My interview with Niamh Murphy, the Irish netball captain has been provisionally arranged for this Saturday morning. I’m really looking forward to chatting to Niamh for a number of reasons: she was lovely when we met in Dublin recently, and I’m sure it’s going to be a really interesting conversation; it will be good to learn more about the sport in the Republic of Ireland and be able to share the resulting article… and the “interviewing an international sportswoman” task will actually be the fiftieth challenge I’ve completed since my work for Mind and Time to Change began back in January 2014.
I’ve lost count of how many e-mails I’ve sent, phone calls I’ve made and miles I’ve driven to get to this point (although I suspect the mileage will be in excess of two thousand by now…). I’ve also tried to forget how hard it’s been to walk after some of the sporting challenges, but I have never lost sight of the reasons behind everything I’ve done… and will continue to do.
From a personal and arguably slightly selfish point of view, I’ve met some wonderful people and had some memorable experiences (but please don’t presume that “memorable” has always meant “enjoyable” - snake and rollercoaster spring immediately to mind). Some of the tasks may have seemed relatively straightforward on the surface, but will still have required planning and (particularly relevantly) help - quite possibly from someone I hadn’t met before; others were fairly obviously going to be “challenging”, be that physically, mentally… or both.
The underlying theme has always been that if you are affected by mental health issues, you don’t have to suffer in silence. The prospect of talking, let alone asking for help (there’s that word again…) may seem - and often is - incredibly daunting, but having the strength and courage to take that first step can lead to the kind of positive change that would have been unimaginable during darker times.
As many of you will know, it was the tragic death of the Wales football manager Gary Speed that prompted me to decide to write openly about my experiences with depression. For any number of reasons, very few people knew the person I’d tried so hard to hide for all those years, but since seeking help from my GP in 2004, I’d made so much progress and it felt like I’d reached a point where the possibility (however small) of making that proverbial difference to someone… somewhere… was far more important than how I may or may not be perceived by anyone who chose to read my story.
I realise that in the overall scheme of things I’m neither important nor special, and clearly there are people whose experiences or opinions will attract more attention (if that’s the right word). But in a way, that just makes me more determined to carry on….
Last year, I got a call from a local radio station, asking if I’d go on air and talk about mental illness following the passing of Robin Williams. I agreed – only for the interview to be cut short because it was time for a travel update… but not before I’d told the presenter that whilst Williams’ suicide was desperately sad, it was equally disappointing that it almost needed a high-profile suicide before the subject of mental health became worthy of coverage…
In a sense it’s similar to only buying your wife flowers on Valentine’s Day or her birthday: what’s wrong with buying flowers today? You don’t love someone any less on 16th September than on 14th February… just the same as everyday mental health issues don’t disappear just because of a lack of celebrity deaths…
The fact remains that mental illness can affect anybody. No rhyme nor reason, no why nor wherefore… the illness may be unseen, but the effects can be devastating.
I still have occasional dark moments and difficult days – and I probably always will; but I class myself as being incredibly lucky. I can talk openly, safe in the knowledge that those who care for me will listen (whether or not they fully understand), and that eventually the feelings will pass…
So many people face an uphill struggle simply to get through the day… just to start all over again the following morning. You can be surrounded by friends and family, yet feel totally alone; you can have everything you ever wanted in life, yet still you feel shrouded in sadness…
It is easy to let the negativity engulf you; in fact there’s an almost perverse comfort in the familiar; but much as you believe that no one else could ever feel the way you do… you’d be wrong. Self-acceptance took many years but I eventually sought help to deal with my feelings, in much the same way as I have asked for help to fulfil my first forty-nine challenges. The link might seem tenuous, but to me it underpins everything I’ve done…
Never be afraid to talk. Never be afraid to ask for help. You might just be amazed at what you can achieve.