Not that I’m counting, but there are now just 83 days to go until my book “Today, Just Like Yesterday” is published by Trigger Press.
There’s no obvious feeling of excitement as yet, rather an increasing realisation that my mental health experiences (and therefore by definition part of my life story) are about to be shared to a far wider audience that I could ever have imagined. I haven’t yet managed to fully deal with the nervousness – which borders on anxiety at times – caused by both that realisation and the uncertainty about how the book will be received … or maybe how I will be perceived.
What people think of me or my story really shouldn’t matter … but I am all too aware that it does. A lack of confidence or self-worth (or maybe just a desire to be “liked”) is an aspect of many mental health conditions that can weigh particularly heavily. I am trying really hard not to dwell on how people might react, and focus on the positive elements of the process. I’m not there yet, but being able to talk about those worries and anxieties is certainly helping to give some sense of perspective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m far more comfortable with the content relating to my hundred challenges, but even though these chapters cover a wide range of often seemingly unrelated tasks, they never stray very far from the book’s central theme: it is fine to talk about mental health and equally fine to ask for help if you feel you are struggling.
As far as the overall cycle of diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is concerned, the awareness I am hoping to raise is only a small part – but one that I feel is vital. I would never profess to be an expert in all the different treatments, therapies and services that are available; but for me, talking is the first, the hardest and the biggest step of them all.
The availability or quality of those services will of course become relevant, but the best treatment in the world won’t help someone who doesn’t feel able to talk about how they are feeling, or how much they’re struggling.
So as far as posts, blogs or maybe (if I’m lucky) future talks and presentations are concerned, I’ll be concentrating on exactly the same themes that have driven me since the start of my “challenges” and right through the writing of the book.
There are plenty of people out there whose knowledge of the wider mental health system is far greater than mine; and I’ll leave it up to them to highlight or debate the important or complex issues. At my more simplistic end of the scale, there is still a stigma around mental health that needs to be challenged, and I just want to do whatever I can to raise awareness, and hopefully give even one person the belief and strength to talk…
On Sunday night, Glen Durrant became only the fourth man in the history of the British Darts Organisation to retain the world championship trophy. Glen’s name now sits alongside Eric Bristow, Raymond van Barneveld and Martin Adams, which gives some indication of the scale of his achievement.
The “small margins” that separate success from failure on the dartboard was demonstrated by both finalists, with world ranked no.1 Mark McGeeney surviving a final leg shoot-out with Martin Adams on the opening day of the tournament, and Glen (who was the top seed) battling back from 4-1 down to win a tremendous quarter final against his great friend Jim Williams.
There had been plenty of other nail-biting finishes and memorable matches during the competition; former champion Scott Waites survived a three-set deficit and match darts to overcome Belgium’s Andy Baetens in the quarter final, and the match between doubles partners Jim Williams and Conan Whitehead was a classic; their friendship helping to produce a game of high quality, played in a tremendous spirit.
In fact, there was a lot of on-stage camaraderie on view throughout the competition, the only downside for me being the comments made by Scott Waites shortly after his semi-final exit – seldom have grapes been so sour.
As for the final, well the bookmakers had Glen as a massive odds-on favourite, and even though Glen had triumphed on the Lakeside stage before, it still felt a little strange that the Mark – the world no.1 - should be something like 6/1 (according to the television commentary) in a two-horse race. You just don’t reach that level without being a fine player.
I think we can safely gloss over the first eight sets, which were littered with some good legs, some indifferent finishing, and a 4-4 scoreline that was a fair reflection of how both players were performing. Glen then produced six outstanding legs, to leave him just one set away from the title.
I thought it was all over and I doubt I was the only one, but Mark showed steely resolve under pressure, and as Glen’s doubles failed him, Mark clawed back the deficit and the stage was set for a dramatic final set – only the fourth time this millennium that the final had gone “all the way”.
For the record, the other three 7-6 finals were Scott Mitchell’s defeat of Martin Adams in 2015, Ted Hankey’s second title in 2009 (against Tony O’Shea), and one of the most thrilling finals of them all, Martin Adams overcoming the late Phill Nixon in 2007.
Mark looked confident and broke Glen to lead 2-0, just one leg away from the title, the trophy and a cheque for £100,000. Glen broke back, but in the fourth leg, Mark had three darts to win the match. His first dart was just inside the double 18; his second inside the double 9, and with that, the chance was gone.
Despite some idiot in the crowd calling out when Glen was about to throw, he somehow managed to check out on double 1, a dart that levelled the scores and produced a justifiable demonstrative reaction from the reigning champion.
Having missed numerous doubles during the previous two-and-a-bit sets, Glen picked the best possible time to show his ability and mental strength, closing out the fifth leg with a 149 finish on double 16. Having looked beaten a few minutes earlier, you could almost see the belief return to the man from Grangetown, and he took a big lead in leg number six – only to miss darts at double 12 and then 6 for the title. I can’t imagine how small that double three must have looked when Glen stepped back up to the oche, but the first dart found the centre of the bed and the game was over.
Purely based on averages, this hadn’t been a particularly high quality match, but from the points of view of tension and sheer drama, it was a compelling spectacle and a final that will be long remembered. It was hard not to feel for the runner-up, but Mark was gracious in defeat, and gave an impressive interview when he must have been hurting.
Glen was understandably emotional and, as always, humble – proof if it was needed that nice guys can finish first. Glen has now pledged his future to the BDO and next year he will return and attempt to win a hat-trick of world titles (only Bristow has won three in a row before…).
That will be the last thing on Glen’s mind as he returns to Teesside, along with the trophy that has been his almost constant companion for the past twelve months. Congratulations Glen – a fantastic achievement for a great player and a top bloke.
Imagine spending years of your life training and preparing for one day.
Imagine all the dedication, the determination, the hours of hard work, the travelling, the expense, the highs and lows … and it all comes down to one moment; one chance to produce your absolute best in front of the world’s elite in your chosen sport, an auditorium full of spectators, and millions of people watching around the world.
And then imagine having to produce that performance in just about the same time that it has taken you to read these three paragraphs.
Yesterday, I drove down to Graves Health and Sports Centre to meet someone who did just that…
Prior to the Rio Olympics, Great Britain’s medal haul in trampolining amounted to precisely none at all, but on 12 August 2016, that record was wonderfully broken by Bryony Page, whose silver medal was one of the great achievements and emotive moments of the entire Games.
In just twenty seconds, Bryony (who had qualified in seventh place for the final) gave the performance of her life – a personal best score of 56.040 points – that secured second place behind Canada’s reigning Olympic champion Rosannagh MacLennan, and sparked a release of emotion that I’m not ashamed to say was replicated in my front room.
I absolutely love all things Olympic, and after being lucky enough to spend time in the company of Ann Brightwell (née Packer) who won two medals at Tokyo in 1964 (including gold in the 800m), and meeting Bryony was every bit as much of a pleasure and privilege.
We sat and chatted for two hours and the time just flew by. I was able to ask Bryony about some of the aspects of her medal-winning performance; I was particularly interested in how she was able to block out the nerves, the pressure … anything and everything that might have affected her performance and deliver such an amazing routine. Fascinating stuff, but i can't give too much away in case it damages my own chances of qualifying for Tokyo 2020!
One week after her success, Bryony was in the crowd to watch the women’s hockey squad win gold; I tried really hard not to give away how jealous I was, but I’m not sure I succeeded.
Understandably, Bryony was much in demand on her return home, and away from sporting arena, she took part in Celebrity Mastermind and A Question of Sport. It was nice to be able to share experiences of being on a television quiz show, because we had nothing in common as far as gymnastic ability was concerned – I couldn’t even manage a decent forward somersault,
Bryony wanted to know about some of the challenges I have completed, my efforts to raise mental health awareness, and also about the upcoming book - I was flattered that she had taken the time to find out about some of the tasks. Bryony had actually completed her own series of 100 challenges in 100 days a few years ago – she even managed to rank them in order of enjoyment. That is something I have never attempted (although the rollercoaster ride would be a distant 100th); but it was nice to be able to tell her that I’d actually “borrowed” three for my own list!
The obligatory photos were taken in the room where Bryony does much of her training - a bit too close to the trampolines for comfort – but on the way out, two clearly shy young girls (they can’t have been much older than five or six) came over to congratulate her on her medal. Bryony stopped to talk to both of them, and it was just such a lovely moment.
Bryony is such a naturally charming and engaging young woman, and we talked about so many different subjects, that I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the company of one of the country’s finest athletes. It was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours … like I said earlier, a pleasure and a privilege.
This has been a positive week in respect of my book, which will be published by Trigger Press exactly three months from today.
The manuscript has gone through its final edit and is now winging its merry way to the proof reader and typesetter. The photos I wanted to include have been accepted (even though I’m in most of them), and hopefully I can relax a little now – because I must admit I’ve found the process quite stressful.
It’s difficult enough recalling and reliving past memories, and committing the emotion behind those memories to paper is something that was a constant challenge. There were a couple of occasions when I dipped quite badly; no matter how hard you try to be objective about what you’re writing, there are moments when it really hits home that the words are telling the story of your life. It’s a massive emotional investment and it’s perhaps no surprise that I have questioned whether or not I was doing the right thing.
I suppose the answer will become clear over time, but the biggest reason for writing the book will always be the hope that someone somewhere will read it and recognise something – whether it be in themself, a friend, relative or maybe even a colleague – and find the strength to talk or ask for help.
That said I am conscious that those closest to me, people I love, may find parts of the story tough to read. It took a long time for me to feel strong enough to talk openly about my mental health; but whatever may have happened over the years, it’s down to the love and support of those who mean the most to be that I can now tell a story that may perhaps touch or inspire someone else. In a sense, it’s almost a celebration of my amazing parents and wonderful wife – and the book is dedicated to them, because without them I couldn’t have come this far.
Another thing that I hadn’t fully considered or appreciated was how I would be affected by changes, comments and questions during the editing process. Writing about a difficult period in your life is testing enough without being asked to expand on a certain point, or give greater clarity on just how you were feeling. I became very protective, maybe even defensive at times, which probably didn’t make me the easiest person to work with, but it’s really hard to fully control natural and sometimes quite raw reactions to a totally new situation.
I can also appreciate how toygh the process must have been for Stephanie, my editor. Her job is to mould 60-odd thousand words into a book that fulfils the aims of Trigger Press (and the Shaw Mind Foundation), whilst also being supportive of the author behind the story. What has become clear is Stephanie and her colleagues are blessed with understanding, empathy and care to match their technical skills. It is a positive and powerful combination from which future Trigger Press authors can draw some confidence and comfort…
On a lighter note, this caricature has been designed by Stephanie Smith (https://www.stephssketches.co.uk/) to mark the publication of “Today, Just Like Yesterday”. The idea is that prints will be given away (possibly at the book launch) – just something a little bit different. What do you think?
I think that’s just about all for now, except for the perhaps inevitable plug should you wish to pre-order the book…
Three wins in four gruelling days has guaranteed that Ireland will record their highest ever placing at Singapore’s annual Nations Cup netball tournament.
This is the fifth time that Ireland have sent a squad over to Asia, finishing sixth out of the six competing nations in 2012 and 2014, and fifth in 2013 and 2016. Victories over the USA in 2013 and Canada (twice) last year had been Ireland’s only previous successes in what is both a competitive and hugely important event; but how those fortunes have changed over the past few days.
In the absence of Niamh Murphy, the twelve-strong Ireland squad is captained by Genevieve Slater, who has been an integral part of the international set-up for a number of years. Gen was the team’s ‘Player of the Tournament’ in both 2012 and 2013; she’s a strong leader on court, and her defensive partnership with Grangetown team mate Katie Walton has certainly been a feature of the last four days.
Niamh herself was named ‘Player of the Tournament’ in 2014, but last year’s recipient Kirsty Owens is with the squad in Singapore; she’s a superb all-round athlete and the regular centre in Joan Young’s starting seven.
I wrote about the wins over Singapore and Malaysia earlier in the week (the former being one of my highlights of the entire sporting year), and although the Cook Islands halted Ireland’s run of victories, the squad quickly returned to winning ways with a comprehensive defeat of Hong Kong, a side currently ranked just two places below Ireland.
One interesting aside from that loss, is that the opposition shooter Alanna Smith is the reigning Miss Cook Islands. She was one of the 118 entrants in Miss World 2017, and only missed out on a place in the final forty, when she came second out of twenty-three contestants in a pre-pageant “sports challenge”…
The winner of the overall title was Miss India Manushi Chhillar - undeniably pretty, but Gen would have her for breakfast on a netball court.
Anyway, back in Singapore, this week’s performances and results demonstrate just how much can be achieved by combining skill and ability with sheer hard work, dedication and determination. Remember that netball in Ireland is a non-funded minority sport, yet these girls train and practice like any other elite athlete, whilst still having to hold down full-time jobs.
They might never be in the same league as Australia, New Zealand and England; but so what?! Given all the obstacles they have to overcome, the young women who represent Ireland are every bit as inspiring as any of the more recognisable names at the pinnacle of the sport.
Tomorrow is a much-needed rest day, but on Friday (9am UK time), the girls take on Swaziland, the other side with three victories thus far. It’s a huge game that will be streamed live on Netball Singapore’s Facebook page, so if you’ve got an hour or so to spare, why not spend it watching and cheering on Ireland?
It’s been a fantastic start to the Nations Cup tournament in Singapore for the Ireland netball squad, who have won their opening two fixtures. The annual tournament brings together six countries, usually with world rankings somewhere around the late teens or early twenties, and it’s a great opportunity for those involved to test themselves in a hugely competitive arena.
This year’s participants (in order of world ranking) are Singapore (19), Malaysia (20), Ireland (22), Hong Kong (24), Swaziland (30) and the Cook Islands, who have not yet played the requisite eight games to receive a formal rating.
If memory serves me right, Ireland had only ever previously beaten two countries in the Nations Cup, Canada (twice last year) and the USA; so the 2017 competition already promises to be Ireland’s most successful to date.
Yesterday’s game saw Ireland take on the host nation Singapore in the tournament’s opening fixture, in front of a large and noisy home crowd. In 2016, Ireland had been comfortably beaten by their higher-ranked opponents, but this latest encounter was a much closer affair. With two minutes remaining, the hosts held a three-goal lead, and hard as Genevieve Slater and her players had fought, it looked like they might come up just short.
However those final 120 seconds produced sporting drama of the highest order; Ireland scored three quick goals, including one against a Singapore centre pass and with less than a minute remaining, the scores were level; but Singapore had possession…
The hosts moved the ball down court, but wing defence Kate Bermingham somehow got an arm in the way of a pass across the circle; she managed to retrieve the loose ball, and play moved swiftly to the opposite end of the court. One superb pass through the defence found Jan Hynes free under the net. Jan isn’t one for setting herself when she shoots, and despite what must have been intense pressure, she simply popped the ball into the net and jumped into the air in delight.
There were six seconds left on the clock; it was Ireland’s centre pass and moments later, the hooter sounded and the celebrations could begin.
Last year, Ireland had produced a stirring final quarter comeback to nearly overhaul a Papua New Guinea side ranked ten places above them. It was a memorable performance, but however close they came to upsetting the odds, the record books will always show the result as a loss. Yesterday, I believe the squad came of age. They coped with the atmosphere, the expectation of a partisan crowd, the disappointment of a poor third period … and still had the skill, the strength and the character to prevail.
I might even have wiped away a stray tear. The girls were just brilliant.
It’s not always easy to play another game so soon after experiencing such a massive high; and Ireland looked a bit flat in the opening quarter of this morning’s game with Malaysia. However, from being well adrift at quarter time, Ireland’s defensive duo (the Grangetown pairing of Katie Walton and Gen Slater) began to dominate. The team started to respect turnover possession, and as confidence grew, so the deficit was overturned, and a three-goal interval advantage was extended to 14 by the final hooter.
To have won twice in two days is a notable achievement, made even better because the victories both came against higher-rated sides. That said there is still an awful lot of work to do; Hong Kong and Swaziland cannot be taken for granted, and the unranked Cook Islands hammered Malaysia in their opening match and could be the best side that Ireland will face.
As far as coach Joan Young and the players are concerned, maybe the time for reflection will come in a few days when the tournament is over and the performances can be properly assessed; but now seems a good time to highlight just how far this squad has progressed, how well they are playing, that their games are being streamed live on the Netball Singapore Facebook page; and everything the girls have achieved and are achieving has come on the back of no major funding.
This is a special group of athletes; it’s a great sporting story. Why not get involved and watch the next few chapters being written?
My immediate reaction when I saw the shortlist of twelve nominations for Sports Personality of the Year was that it was fairly uninspiring. Maybe we were spoilt for choice last year given the number of amazing performances in Rio; or maybe it just hasn’t been a vintage twelve months for British sport?
What I think is fantastic however, is the fact that a third of the nominees are female, there is a para-athlete on the list, and several “minority” sports are also represented.
Sadly, irrespective of how much they have accomplished, the likes of Elise Christie and Bianca Walkden cannot win the main prize, simply because there are higher-profile athletes whose names alone carry enough weight to pretty much guarantee a place in the top three. I’m not saying that’s right by the way…
The bookmakers rarely get things wrong, and Anthony Joshua is a massive odds-on favourite to lift the trophy, but my choice would be very different and even though my opinion is worth next to nothing, I’m going to give you my brief assessment (in reverse order) anyway.
12: Jonathan Rea
Apparently he’s a really good motorcycle racer, but I’ve never heard of him. Not his fault; I’m sure he’s a great bloke, but you can’t vote for someone you’ve never heard of.
11 Harry Kane
If he scores the goal that wins England the World Cup in Russia, then he would win next year’s trophy by a mile. He’s a tremendous striker, but he won’t score the winning goal in the World Cup final, because England will long since have been dumped out of the competition.
10: Johanna Konta
One of three overseas-born nominees on the list; she progressed all the way to the semi-final of Wimbledon, before realising that she was now British and promptly losing.
9: Chris Froome
Surely the best-ever Kenyan cyclist … but doesn’t inspire me at all.
8: Lewis Hamilton
Will surely finish in the top three, at which point I will question the definition of “personality”.
7: Elise Christie
It’s not the fact that she won a couple of short-track world titles that’s impressive; it’s the fact she was able to bounce back from a triple disqualification at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. To have that strength of character is so inspiring.
6: Jonnie Peacock
Seems a really decent bloke; he’s a fine athlete and real standard-bearer for disability sport. And the lad can dance too…
5: Bianca Walkden
Dual world champion who, along with Jade Jones, has undoubtedly raised the profile of taekwondo, Bianca has apparently lost just once since 2016 - a great record, although in fairness I haven’t lost a taekwondo contest ever. It’s also a little known fact that the sport was the inspiration for the song: “If you kick me in the head, that’s taekwondo kwondo kwondo…”
4: Anthony Joshua
He comes across really well outside the ring, he’s a really imposing physical specimen, and it will be interesting to watch how his career develops now that he holds two versions of the World Heavyweight title.
3: Mo Farah
Quite simply one of the world’s greatest-ever athletes; he also seems a genuinely personable man away from the track. To win the 10,000m gold at the World Championships despite falling twice just about summed up his incredible determination and resilience.
2: Adam Peaty
His achievements in the 50m and 100m breaststroke are truly staggering. He has the ten fastest recorded times in history over 100m and also broke the 50m world record twice … in a day. Even my six lengths award from 1972 pales in comparison.
1: Anya Shrubsole
The women’s World Cup cricket final produced arguably the year’s most enthralling sporting drama. In just 19 deliveries, Anya took five Indian wickets to turn almost certain defeat into a quite glorious victory; and proved (if any proof was needed) just how high the levels of skill and excitement are within elite women’s sport.
Since I was offered the chance to work with Trigger Press on a book about my mental health experiences, and the challenges I have undertaken to try and raise awareness, I have done a fair amount of reading on the subject of mental health; from social media posts, articles and blogs right the way through to some of the other volumes published by Trigger Press.
Notwithstanding the mixture of nerves and excitement surrounding the publication of “Today, Just Like yesterday” in April (form an orderly queue…); I am already planning more challenges and looking at how I can best support both Trigger Press and also their parent charity The Shaw Mind Foundation.
I remain grateful and incredibly flattered at the faith that’s being shown in me to tell my story. I have worked really hard to try and do justice to those who believe in me; and hopefully beyond the book, there will be other ways to promote the fantastic work being done by publisher and charity alike.
Over these past few months, through everything I’ve read, and all the conversations I’ve had, I feel I have being somehow trying to make sense of where or how I fit into a world where mental illness can be discussed as easily as the weekend’s football results.
I’ve met or spoken to people who’ve battled (or are battling) truly horrible conditions, and done so with remarkable courage; simply refusing to give up, even when there seems to be no way out of the darkness. I sometimes feel like a fraud because my condition is relatively mild—even though I’ve had it for forty years—and I have regularly questioned whether I have the right to share my experiences with others whose strength and bravery is greater than I can even imagine.
Although it’s taken a while, I understand myself pretty well now, but I don’t have extensive medical knowledge; I’ll leave that to the doctors, consultants and those whose job title starts with “psycho-” and ends in “-st”. I’m not an expert in all the available treatments and support systems either; but I can talk, I can listen … and I care.
And perhaps those three attributes are all I need?
By definition no one else has had or ever will have my exact symptoms and experiences; but even though there will always be part of me that wonders if a relatively mild condition has the same relevance or even validity as other forms of mental illness, I also recognise that parts of my story … parts of me … may just resonate with someone somewhere…
And if that one small spark of recognition is enough to ignite a conversation … with a friend, family member, teacher, employer, medical professional, et al; then maybe those feelings of self-doubt or the need for self-justification can be replaced by an acceptance I might just have made a difference.
When my book hits the streets (obviously I’m hoping that’s not literally what happens), I hope the readers will realise how much I appreciate all those who have made a difference to me. I intend to keep doing all I can to show that it is fine to talk about mental health; and asking for help when you’re struggling is most definitely a strength, not a weakness. Like I’ve said before; I don’t know if I will ever make that difference, but I know for certain that I won’t if I don’t try.
Amongst the many social media posts and website articles highlighting yesterday’s World Mental Health Day was a BBC interview with Helen Richardson-Walsh.
To anyone who is a keen follower of elite women’s sport, Helen will need no introduction; but just in case her name is unfamiliar, she was a member of the Team GB women’s hockey squad that produced the greatest team performance I have ever seen in any sport at any Olympic Games to claim gold in Rio last year.
Words such as belief, courage, skill, and determination barely do justice to this group of athletes. Hollie Webb’s decisive penalty and the celebrations that followed moved me to tears—and just over a year later Helen’s words elicited the same response.
Speaking about a spell of depression in 2008 and a blog she wrote following back surgery in 2014, Helen said: “With me knowing myself and being really aware of my weak points, I thought that the blog would be a vehicle to be a bit more open, certainly with my team-mates.
"I think having suffered with depression back in 2008, which I don't think I ever really properly dealt with, it was almost inevitable that it would go back there. I was—and I can describe it in the same way lots of people do—in a really dark place. I was really emotional and not able to get out of that. Waking up in the morning and feeling like; what was the point of anything, not wanting to get out of bed, that kind of thing. I knew that I needed to seek help in that moment.
"For me, when things aren't going well, I want to isolate myself. That blog was a way of me trying not to do that, to almost front it up and try to deal with it in the best way I could. In 2014, I was injured, so there was something wrong that people could pin it on. I guess I don't think I did really hide it that well. Whereas in 2008 it was slightly different, in that there was nothing specifically wrong.
"I think that's why I was more concerned. Why am I feeling this way when I shouldn't be, when there's nothing wrong, when everything is fine in my life?"
I cannot relate to the life of an international athlete, but having woken up with the same feelings of anxiety, almost dread about the day that lies ahead every single morning of my adult life, I have some understanding of the control a mind can exert; and the fact that a downward spiral can be triggered … by no trigger at all.
And that’s when Helen’s words hit home…
To be able to recognise you need help is so much more difficult than it sounds. And even if you have that moment of objective clarity, denial often follows; it’s emotionally draining to keeping putting on that “brave face”, but in my case, that was preferable to showing any outward signs of weakness.
The situation can be further complicated by those closest to you seeing through the façade. I remember being told so many times I needed help, but the harder I fought to hide how I was feeling, the more obvious it became to the people around me.
The truth was I was the only one who could ask for help; and when I finally realised, I sat in front of a doctor … a stranger … and I crumbled. It was a day I remember vividly; it was horrible; but it was also special, because as soon the tears started to fall, my life began to change….
Helen had the self-awareness and strength to ask for professional help, but also had the support of her family and friends (including those who played alongside her in the sport in which she excelled). Helen is married to the former GB hockey captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, and having that one special person who will listen (even if they don’t always fully understand) makes such a huge difference.
I was privileged to spend a few minutes in Kate’s company back in 2014 as part of my “100 challenges” to raise mental health awareness, but although I have never met Helen, that doesn’t stop me admiring her not just as an outstanding athlete, but even more so as a brave and inspiring young woman.
Since Rio, Helen has retired from international hockey. From elite to amateur, the end of any sporting chapter can be hard to deal with, but although Helen reached the pinnacle of her chosen sport, she has a realistic (and deeply insightful) outlook.
"I'm potentially going through another tricky period now. I'm not playing for England, so that transition away from sport is a difficult period of time. Part of that is trying to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable - realising that … there could be ups and downs; and being ok with that. I'm a real thinker and I get lost in my own head quite a lot. I basically try to do things to stop me doing that. I've tried to put things in my life that I know help me.”
One of the reasons I set myself the “challenges” was to try and give me a focus; a distraction from all the negative thoughts and periods of introspection. They took me nearly four years, yet just days after I completed the 100th and final task; a noticeable vacuum has already appeared.
I already have a few ideas about how to fill that void; ways in which I will do my best to show that it is fine to talk about mental health; and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For now though (whilst acknowledging the BBC copyright), it’s only right to leave the final few words to Helen Richardson-Walsh; and thank her for her honesty, courage, and eloquence, and for making me cry …twice!
"I do think there still is a stigma attached to mental health issues. I think you feel it as an individual, which is the difficult thing. You do think 'oh, I'm not strong enough to cope with all this', but my experience, when I've opened up about it, has been really positive. Find that one person you really trust, and try to speak to them. However little you say, just try and open up, just a little bit, and let somebody in. Let them know how you're feeling."
Back on New Year’s Day in 2014, there was no way I could have ever imagined writing this blog, but exactly 1,376 days after I set in motion a plan to raise mental health awareness by attempting a series of challenges, I have completed the 100th and (for the time being at least) final task.
That equates to a challenge every fortnight for almost four years; it all seems slightly surreal, and a long way away from the original idea that (in age-old Archimedean fashion) I had in the bath back in late 2013.
The initial aim was to work through 40 challenges in 2014, trying to raise £1,000 for the charity Mind, whilst sharing my own experiences in an effort to show that it is fine to talk about mental health; and asking for help is a strength; not a weakness.
Twelve months and £1,064.04 later (and I still don’t know where the 4p came from), the work with Mind came to an end. I had no intention of continuing, but the importance of the message(s) and almost addictive nature of the challenges made me decide to add more tasks to the list, and begin an association with Time to Change that has so far lasted two-and-a-half years.
By sharing my personal experiences, I have given away some of my innermost thoughts and feelings. I realised that this would allow family, friends, and essentially even total strangers an insight into a part of me that I’d deliberately kept hidden for decades. But if I was going to encourage people to talk openly about such a difficult subject, then allowing others to see the person behind the mask was as important as it was unavoidable.
There will have been moments when those closest to me may have been upset by what they have read … the duration and extent of dysthymia’s effect on me. I haven’t intended to cause any distress, nor have I ever wanted any sympathy. From my wonderful parents, I have received constant love and support, and I am certain that their growing understanding of the impact of my condition has brought us even closer together.
I am so blessed to share my life with Elaine; the most special person I have ever met. She’s always there, by my side, giving me the belief and strength to talk, to face the toughest challenges, and to not fear failure (well not as much as I used to!). I will never forget leaving the stage after my first attempt at live stand-up comedy back in December 2014, and seeing the look of sheer pride in her face. So much emotion was encapsulated into that split-second, and it remains one of the defining moments of these past few years.
These challenges have also changed (for the better) some of the relationships I have with relatives and friends. I have often worried about people getting tired of “listening to the same old record”, but there have actually been occasions when others have actually found the courage to share—some for the very first time. I can’t tell you how humbling it is to see and hear someone have the strength and trust to take such a massive step.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned so much about myself (and my condition). There have been times when long-suppressed memories have resurfaced and cause quite a bad negative reaction. I feel that this is an almost inevitable by-product of raising mental health awareness; but I can justify the horrible days if there’s a chance I could make even a small difference to someone.
Do I still get dark thoughts? Yes … fairly often.
Do I still have panic attacks? Yes … from time to time.
Do I still get emotionally exhausting bad dreams? Yes … almost every night.
And do I still wake up feeling flat every morning, almost dreading the day ahead? Yes … every single day.
But I’ve now reached a point where I understand my dysthymia pretty well; it doesn’t make those bad days any less horrible, but I have manged to learn ways of trying to cope. I still get episodes of profound sadness (and there doesn’t have to be a trigger), but even when the tears flow and I begin to feel overwhelmed, I can sense an inner defiance; a willingness to resist, and even retaliate.
Dysthymia is a nasty, insidious condition; and a powerful adversary. Unlike many other mental health conditions, it may not necessarily force you to face regular emotional extremes, but instead it chips away at everything that’s positive, day after day, month after month, year after year, until you accept that how you feel is “normal”, because you simply can’t remember anything different.
But the one thing dysthymia is unable to do is stop you fighting back.
Keeping my condition hidden made it so easy for dysthymia to control my mood … and, by definition, much of my life—(for “dysthymia”, you can probably insert any number of other mental health conditions). Such is the stigma surrounding mental illness, that many choose to fight alone … there’s simply too much embarrassment or shame in opening up about such a difficult subject.
It’s my belief that mental illness thrives on secrecy and silence. Concealing an unseen, yet debilitating condition uses up vast amounts of emotional energy; to challenge a dominant mind, that energy needs to be released and redirected—and talking might just be enough to break a destructive cycle. I’m not suggesting that talking offers that elusive miracle cure or guaranteed full recovery; but four years and one hundred challenges later, I think I am reasonably well-placed to say that speaking about my condition, and openly sharing my experiences has genuinely improved my life.
None of this would have been possible without Elaine, my family, and close friends, as well as the long list of amazing and inspiring people who helped turn a series of random ideas into actual events. I honestly can’t thank each and every one of you enough for the massive difference you have made…
The end of the challenges will herald the start of a new chapter. I’m so excited to be working with Trigger Press on my book Today, Just Like Yesterday (which is due for publication in April); and I have a few other ideas and plans for 2018 as well. Hopefully things will work out, but whatever the future holds, I intend to keep fighting, and keep doing whatever I can to help others do the same.
Richard... Jack of some trades... you can guess the rest