tightening them as snugly as she possibly can. Her UNBC Timberwolves jersey is tucked in perfectly to her shorts, its number 15 displayed clearly on her chest. 

 

This is where she is supposed to be, she tells herself. Soccer is the game she loves. Her friends and teammates are beyond important to her.  

 

In the 79th minute of a match against the visiting Winnipeg Wesmen, Neil Sedgwick turns to her and motions for her to get ready to enter the game. With goosebumps running down her neck, she removes her bright orange pinnie, and makes her way to the scorekeeper’s table. The official signals for her to enter the game. She steps on the Canada West pitch for the first time in her career.  

 

Tears fill her eyes. 

.  

Her cleats and shin guards and jersey and hair are exactly where they are supposed to be. And so is she.