Fighting Depression, Finding Yourself...

I never thought the first public appearance my writing would make would be on a topic that has been so personal to me over the past few months. A blog post, paper or article on a statistical method or the use and/or development of statistical software were the areas I expected to be writing about, but I think the time is right to put together this piece.

So I’m a 22 year old Statistics PhD Candidate at the University of Limerick (UL). I love what I do, I love the integration of statistics with computer science and I wouldn’t change my current career path for anything. I am fully funded by the Irish Research Council to complete my 4 year PhD after graduating from UL as the top graduating student across the university in 2014 and the top performing placement student in the Science and Engineering faculty.

I have played sports for as long as I can remember and without them, something in me would be missing. I have played at inter-county underage level for Limerick in hurling, football and soccer, while playing rugby on the side during the winter. Since I reached adult level I have played football for Limerick with 2 years at Minor Level, 3 years at U21 level, captaining the team in my final year, and also 2 years at Junior Level, captaining the squad in 2015.

I come from a family who never left us without anything we needed. That’s not to say that me and my two brothers were handed everything we wanted but more that if we needed something badly my parents would always support us. That continues to this day and as I move out of home for possibly the last time I know that anything I need is only a phone call away. While my brothers and I disagree on a whole range of things I know that when things get tough they will always be there for me and likewise in the other direction.

I have a group of close friends who I have relied on indefinitely over the past few years and whom I would be lost without. I’m not even going to attempt to mention a list here as forgetting a single name is not something I want to do. Since starting my PhD this close knit group of friends has expanded but I know that I can always rely on the people who have always been there for me regardless of where life takes us and I hope that they feel they can rely on me too.

So it all sounds pretty good, my life must be great, so why am I writing this then?… On 1st October 2014, I started out on my PhD life. Another 4 years at the University I had completed my undergrad at under the same supervisor as my Final Year Project, embarking on a project I had been interested in since the start of the application process. I was playing some of the best football of my career and was called for County Senior Football trials, while they didn’t go well it was a significant stepping stone in my football development. My family and relationships with friends were in a very good place. So to say I was happy in my life is an understatement everything had its place and everything fitted together perfectly, what could possibly go wrong…

On Saturday 4th July 2015, I hit the lowest point I have ever experienced in my life. Everything within me felt off, as if there was nothing good left in my life! The PhD, my girlfriend, my friends, my family and my beloved sports were all just a chore and a hindrance according to my mind and my body. I had been struggling for a while, I was overly stressed about the smallest of things, got angry and lost my temper often for simple jokes that meant no harm, I was pushing away everyone that had ever cared about me, but what made me realise the struggle was different was that this time sport didn’t help!

During the toughest, most stressful times of my life, sport was my outlet. I depended on it to relieve my stress, my anger and most of all to bring enjoyment back into my life. This time was very different and for the first time in my life sport was an unnecessary activity that I had foolishly taken up that I needed to get rid of! Any one who knows me knows that sport is prioritised as number one often above people and things that deserve more respect than to be placed below a game on someones priority listing!

On that Saturday, for the first time in years I talked openly to my mother as I lay in my bed crying. I was in a bad place and I would now openly admit that I saw no way out of the deep dark hole I had fallen into. Thankfully my mother convinced me to see my GP as soon as possible and being a close family friend he saw me in his own house that very morning. I was diagnosed with depression after a half an hour with my GP, a psychologist and anti-depressants were prescribed - I was sick, and I didn’t know how I was going to cope or deal with it. I couldn’t take it in, my mind logically couldn’t find a solution and I couldn’t locate the ‘virus’ that needed to be removed from my body to quench the feelings that now engulfed my mind.

At this point I had lost interest in absolutely everything, my days were spent lying in bed or at my office desk where productivity was zero. My work, personal, relationship and sporting lives were suffering and I didn’t care! I needed time away but I wasn’t ready to talk about any of this to anyone so how would I explain my disappearance, at this point the only people that knew were my family, my girlfriend and my GP. I hadn’t managed to comprehend or even accept that I was sick and so I wasn’t ready for anyone else to know either.

I first met with my psychologist on Thursday 16th July at 3pm. On my way there I turned the car around 3 times to head home and not attend but fortunately somehow I had enough sense to give her a chance. Coming from a scientific background I believe in prescribed medication and how talking to someone was going to help me recover from an illness was incomprehensible. Going through with that first trip to see Nicola was something that I will be forever proud of and I encourage anyone in a position similar to me to reach out and get the help you need.

I was never good at talking about my feelings and the first two sessions of counselling were filled with lots of silence and probing questions. I began to open up and trust Nicola and only then did I fully realise the extent of my illness. Sleepless nights were followed by sleepless nights, with a racing mind that can only be described as being at the cinema and every minute of the film is from a different movie. The anti-depressants didn’t appear to be helping and the counselling was making little or no difference and I began to wonder how long it would be before I began to recover, even enough to be able to see some light at the end of the deep dark hole.

In hindsight it was foolish but my head was searching for a recent incident which caused the depression to appear, when in fact there were several factors both recent and not so recent that contributed to the system failure I was experiencing. I had bottled up my problems for too long and unfortunately the house of cards had to come crashing down at some point. As the discussion began to flow with Nicola, a very serious heart-attack experienced by my dad just a month earlier was identified as the trigger event which caused the overall collapse. My dad, thankfully, is almost back to full health and with a little care will be perfectly fine.

There was a multitude of issues which led to me becoming depressed. One which has weighed heavily on me since Monday 12th December 2011, was the death of a close friend, team mate and all round joker, Darra O’Donovan Scanlan. He died suddenly from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, a predominately unexplained illness. I don’t think I ever grieved properly for Darra at the time of his death and the last conversation I can remember with him was me roaring at him on a football pitch. Talking about it has helped me a lot and it has helped bring back good memories of him.

I took time away from sport and to the management who knew exactly what was going on I am grateful. They kept my secret for over 3 weeks from my teammates, club officials and other members of management. To the team I was away recovering from a hamstring injury and that story did not change until I was ready to do it. On my return to training I told the team exactly what was going on with me and why I hadn’t been around the previous 3 weeks. I asked them to keep it within our group and to this day (over 3 weeks later) not a single person who shouldn’t know has approached me about it so I thank them for keeping it between us as a team.

I have changed a lot of things in my life over the past 2 months and I have certainly dealt with more issues than I thought I had. I’m starting to get myself back on track but there is a long road ahead. The medication is starting to make a difference and without the weekly counselling sessions I currently have I think I would be struggling. Initially, I saw no way out and without encouragement from my mother, GP and psychologist I really don’t know how things would have turned out for me. Today I am sitting in my bedroom in my new apartment, in the pedestrianised street below a girl stands with a guitar busking and the appreciation I have for these simple things in life is something I now cherish.

Over the last few months I have progressively opened up to people about what I have gone through. Telling each of them gave me a sense of relief but the courage needed to bring it up was something I had never experienced. To those people who have known about my illness since the early days I thank you for keeping my secret, I thank you for listening whenever I needed it and I thank you for allowing me the space I needed when I wanted it.

The stigma in Ireland towards mental health and depression in particular is changing, slowly I agree but it is changing. When I was struggling to deal with being diagnosed with depression I remember my GP telling me that every time I step onto a GAA field at least 9 others standing with me have suffered, are suffering or will suffer from depression. There may be no physical sight of depression but it is still an illness, an illness we need to learn to accept, and an illness that affects so so many!

The most important step that I took in this entire journey was opening up to my mother on that Saturday morning. Tears ran down my face for more than 2 hours and if that hadn’t happened I really don’t know what the situation would be now. To my GP and my psychologist I will be forever grateful without them I would not have got to a point where I can sit down and write this. I’m not ‘fixed’ and maybe I never will be ‘fully fixed’, maybe I’m a little broken but isn’t everyone in some small way?

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