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.