Behind the Whistle: Persevering Through Trauma

PHOTO COURTESY OF WESLEYAN ATHLETICS

Abby Wolk started four games and made 30 saves in 2021.


This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Abby Wolk is a senior goalkeeper on the Wesleyan women's lacrosse team.

Anxiety and trauma have no hierarchy. Everyone is entitled to both their feelings and the help and space to manage them. Unfortunately, not everyone has the support they need. I’m lucky — I did and do.

In August 2018, I arrived on Wesleyan University’s campus excited at the prospect of going to classes and playing competitive lacrosse. Everything was going to be great … until it wasn’t. And after only three days, I found myself moving home.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety. Growing up, I was always anxious about shootings. I lived in constant fear that I could get shot walking home from the bus stop, going shopping at the mall or even going to school. These fears were surprising. I did not live in a dangerous area. In fact, my hometown, Parkland, Fla., was known for being one of the safest in the state of Florida. After years of working through this anxiety, I finally felt free. I was in high school, going to class, playing lacrosse (the sport I loved), visiting colleges and so much more. While my anxiety was always present, I had learned how to manage it in a healthy way. It no longer hindered me.

This all changed on February 14, 2018. I was less than a block away from my high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, driving back for lacrosse practice and chatting on the phone with my soon-to-be college assistant coach when my phone began beeping. My mom was calling me — repeatedly. After declining her call over and over, I finally answered when my dad started calling. They yelled at me to turn around and come home; there was an active shooter at my school. I quickly made a U-turn, parked the car and began making phone calls to my younger brother, cousins, friends and teammates. That night, my family and I sat together as we watched the death count slowly rise. Fourteen of my classmates and three of my teachers/coaches had been killed, and seventeen others had been injured.

Following the shooting, I struggled to process the trauma. I didn’t even consider myself a victim. How could I grieve for myself and my losses when I was so lucky? Due to dual enrollment, I had two fewer “in-school classes;” I was not even physically on school property during the shooting. My closest friends and family were all safe. I truly convinced myself I was fine. It was my senior season, and I wanted more than anything to be back on the field with my teammates. So, I completely threw myself into lacrosse and my newly abbreviated senior season. On the lacrosse field, in the goal, has always been my safe space. There, I’m not afraid of anything. I never have been.

When August rolled around and it was time for me to begin my new journey at Wesleyan, I could not have been more excited. I was on my way to play the sport I love at one of the highest levels at one of the most well-respected liberal arts schools in the country. I was ready to leave Parkland behind.

However, once arriving on campus, my excitement quickly turned into full-blown anxiety. The fear of my parents being over 1,000 miles away combined with the extreme trauma I had yet to process was overwhelming. Even the prospect of amazing lacrosse was not enough to calm me. After struggling for three days to force myself to feel at all safe and comfortable, I realized that I had not processed what had happened and emotionally, I was not ready to start the next chapter of my life.







I vividly remember texting Kim Williams, my coach, and her rushing to meet me at her office. Together, she, my parents and I ultimately decided that it was best that I go back home and process what happened while surrounded by my family. The opportunity to play lacrosse, my true passion, and form lasting bonds with my new teammates was ripped away from me. I was crushed.

I went home and worked with a therapist. Kim kept in contact with me throughout the entire fall semester, ensuring I was up to date on the team and campus life. My teammates even welcomed me to visit them on campus, attend their classes and stay overnight. Ultimately, in January 2019, Kim and my team welcomed me back to Wesleyan with open arms. They supported me through one of the toughest times in my life and never questioned my decision to leave campus. The opportunity to return to Wesleyan and play the sport I loved was what kept me going while at home.

Today, I am a senior at Wesleyan and truly feel as though I have found my home. I am back in a place where lacrosse brings me joy — being on the field again brings me peace. Practice, once again, is truly the best part of my day. Additionally, the tragedy at my high school introduced me to the reality of the gun violence epidemic. I am a student leader of a Students Demand Action chapter, an organization dedicated to promoting common-sense gun regulation.

My college journey has been far from typical. However, my experiences have made me stronger and have emphasized the importance of savoring every moment life gives us — because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. It has also taught me that it is okay to put myself first. Taking a step back and prioritizing my mental health served as the basis for how I live my life.

Without my semester off, I do not think I would have found the same success and joy at Wesleyan that I am so lucky to have. I learned that my feelings are (and were) always valid. Nobody “doesn’t deserve” to feel scared or upset. Emotions and loss are personal.

I am so thankful that Kim and WeWoLa encouraged me to prioritize my mental health and allowed me to return to Wesleyan once I truly felt ready. And they have continued to actively support me. Some things are still difficult. Because of them, I have been able to thrive both academically and athletically. I am beyond excited for my senior year and senior season. I know how lucky I am to have the opportunities that I do, and I plan to take advantage of every single one of them. I am grateful to be back on the field and in the goal; it is once again my safe space.

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