I’m No Longer Surviving, I’m Living!

To give a little context, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a brief background of what my life was like prior to my battle with depression. I grew up in Portmarnock, a beautiful seaside town on the north of Dublin. I attended my local primary school, St. Marnocks, and it was here where I made many friends, got involved in every sport offered and luckily enough, tended to be relatively ok at anything I threw my hand at. Near the end of every school year, there was the annual sports day. From 3rd-6th class, in particular, there was a bit more riding on it as the prize was to be crowned sports boy/girl of the year. Not such a big deal now, but at the time, for me anyway, something you wanted to win. I was privileged to win this award 4 years in a row, a record that still stands to this day.

I was, and would like to think I still am, a very humble person. I didn’t tend to gloat all that often, but sport seemed to bring out a certain confidence in me. None more so than Gaelic football. My dream from a very young age was to represent Dublin. I got to do that and more when I not only played for Dublin in an U12 Easter tournament, in which we won, but I also captained them to victory. This is where I began my Dublin career, in a small capacity, yes, but it was a start nonetheless. Adding to this was the fact that I was the only person from my area and school at that time to represent them, so to everyone this was a big deal. Although this was something I was proud of, I also wanted to keep myself to myself.

I then attended my local secondary school, Portmarnock Community School. This is a tough transition for many, but for me it felt seamless. Again, I was lucky to know a few friends from primary school to start off with and it didn’t take me long to find more. I continued on a similar trend from primary school. I threw my hand at anything offered and was popular amongst friends. There was always one constant though- Gaelic football. I captained my school team on numerous occasions throughout the years whilst also picking up Player of the Year accolades.

As my transition through secondary school continued, my Dublin career did also. It came to the point where I decided I would focus solely on Gaelic football. I made this decision in the middle of 4th year, prior to the commencement of my first year playing minor football for Dublin. It was here where I met a man who is so pivotal in where I am today. Dessie Farrell, was my Dublin minor manager for two years and also for three years at U21 level. As to why he is so pivotal will become apparent later on.

The first year of minor football was a steep learning curve for the team as a whole, and for me personally. We lost in the All-Ireland final to a last minute goal against Tipperary. It was a bitter pill to swallow. For some, it was the end of the road at minor grade but luckily for me and a number of other players, we had one more chance the following year to right the wrong from this particular year. It was around this time, the middle of 5th year, the beginning of my second year at minor level, I began to experience what I would later learn was depression.

It began with a low feeling once, maybe twice a month. But it quickly grew as time went on. This was something I couldn’t explain. I was so naive that I thought it was hormonal changes going on in my body so didn’t take much notice of it at the beginning. As I’ve mentioned, I was popular amongst friends and it was almost as if I was on a pedestal. Therefore, I felt like I couldn’t be the one to show any weakness in front of them. I was the person with the ideal life – talented at sport, a family who supported me and a Dublin career going well. This is what it seemed from the outside looking in, but for me it was anything but. I kept this a secret from everyone, friends, family etc. Sport was always my escape route. It was something I could rely upon when I was having these periods of low mood. At this stage it was something that was keeping me occupied. So much so, we had yet another All Ireland final to look forward to. It had now been 6 months since my depression started. However, life kept moving on and so did I. We ended up being victorious on this particular year, beating Meath in the 2012 final. Coinciding with that, I was embarking on an important year with regard to school- my Leaving Certificate. Although, the low moods seemed to become more regular now. I did, however, put up that mask and continue on with life.

In November 2012, I got a call from Michael Deegan, one of Jim Gavin’s selectors, to tell me I’d been invited to join them in their pre-season for the upcoming 2013 campaign. At 18 years of age, still in secondary school, to be told that you’ve been invited up to train with your idols was a surreal feeling. It was a proud day for me and my family. As word got around the local area that I got the call up, my popularity spiked. This inadvertently added more pressure on me to put on a brave face for the ever worsening inner turmoil I found myself experiencing. Over the course of the next 6 months, some huge milestones took place in my life – an appearance in the National League final vs. Tyrone, the completion of my Leaving Cert and confirmation that I was part of a panel of 30 players that would represent Dublin in the 2013 championship. All of which were hugely positive moments in a young 18 year olds life. However, for me, I found very little joy in any. 

About 18 months into my battle with depression I started getting thoughts of ending my life. Everyone from the outside looking in must have thought my life couldn’t get much better, but little did they know, I now no longer wanted any part of this world. Winning the All-Ireland in September 2013 probably reinforced the fact that I was living the ideal life. The inevitable celebrations that came with winning an All-Ireland followed but again, much like the previous 18 months, it gave me little pleasure. Although, I kept my poker face on a day to day basis. As 2013 came to a close, the cloudiness in my head was at an all time high and so was the thought of ending my life. The only thing that was keeping me going at this stage was sport. Much like the previous 2 years, sport was always a coping mechanism for me. It was as if every time I went out to train or play I gave myself a little boost, albeit only for a couple of days. I would then try and go again and this trend continued. However, such were the thoughts going on in my head, it was getting more and more difficult to solely rely on this.

In Janaury 2014 I began to have the conversation in my head that I envisaged having with my parents about the inner turmoil I was experiencing. Unfortunately, this didn’t materialise. The reason being, on a wet and windy night near the end of the month I was travelling back from Cork. I had just played a challenge match for the Dublin U21’s versus Cork. It was quite late, 1am. I walked into the kitchen and was greeted by my parents and my sister, Stephanie. I knew there was something up. My mam told me that my granddad had passed away that evening. Such was the feeling of numbness I was experiencing around this particular time, I simply acknowledged what she had said, told them I was going to bed and that I was up early for training. They didn’t know the extent of how bad I was really feeling at that time but from my strange reaction to a piece of devastating news, my parents began to think that something wasn’t quite right.

The funeral came and went without me feeling any emotion and a few weeks later I began to build up the courage, again, to tell my parents about what was an ever worsening situation. However, as I began to do this, another ordeal occurred in my family. Just 6 weeks after my granddad passed away, my granny passed away too. Both were from my mother’s side of the family. I had thought to myself, whatever I was feeling at this stage couldn’t compare to what my Mam is feeling right now. I felt as though I would only be a burden to my family if I informed them of what was going on in my life. Therefore, I kept quiet. Football, as ever, was my coping mechanism and it was now more than ever that I needed it. In March and April the focus switched to U21 football. We managed to get through the first two matches unscathed and had a Leinster final versus Meath to look forward to.

Those two weeks in particular are and always will be in my mind. The day of the U21 Leinster final vs Meath in Portlaoise started as most mornings did around that time- with sadness and despair. My mother brought me in my porridge (apparently at 19 years of age I wasn’t capable of doing this by myself). I was sitting there staring at the ground in a flood of tears. For what reason, I don’t know. She comforted me but it was going in one ear and out the other. I felt like I wanted everyone to forget me and life would be better without me in it. I sat for hours that morning sobbing. My mother knew she needed to break this trend and contacted my middle sister, Mairéad. Mairéad said to my mother that she would take me out of the house for a couple of hours to get my mind off whatever it was that was bothering me. We drove to Howth for the inevitable daily coffee we both consume from Starbucks. I agreed to go for a walk with her around the majestic howth cliff walk. What else would you do on the day of a Leinster final? The walk/hike lasted about an hour. The whole time I spoke no more than 5 words. The majority of the time was filled with Mairéad talking about anything and everything! In a strange way it was very soothing and a brief respite from the noises in my own head. This soon ended when we re-entered the car when those thoughts and noises came bundling back in to an already cloudy head. Football was always an escape route for me. Especially the previous two years when I was fighting this battle on my own. When I was out on that pitch it felt like all my worries had subsided and it was me, a green open field and a ball- heaven! This ended up being my coping mechanism and any form of exercise for that matter. Although, in the car with my sister that day was the first time I felt that not even football could cure me of the inner turmoil I was experiencing. 

I decided that I would contact my manager at the time, Dessie Farrell, and let him know that I was unavailable for the game that night. For whatever reason- and I don’t know the answer to this day- I never followed through with that phone call. As the afternoon came and went, it was time to get ready for the game. I hated travelling on team buses. It was nothing personal against any player but it simply gave me a feeling of entrapment and uneasiness. We met as we did for every game a few hours beforehand to have our pre-match meal. I had a taste of a roast potato and decided I couldn’t stomach anything, such was the feeling I was experiencing at that time.

So off we went to make our way to the match. I sat at the top of the bus, headphones in, hood up, eyes closed and hoped that the playlist I had prepared would take me to a better place in my head. En route to the ground I texted my sister Mairéad to say I couldn’t go out and play the match. She assured me that I could and that the whole family would be there backing me every step of the way. In the dressing room I consumed half a bottle of Lucozade, pretty much the only thing I put into my body the entire day. The time came to run out on that pitch and compete. The next 60+ minutes was probably the happiest I had been in the previous two years of my life. Every play, every minute, every second I was wishing that it would last forever. I was a kid out there, enjoying what I loved to do, and most importantly it was keeping me away from the demons that engulfed my mind. The result went the way we wanted and in addition to that, I received the Man of the Match award. Little did people know what I endured that day when they watched me go up the steps to collect my award. I felt little joy on a personal level. By the time celebrations had begun in the dressing room, I had already left. I travelled home that night in the car with my parents. Few words were spoken in that journey home from Portlaoise that night.

I’m very close with all three of my sisters; none more so than Michelle – the eldest of the three. When my parents became aware of my situation they thought the best thing to do was to book me a flight over to see Michelle in Stockholm, where she had lived for the past two years. Two days after the U21 Leinster final I flew out to see her in the hope that I would shed a bit of light with what was going with me at the time. Unfortunately, again, this didn’t materialise. I simply couldn’t make sense of what was going on for me on a day to day basis. I did, however, express that I was having strong feelings of ending my life. I even thought on some occasions that it would be easier to do it there in Stockholm away from everyone who knew me. At that point I felt like there was no other option for me. This of course was a scary and shocking thing for my sister to hear. I felt worse not being able to express what was going on for me as I didn’t even know myself, never mind sharing it with anyone else. All I knew was I needed to get away from the low, dreary feeling I felt every day at this stage. The trip quickly came to an end and I was on a flight home to prepare for the upcoming All Ireland U21 semi-final.

The following day my parents had organised for me to meet Dessie Farrell. Dessie was not only my manager at the time but also a man who had personal experience with mental health. Not to mention the fact he used to be a psychiatric nurse. I met Dessie in Costa coffee in Santry at 10am on this particular morning. He assured me that everything would be ok and that he would get me the help I needed. We sat for about 45 minutes, most of which was filled with me breaking out in uncontrollable tears. Similar to my sister, I couldn’t describe to Dessie what was the problem with me. He said he would set up the necessary appointments to get me in and see a psychologist.

My appointment was scheduled for the Wednesday of that week. We were less than two weeks away from an All-Ireland semi-final so preparations were in full flow. A training camp was organised for Tuesday, the day before I was due to meet my psychologist. As my parents were fully aware of the situation I found myself in, they didn’t want me driving anywhere on my own. Therefore, my dad had said he would drive me out to DCU where our pitch session was on. The session came and went. We were then due to travel to the Castleknock Hotel for a tactical meeting about the upcoming game. The journey from DCU to Castleknock was a blurry one to say the least. All I know was that a sense of panic overcame me and I needed to get out of the car. My dad obliged. A panic attack ensued and my next memory was waking up in St. Patricks Mental Hospital the following morning.

There I was met by two softly spoken nurses who made me aware of my surroundings. I found it very frightening when I was told where I was. I had never been in a mental hospital prior to this and my only association with them were the ones that films portray. I was in a ward with 12 other patients. I was brought down to the breakfast area where I thought it would be filled with patients in straitjackets, screaming to themselves etc., such was my lack of knowledge about the whole place. The room was anything but that. I walked in quite sheepishly and took my seat. On the way to my seat I was greeted by some patients with a nice welcome! A tough couple of days ensued as I met with a plethora of doctors and psychologists who would help me along my journey. The whole thing was mentally draining. Dessie and Mick Galvin, another coach involved with the U21 team who I owe huge gratitude to, came in to visit me a few days later. We talked about the idea of still playing the semi final which was in 10 days time. Although, as the days progressed it became abundantly clear that this was simply not viable. I wasn’t in the right mind frame. It was a tough decision at the time but upon reflection, the right one.

Meanwhile, my treatment plan continued. A hugely taxing thing to face up to was the inner demons I had kept away from for many years. For the first time ever I, with the help of my doctors, tackled this head on and began to unravel, slowly but surely, what had engulfed my mind for years. Another week passed, a week in which we successfully came through the U21 semi final to reach the All-Ireland final in two weeks time. I began to learn a lot about myself during this time and one of which was the fact I put off facing up to the turmoil that took over my life for too long. I always prioritised other things instead of tackling my problems head on. One of those things was sport. Although it had been an incredible coping mechanism for me for those two years, I realised I needed to put that aside at this particular juncture in my life and focus solely on getting myself mentally right. Mick Galvin put it so beautifully, saying “Shane, if this takes one, two, three months to get on top of, so be it. You’ll have the next 70, 80 years of your life to look forward to”. This reinforced my decision to leave football and everything else going on in my life aside for the time being until I got on top of this. Nevertheless, it was not an easy decision to step away from a match in which you trained your whole life for, but I knew it had to be done. Alongside this was the decision to come out publicly about my struggle with depression.

I am so privileged to be in a position that any sporting fanatic would love. Whether I liked it or not, I had to realise the lucky position I found myself in and that a lot of what I said or did had more of an effect than I thought. Therefore, if I could help even one person not take the step I almost did in ending my life, that would mean so much more than any medal I have or might go on to win. The decision was therefore made – at the pre All-Ireland press conference, Dessie would announce to the press that I was getting treated for depression. A weight fell off my shoulders instantly. I could finally focus on my treatment and overcoming the adversity I had experienced for too long. I continued to learn a lot about myself throughout the coming weeks and months I spent in hospital. I learned skills and coping mechanisms which I could resort to in times of difficulty, many of which I still rely on today. One in particular was running.

I remember the first time the nurses asked me what I would like during the course of my treatment and I simply responded “an open field”. Probably not a common request but it was something in which I knew worked for me. After a number of weeks I had my settling in period. Therefore, they granted my request and I was allowed ‘accompanied leave’. Everyday either my parents or my sister would take me to the Phoenix Park where it was just me and an open field. I stuck my headphones on, threw my hood up and began running. I would run for about 45 minutes daily mixing it up between long distance and intervals. The positive feelings you feel racing through your body post exercise was something that I loved to feel every day. No matter what kind of a day I was having prior to my run I knew after I completed my session it would put me in a better place mentally. I think the two go hand in hand- exercise and mental wellbeing. For me anyway, exercise helped me at the times I needed it most. Adding to that was the fact that I felt if I was feeling good physically, that this had a direct crossover to my mental state. I tried many things whilst in hospital to try help my mental wellbeing. Anything from mindfulness to cooking. Some things worked for me, some didn’t. I always said though I wouldn’t knock anything before I tried it.

In total, I spent 11 weeks in hospital. My appreciation for life was lit again after my time at St. Patricks Mental Hospital. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone at the hospital, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), Dessie Farrell, Mick Galvin and of course my family.

Four and a half years later and a lot has happened. Since coming out of hospital I attended DCU to study Sport Science & Health. Last month I graduated which was a huge achievement for me. I’m still playing football and enjoying it more than ever – it’s still a good stress release for me but not something I solely depend on to get me through each day. Today it is the most simple of things that gives me the greatest pleasure. Being thankful for the life that I almost took away is the reason for my greater appreciation of life. More recently I’ve began to do talks in around the country sharing my experiences with depression. I have a desire to try and get my message out there. Whether it’s doing talks in schools, sharing something on social media or simply meeting people on the street, I’ve realised the lucky position I’m in and that something I say or do has an effect further afield than I really think. This gives me the greatest satisfaction of them all. If I strike a chord with only one or two people each time I share my story, it means that those one or two people won’t make that fatal decision that I almost made all them years ago.

To this day I still see my psychologist. I used to see him twice a week when I first came out of hospital but my appointments gradually spaced out as I continued along my path to recovery. It hasn’t been easy, as anyone who has experienced mental health difficulties will know. I still have my good and bad days as anyone does but the bad days, thankfully, aren’t as bad as they once were. I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past four and a half years; what works for me, what doesn’t, what my triggers are etc. This is due to the help I’ve received from various doctors and psychologists and to them I owe huge gratitude. I’m aware that depression will be something I’ll have to deal with on a daily basis, but the fire of life has been lit inside me and I’m ready to continue fighting each day.

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