Aged 13, Lis Cashin killed her friend with a javelin in a freak and tragic accident at her school sports day. The event led to years of self-destructive behaviour until finally through exploring a path of self-development and acceptance she found healing.
In 1982 I passed my 11-plus exam and went to grammar school. It was a difficult time as my home life wasn’t stable and my relationship with my step father was emotionally abusive. At my new school I was bullied but at least I thrived in sports and aged 13 I was picked for the javelin team.
On Sports Day that year I went to school determined to win a medal. When it was my turn to throw I got ready to aim and then threw the javelin as hard as I could. At first it was going straight but just at the last minute it somehow veered off to the right. One of my friends, Sammy, had volunteered to mark the pitch that day and I noticed that she’d become distracted and the javelin was heading straight towards her. Then there was this moment of true horror as I saw it strike her in the head. She stumbled forward and there was a lot of blood.
The shock was overwhelming. I literally collapsed onto my knees and held my head in my hands. I thought I’d blinded her. Later, my mum took me to the hospital because I needed to see Sammy but we were told she’d been transferred to the neurological hospital. Instinctively then I knew she was going to die. It was a totally defining moment. Nothing could ever be the same.
At the inquest the school’s version of events was very different from mine and from the other girls who’d witnessed what had happened. The verdict was ‘Death by Misadventure’ which meant it could have been prevented and that the school had a responsibility. The trouble is I never got to hear all this until much later – so I internalised everything and blamed myself. I was told the teachers were keeping an eye on me, but no one was talking to me.
When the police interviewed me one of them asked if I’d had an argument with Sammy and I thought, ‘Oh no, they think I did it on purpose’. I was convinced I was going to prison. I’d grown up in a Catholic environment where it says “thou shalt not kill”. It doesn’t say it’s OK if it’s an accident.
My step father insisted we should never mention Sammy’s name. My sister was just a bit older than me and very loving and supportive, but the guilt I felt was overwhelming so I couldn’t share with her. I did try and talk to my mum but she would always tell me to wait until my step-dad had gone out. So instead I’d lock myself in my bedroom and write letters to Sammy. It made me feel connected to her. Also Sammy’s parents were incredible. Right from the beginning they never blamed me. I was so grateful for their compassion. I don’t know if I’d actually be alive today without them.
Not having any help to unravel what I’d experienced meant I internalised everything. There wasn’t even counselling back then. I felt I was a glass box, completely disconnected for many years. It impacted me in many ways leading to crippling low self-esteem. I never married and never had children.
But over the years of looking for healing I did unravel some of my negative beliefs and start to transform my shame. Even to the extent that a few years ago I started speaking publicly about my story because I was eager to share what I’d learned. But then I found that in the telling of the story I was being re-traumatised. Only when I read a book called ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ did I realise that all this time I’d been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – living in chaos internally and yet looking outwardly competent. To deal with my trauma I now signed up for compassionate focussed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – which though very painful really helped me to shift.
Forgiveness was when I thought I’d done something wrong and then forgave myself when I realised I was a child who hadn’t meant it. But then came another level, compassion, as I came to understand that in a way there was nothing to forgive myself for. For years I had believed I was evil and deserved to be punished, but what I came to experience was that actually I was just an innocent 13-year-old going to school that day who had a right to be safe. I wasn’t messing about and the school had a responsibility. It was almost like my heart was breaking for myself because I’d been self-sabotaging and holding on to all this blame and guilt.
I’ve now written a book about my journey because I wanted to share what I’d learnt and before publication I met with Sammy’s mum. It really was one of the most beautiful and moving experiences of my life. I told her I’d written the book and that it was in honour of Sammy’s life, which she accepted, but then she said, ‘Lis, I think you really need to live your life for you now’. I said that I felt on some level I had been waiting for her permission for me to be happy “I have always wanted you to be happy” she said with tears in her eyes. Her kindness and compassion have helped me to finally let go of the deeper levels of blame, guilt and shame I have been carrying all these years.