Two years ago, I started to experience mental health difficulties for the first time. What I mean by that is, two years ago I first became conscious of my own mental illness. My close friends will tell you that this all started long before two years ago. They are probably right but my own awareness only began when I was forced to retire from sport with injury in June 2017, aged 20.
Sport was a massive part of my life. It gave me my edge, a place to release my competitiveness, my aggression and my energy in a healthy way. To lose that before I hit my peak broke me. After finishing playing, I started to feel different almost immediately - less in control of my mood and my energy. I was due to go travelling with friends soon after and I used that as my suppression tool. I thought that partying and travelling would bring me back to myself.
I was sure all I needed was something to take my mind off things. Instead, the travelling, drinking and partying made things worse. Panic attacks and anxiety fits took over from fun and excitement. I’m a confident person, I’ve always been successful in academics, sport, my career, but that all felt very far away. Within weeks, I’d gone from an unstoppable person who could achieve anything, to someone who was scared to face the world. Suddenly, anxiety and depression surrounded my every waking moment. All I wanted to do was go home, I wasn’t me. I would wake up scared about having an anxiety attack, tension headache or down day. Sleep was the only relief, which as part of a despairing irony, became harder to come by as the condition continued.
I went to counselling when I returned from my holiday. I thought, “I’ll go for 3-4 sessions and I’ll be good as new, it was just that I was away from home and a bit shook”. I went in hoping for a magic cure for my anxiety and depression, but I quickly realised that this doesn’t exist. Over time it became apparent that this was more serious than I first thought. Over-exercising had allowed me to push down my issues and losing sport was not only a grief in itself but it also meant that I wasn't able to forget anymore, I had to deal with my demons.
I found it very difficult to accept what was happening to me. I was used to being numb to my emotions or at least not letting them get in my way. Now I was dealing with the idea of carrying this label of anxiety and depression everywhere I went. I felt overwhelmed, weak, powerless.
When I first told my dad about my anxiety, he said “What are you anxious about?”, and when I first informed him of my depression a few weeks later he said “I can accept the anxiety but I don’t think you’re depressed son”. It is a difficult enough journey of self-acceptance as it is, never mind feeling judged or unsupported by family or friends.
Most of my friends and family were great - my Mam is a counsellor and my girlfriend is a nurse. They understood what was going on and they talked to me with compassion. They helped me normalise how I was feeling.
To anyone who knows someone struggling with mental illness, don’t let them feel like they are “crazy” or that what they are experiencing isn’t normal. Having someone to speak to without judgement helped me feel safe and like I could actually manage. With their support I decided to challenge my dad to learn more about what was going on with me. I sent him videos, articles and books. Over time he began to accept my journey. He was scared his son might be “broken” and that he let that happen. Sometimes older generations label mental illness as being “broken”. That isn’t even close to the truth. In fact it has been the catalyst for me to open up about my struggles, to share the load and build closer bonds with my parents, friends and girlfriend. Sometimes it takes that.
My illness has encouraged me to analyse my life. Anxiety and depression have been a wakeup call. My lifestyle was burning me out. I worked myself too hard. Whenever I wasn’t working or studying, I was socialising or playing sport. I left no time to check in with myself or to talk to people about issues in my life. I created an environment for myself where personal issues could be hidden behind walls of work and activities. If I didn’t have to think about issues, did they even exist? If they didn’t exist, what was there to talk about?
It’s tough to change that thought pattern. We live in a world where working ludicrously long hours means we are “committed” or a “hard worker”. These are things that employers, teachers, parents and peers all praise. My family instilled an unhealthy work ethic in me, one that would earn me huge success and plaudits in school, sport and career, but one that burnt me out to the point of collapse. Being busy is rarely called out as a negative. It wasn’t until I went to counselling that I was questioned as to why I do so much.
Now, I’m trying to push loving myself to the top of my agenda. It’s difficult because for 90% of my life I’ve hidden from allowing myself to feel exactly what has been going on with my mental state. Be it my parent’s separation, my forced retirement from sport, heartbreaks or deaths, I suppressed it all and used activity as my therapy. Sitting with it is a lot scarier but I’m starting to feel the benefit, I’m starting to heal.
All I can say to people going through something similar is - this is scary, there is no denying that. If you can love yourself and completely experience your mental illness then you’ll be OK. Just hang in there.