Former garda Brendan Doyle on panic attacks - 'I would wake up thinking my bed was soaked in blood the suspect was standing over me'
Having been injured in the course of his work, former garda Brendan Doyle began to suffer panic attacks and sleeplessness. He tells our reporter that when all else failed, he turned to extreme sport, and that did the trick
'There are a lot of wounded warriors out there." These words, spoken by a sports commentator during an international championship, perfectly describe the world of bobsleigh - and skeleton, a less familiar, but similar, sliding sport. It's a world that is very close to Brendan Doyle's heart; he loves the thrills and spills, as he rockets headfirst through the twists and turns of the ice tunnels at 145kmh.
He's clearly a speed junkie, with nerves of steel. So much so, he hopes to compete in the Winter Olympics in 2018. When he dons that distinctive bib, with its five coloured rings, people should bear in mind that this young man has already summited his own personal Everest. He did so when he battled his way through years of gruelling depression.
It began soon after Brendan joined the Garda Siochana in 2008. "I was at college in Templemore and remember being delighted that my career was sorted," he says. Eventually he was posted to a "challenging" suburb in Dublin. "There was great camaraderie in the station and out in the community," he says. However, within weeks, he found himself in the middle of a violent domestic dispute, which ultimately required intervention from the Public Order Unit. Brendan's actions indicate clearly that he put duty and service to the community above his own personal safety, resulting in serious lacerations to his hand. His injuries required numerous medical procedures.
But much more serious was the emotional trauma caused by the incident, which only became apparent later. "I got home at about four in the morning," Brendan remembers, "and, having told my family what had happened, I fell fast asleep. Little did I know that that would be the last proper sleep for almost six years."
Soon after, the terrible nightmares began. "I would wake up thinking my bed was soaked in blood, or I'd imagine the suspect was standing over me," Brendan remembers, with a shudder. However, he thought things would improve once he went back to work - but instead, they got worse. That's when the panic attacks began. "If a call came through while we were in the patrol car, I'd feel as if the seatbelt was strangling me. It got to the point where I'd keep a low profile at the station, and then I'd go home and be too terrified to close my eyes." Eventually, he was given sick leave.
Things got so bad that Brendan would drive to Cork or Sligo and back again, just to fill in the hours when he should have been sleeping. "I might fall asleep at six in the morning and wake up an hour-and-a-half later," he explains. "It was absolutely exhausting. So I stopped exercising and socialising." Brendan did seek help, but back then, he struggled to get the particular support he needed. He tried one or two counsellors, but they weren't a good fit for him, while sleeping pills and antidepressants made him feel "like a zombie".
"I was doing everything that everyone recommended, but nothing was working. I felt like a failure and it seemed like it would never get better; so, one day, I decided to end it all." At exactly that moment, Brendan heard a little girl in pink tell her mother how excited she was at the prospect of a particular activity. Something in that child's voice caused Brendan to stop what he was doing, and to return to his car, where he cried and cried. "I decided there and then to give life another try," he says.
He vowed to stop eating junk food and to get fit again. He signed up with the Raheny Shamrock Athletic Club and was soon part of a sprinting group. "I discovered that sport was the one medicine that worked for me," he says with deep conviction.
Brendan had been an excellent sprinter in the past. So much so, in 2004 the Irish Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (IBSA) approached him. They were recruiting athletes who were agile, fast and strong for their particular winter sport. "I already knew about it," says Brendan. "Bobsleigh has two-man or four-man teams on sleds, while skeleton is a single man, face down, on a small, lighter sled. To be honest, I thought they had a few screws loose."
But clearly that wasn't enough to deter him. Soon he was at bobsleigh school in Austria, preparing to do his test to get a sled-driving licence and to compete in the European championships. "That first trip was terrifying and exhilarating," Brendan recalls. "You have terrible butterflies at the top of the track, but when you get to the bottom, you want to run back to the start again. In the first week, I lost a stone in weight from pure excitement."
However, shortly afterwards, funding dried up, so it was back to the athletic track at home - until a decade later, when he was again asked to join the IBSA. "I only went back last December and was delighted to discover I was sliding better than ever," he enthuses. Since then he has done skeleton training in Lake Placid, New York, and Calgary in Canada, and is now aiming for South Korea in 2018. "I want that Olympic bib," he says with passion. "Even if I don't get a medal, I want that bib."
Some time back, Brendan decided to leave the guards altogether. These days, he is planning to go to college to study sports therapy; he is also training six days a week at the Irish Institute of Sport and has never been happier. He has a lively blog, which not only monitors his sporting activities (including fundraising for his Olympic bid), but which is also painfully honest about his battle with depression. He has now decided to promote the work being done by MyMind, which offers mental-health services in a number of languages and at affordable prices.
"With MyMind, you just call or click online to get the help you need. It's as easy as that. And the great thing is that the cost is based on your personal situation," Brendan explains. "If there is anyone out there reading this who is going through a difficult time, then I urge you to take that important first step and contact MyMind.
"I was so lucky to get through my ordeal and I want to do all I can to ensure that others don't have to struggle as I did."
For more information about Brendan Doyle, see slidingirish.com
For information about MyMind's centres for mental health in Dublin, Limerick, Cork, and online, see mymind.org If you are struggling to cope, find someone to talk to: a GP, medical practitioner or good friend. It's important to note that you do not need a referral to see a psychologist or counsellor. Many reputable therapists will discuss fees and negotiate terms
Sunday Indo Life Magazine