By Tris Wykes
Eleni Howe was readying for sleep one night January of 2020 when her phone chimed with a text message. In it, her teenage daughter, Sarah, asked a despairing question.
“I don’t want to see my friends. I don’t want to leave the house. What’s wrong with me?”
Hustling off her bed and hurrying down the hall to Sarah’s bedroom, Eleni Howe couldn’t have known she and her family were embarking on an anguished, months-long journey.
“I was feeling it for a while and didn’t know what else to do, so I said it out loud,” Sarah Howe said. “I knew something wasn’t right and I didn’t want to continue to feel the way I did.
“I never really talked about the way I felt with people. Talking about it was uncomfortable for me for a really long time and it still is.”
Sarah’s subsequent diagnosis with depression and anxiety began a tumultuous stretch. It included a halfhearted suicide attempt, three stays in a psychiatric hospital within a month and the decision by she and her fraternal twin sister, Sophie, to leave White River Valley High and transfer to Hartford for their junior year.
More than a year later, the 17-year old sisters are in a better place and starting their third sports season with the Hurricanes, capping the academic year with lacrosse after playing soccer and basketball. Still, some days remain worrisome and Eleni and her husband, Pete, remain vigilant and on edge.
“It’s never going to leave us, but we’re learning to live a semi-normal life,” Pete Howe said. “We try to remind the girls to focus not on what’s happened to them, but on how they deal with it.”
Tunbridge is a town of about 1,200 people surrounded by Royalton, Randolph, Chelsea and Thetford. For decades, its students attended South Royalton High, where Pete Howe scored 1,000 points in basketball. He later coached there while his son, Nicholas, turned the trick himself.
Given those genes, it wasn’t a surprise when Sarah and Sophie were early standouts in sports. White River Valley High was created in a merger before their freshman year and they helped the Wildcats win a state softball title as freshmen while also playing soccer and basketball.
A couple of years earlier, however, the Howe parents noticed cracks in Sarah’s behavioral facade, almost always during pressure situations in games. She repeatedly tugged on her fingers and jersey and would kneel to tie her shoes again and again, creating breaks in the action.
Presented with a breakaway layup late in a basketball rout, Sarah instead fed the ball to one of her team’s reserves. Four consecutive times the player missed and each time Sarah sent her the rebound.
“Everybody looked at that as her being unselfish and part of that is true,” Pete Howe said. “But a lot of it was her anxiety.”
Still, many teenagers are anxious. How’s a parent to know when that emotion becomes dangerous?
“It’s not like you ask your kid if they have suicidal ideation while they’re eating their waffles,” Eleni Howe said.
Sophie Howe said she told her parents real trouble was brewing, but Sarah wasn’t giving voice to her building, inner chaos. Until she texted her mother on that January night.
The message precipitated a trip to a pediatrician, who diagnosed Sarah with depression and anxiety and put her on medication for the first time. She began to see a therapist, but was increasingly loathe to get out of bed and go to school, or messaged her parents to pick her up early.
Events took an unfortunate step forward one day in February of last year.
“I wanted to feel something other than empty and helpless,” Sarah said. “So I cut myself.”
She wound up in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s emergency room, where she stayed overnight before a bed opened up at the Brattleboro Retreat, a private, nonprofit mental health and addictions hospital.
The facility is a safe space for patients and their families, who receive a reprieve from some of the fear caused by the outside world. At the same time, it’s hard to see a loved one in clothes with Velcro closures, shoes without laces and using paper eating utensils while confined.
“They give you great tools to help, but it’s not such a fun place and it’s hard to want to get better there,” Sarah Howe said. “You sit in your room and look out and there’s fences and it’s just crazy.”
Sarah’s first hospitalization lasted several days before she convinced doctors she was ready to leave. She was soon back for a week-long stay but again faltered after her return home.
Sarah rejoined the White River Valley basketball team, which had draped her jersey over a chair on the bench in her absence, but struggled through a first half her father described as “a nightmare to witness”.
When intermission ended, Sarah stayed in the locker room, frozen by anxiety. Adults coaxed her back to the bench.
“They convinced her that she didn’t have to play and it was like the weight of the world had been lifted off her,” Pete Howe said. “She suddenly became the team’s biggest cheerleader.”
At home, Sarah sometimes still expressed suicidal thoughts and wept in Sophie’s arms. The twins would lay in bed together, talking or watching Tik Tok videos.
“The only thing you can do is cry, because you don’t know what to say and if words are going to fix your feelings,” Sophie Howe said.
“She’d come home from Brattleboro and I knew something was still not right. She used to be super bright and bubbly and ever since this started, it’s easy to see when she’s having an off day.”
Said Pete Howe: “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. The lowest of the lows.”
Back at Brattleboro for a third stint, the Howes faced their most difficult hurdle yet. The Covid-19 shutdown had begun in earnest and the parents had to drop Sarah in the lobby, telling her she needed to remain as long as it took to gain greater understanding of her triggers and coping mechanisms.
That seems to have been accomplished during a final stay that lasted 10 days and with continued outpatient therapy and medication for both twins, but life since hasn’t been easy.
Sarah tries to improve her communication and resilience, buoyed by no longer feeling she must put a happy face on bad days. Sophie works not to feel slighted by the attention her sister draws and to not take on her sister’s troubles as her own. Meanwhile, Eleni and Pete have to walk any number of fine lines.
Is Sarah’s stormy mood related to her deeper mental health or common, teenage grouchiness? Is it best to react to an academic dip sternly or gently? No one wants to live on eggshells, but there’s worry that tough love could exacerbate the situation.
“Figuring out what gets Sarah there is the hard part,” her father said of the days when depression descends. “It doesn’t have to be an argument with a friend or a bad report card. Sometimes it’s just there.”
Sarah has stress balls to squeeze, sleeps under a weighted blanket and listens to calming audio apps on her phone. Sunlight vastly improves her mood, so during the winter, a box emitting rays that mimic its rays is another tool.
Sarah’s most effective resource, however, is mutual devotion with her sister.
“If anybody in this world knows me, it’s Sophie,” Sarah Howe said. “We spend every single second of the day together.
“She’s been my rock; she gives really good advice about everything. She’s just somebody I can let it all out to. The best thing in the world.”
A constant struggle for depression sufferers and their physicians is discovering the correct combination of medicines and dosages, which can vary from month to month and year to year. The initial forays into righting Sarah’s chemical imbalance weren’t successful, but her current regimen has shown promise.
“It’s not like a broken arm that’s reset and heals,” Pete Howe said. “You don’t ever cure it, but it’s managed. The course of action you’re taking isn’t permanent.”
Meanwhile, there are awkward conversations in the grocery store aisle or the school parking lot, trying to gauge what and how much to say to outsiders’ inquiries. The Howes have chosen to be as open as possible, wanting to reduce the stigmas mental health carries and hoping those afflicted will not give up.
“It didn’t take long for word to spread and most people are supportive,” Pete Howe said. “It can be clumsy and sometimes they just stare at you when you tell them. But more and more parents began coming to us and saying they’d been dealing with a child’s depression for years.”
That Sarah Howe is a twin is both a source of enormous comfort and support and something that gnaws on the fibers of her family’s recovery.
Sophie Howe is a driven achiever and National Honor Society and student council member with a strong sense of self. Her sister is more of a pleaser, someone who dislikes time alone and holds her friends close. She has a tendency to hide from the world with naps and can struggle to find motivation.
The Howe parents wonder if they’re giving Sophie enough praise without bruising Sarah’s confidence.
“People that are depressed and anxious they’re not lazy or stupid or unmotivated,” said Pete Howe, who’s a regional vice president for a company in the dairy industry.
“They have the same wishes for success but they’re not always capable. Sophie’s doing all the same things Sarah wants to do, but it doesn’t always come out the same way.”
Jeff Acker, Hartford’s longtime girls soccer coach, immediately noticed the Howes’ contrast upon their joining his team.
“They’re the most different set of twins I’ve ever known,” Acker said. “Both personality-wise and in the way they approach the game. Other than the fact that they show up in the same car and have the same last name, you’d never know they’re even sisters, let alone twins.”
As middle school ended, the Howe twins toured high schools in Woodstock, Thetford and Hartford before landing at White River Valley. It was close and therefore an easier fit with their parents’ work schedules, but the sisters renewed the idea of transferring after their freshman year.
It wasn’t so much dissatisfaction with their current surroundings as it was a desire to experience what a bigger school could offer socially, academically and athletically. The Howe family members take pains to say they remember White River Valley fondly.
Last summer, while driving home from playing soccer on a team comprised mostly of Hartford players, Sarah told her sister she wanted to transfer to that school.
The Howes had a connection with Hurricanes athletic director Jeff Moreno, whose children had been babysat by the twins’ older sister, Alexis, for many years. Inquiries into a transfer were well-received and wheels were set in motion less than a week later.
“We were always being told we were carrying on a legacy at (White River Valley) and it’s nice to be somewhere where not everybody knows us,” Sophie said. “
Sophie Howe was the bigger presence on the basketball court this winter, displaying the confidence to drive and pass aggressively as a shooting guard.
Her sister received fewer minutes at point guard as the season progressed, but was the soccer team’s hero in the fall. Previously an offensive standout, Sarah was moved to center defender by Acker, a switch that bolstered the Hurricanes overnight.
“She just did it and never complained or said a word, even thought I know it wasn’t her favorite thing to do,” said Acker, who played Sophie on the wing. “Sarah had never played defense but she was an all-league defender even though we only played nine games.”
The twins had tastes of lacrosse in middle school and chose to return to that sport this spring instead of continuing with softball. The pair join a program that reached the Vermont Division II semifinals two years ago and figure to be contributors once they readjust to the sport’s dynamics, terminology and stick skills.
That’s secondary, of course, to their family’s continued healing. The Howes hope their willingness to discuss the process is productive.
“We don’t talk about it with other people every single day but it’s not a secret,” said Eleni Howe, the longtime office manager at Strafford’s Newton School. “We just explain what happened with Sarah and that she’s in a good place now.”
Sarah Howe sent her mother another text last week. This one caused tears of joy, not alarm.
“I’m so happy, Mom. I made the team,” Sarah texted after the final lacrosse tryout session. “I have the best friends in the world and the sun is shining. Thank you for everything you do. I love you.”
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