I threw it with all my might and watched it fly. As it came down, it suddenly veered to the right, straight towards Sammy
It was a bright, sunny day at my girls’ grammar school in 1983. I was 13 and proud to have been chosen to throw the javelin for my house team. It was a rare moment of confidence: I was bullied at school, had few friends, and home was a tough place. My mum and sister were loving, but I didn’t get on with my stepdad, who made me feel worthless.
I waited for the teachers to call me to throw. Ahead and to the right, I could see my classmates Sammy and Sarah, who had volunteered to mark the distances. I took my run-up, threw the javelin with all my might and watched it fly. As it came down, it suddenly veered to the right, straight towards Sammy, who was distracted. Everyone could see what was going to happen. They screamed her name. In a split second, Sammy looked up and then ducked. I remember thinking: “Oh thank God, she’s OK.”
But the javelin hadn’t missed. It had hit Sammy just above her left eye. She stumbled forwards before collapsing. There was a lot of blood.
My memories after that are blurred. I remember wanting to go and help, but apparently I was running round in circles. Someone eventually noticed and I was taken inside and given sweet tea. The teachers kept saying: “She’s going to be fine.”
At some point, I was sent home alone. When my mum came back, I begged her to take me to see Sammy in hospital. We arrived only to be told she had been transferred to a neurological hospital. I was left in the waiting room while my mum went to talk to a doctor for about half an hour. When she came back I said: “Is she going to die?” and Mum said: “Yes, I think so.” The pressure on my chest became immense and I struggled to breathe.
Sammy died four days later. I didn’t go back to school for the rest of the term, but I did attend the funeral. Sammy’s parents never blamed me for her death and were incredibly kind. Later, I was interviewed by the police and asked whether Sammy and I had argued that day, but we hadn’t – she was a friend, a really smiley girl who was always joking. I liked her a lot.
At school in September, a chair was left empty for Sammy. I felt as if I was living in a goldfish bowl. Everyone knew, but no one talked about it. At the inquest, the verdict was death by misadventure, but the school was criticised for how the games were run. This didn’t assuage my guilt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t given counselling and my stepdad banned Sammy’s name from our house, but I used to write letters to her in my bedroom.
Eventually, I decided to channel my energies into my studies, trying to make the most of my life to honour Sammy. In sixth form, I moved into a council flat to get away from my stepdad. I went to university and in my last year I discovered ecstasy. I think that saved me, in a way; clubbing gave me an escape route and confidence.
I went to work in sales, but for most of my 20s I felt as if I were wearing masks: the corporate life in the week, taking drugs every weekend. In my early 30s, I went travelling for a year and a half. On a beach in India, someone gave me reiki and I had what I would call a spiritual awakening. I retrained as a life coach, focusing on being positive.
But any time I felt unsafe or shocked – whether it was a new situation or sudden loud noises – I would feel terrified. Eventually, I found a name for my problem: post-traumatic stress disorder. This led to cognitive behavioural therapy, during which I was able finally to understand that Sammy’s death was a tragic accident. At the time, I was an innocent girl who was sad in her life, so I blamed myself.
I stayed in touch with Sammy’s parents for a while, but eventually I realised it was too painful for me and for them. I have been single for years and never married. I was too afraid to have a child because I thought that it would die – that it would be karma for my part in Sammy’s death.
In the past couple of years, though, I have managed to move on. I am about to publish a book about my path to happiness and I work as a speaker for TLC Lions, which helps organisations challenge the stigma around mental health. I want what happened to me to be turned into a positive, and to empower other women to reach their potential – as I finally have.
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