Monday 19 March 2018

'I was constantly trying to prove my sanity to people' - how MMA helps Éanna Walsh's battle bipolar disorder

Following a series of life-changing events - his parents splitting up, a childhood friend losing his battle with cancer, and meeting his birth mother for the first time - Éanna Walsh was hospitalised, at the age of 23, with bipolar disorder. Here he tells our reporter how the intense physical training of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) became his recovery outlet.

Éanna Walsh (27), training at the SBG gym on the Naas Road, Dublin Photo: Frank McGrath.
Éanna Walsh (27), training at the SBG gym on the Naas Road, Dublin Photo: Frank McGrath.
Eanna Walsh from Kildare pictured sparring with Craig Crowley from Malahide, during his MMA training at the SBG gym on the Naas Road, Dublin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

The road to recovery following mental illness is long and winding. In other cases, it's a road less travelled. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early twenties, Éanna Walsh discovered a beneficial but nonetheless unusual recovery outlet: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

The 27-year-old has been practising the combat sport since April of last year and he attributes it with restoring his mental wellbeing.

"I was diagnosed nearly three years ago now and it took me months to be able to motivate myself to go back into a gym," he says. "So it is all baby steps, but once you get going you can use something like this as an advantage."

Kildare-born Éanna, who will face his first amateur MMA fight at the National Stadium this August, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013.

His friends and family staged an intervention when they became concerned by his behaviour. He was later hospitalised due to the condition at the age of 23.

MMA fighting delivered an unlikely antidote. The moment he sets foot in that octagon next month will represent not just the end of a three-year recovery battle, but an entirely new chapter in his life.

"It literally wiped the slate clean for me. I had to start again from scratch and wean myself out of the house. Giving myself a cause and having something to train for has given me something to focus on," he says.

"I wouldn't be pushing everyone towards MMA because it's not for everyone," he adds, "but the training is really beneficial."

Éanna felt his mental health coming under increased strain at the age of 18. "I left school after my Leaving Cert, which was average, and I decided to go to DIT to do marketing. However, around that time, a lot of s*** hit the fan at home with my parents and they eventually split," he explains.

"My parents were always so good to me. It just so happens that I was adopted, but I always knew that and they bent over backwards for me.

"I had always said growing up that when I was 18 I would try and get in contact with my birth mother. So I started that process, but when everything fell apart at home I knew myself that I couldn't balance both, so I benched [the idea] for a while.

"There was just a lot going on - a lot of pressure - and it was the first time I really would have been aware of my mental health. For the first time, I felt myself withdrawing.

"I didn't really seem to fit in to the college life. I was just finding it way harder than I did in school," he continues. "In school I had loads of friends and things were always a lot more stable for me."

Éanna dropped out of his marketing course during his first year and instead began a media course in Ballyfermot College.

"It was just an awkward and bad situation that we all had to go through at home. However, when we did, I was out working and was getting into fitness," he continues.

"It was the first time I really felt that mental and physical change; I felt good and felt like I was able to vent all of my animosity that had built up and put it towards something better."

Éanna was now 22 and working in a radio station. He was enjoying the challenge and thriving in the new role. "I felt really proud of myself," he recalls.

It was also at this point that he decided to re-engage with the adoption authority in a bid to find his birth mother, who had given birth to him in a mother and baby home in Dunboyne. He remembers the process as being "very cold and clinical", and was angered to discover how his birth mother had been treated. After negotiating all sorts of red tape, mother and son began to write to one another, and eventually set a date to meet. In the meantime, Éanna was offered an internship with a marketing company in London.

"It was a really good opportunity, but it kind of tanked," he grins. "It was a very structured analytical role and I hated it. I came back in April and met my birth mother, Eimear, and although it was hard, it went very well.

"I went back to London afterwards, but once the internship ended there was nothing and I had to come home once again.

"I thought it was a kick in the teeth, but I was glad to have it on my CV all the same," he adds.

Éanna was home a few weeks when he was offered another marketing role at a surf resort in Bali. However, in the weeks before he was due to leave, his friend Peter, who had been battling cancer since their teens, began to deteriorate.

"Peter had cancer on and off since we were 15," he explains. "We were a tight bunch of lads and we became very good at normalising heavy stuff like that." Looking back, Éanna admits that part of the reason he travelled to Bali was to run away from his problems.

"There is an element of you wanting to run away from everything at that age," he says.

"Bali was great, but I decided to come home because of the way the situation was evolving with Peter, to try and be there for him and for the lads too, and take what was to come that summer."

However, as Peter's condition worsened, Éanna's mental health began to plummet. "As Peter was getting sicker, I was getting more and more manic," he explains. "I knew the lads were keeping tabs on me and that nearly fed into my paranoia. It all came to a head the day they staged an intervention with my parents. I was admitted into hospital and prescribed heavy medication. I was in and out of hospital for about three months and Peter passed away during that time. I was just about allowed out for the funeral...

"Not too long after that I started coming down from everything and I started accepting what had happened.

"There is stigma after it," he continues. "Straight away my experience of hospital and life after hospital was that you were constantly trying to prove your sanity to people."

The unwavering support Éanna received from friends and family has been an integral part of his recovery.

"I was lucky I had a good group of friends at home who just took everything as it was coming when I was sick. They never batted an eyelid. They kept an eye on me and gradually that allowed me to come out of my shell a little bit."

A year later, Éanna returned to work, but began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks about the possibility of others finding out about his illness.

"I was so afraid that someone would find out because you are basically only one Facebook friend from everyone knowing all of your business. That fear started consuming me and my work stopped."

Crestfallen, Éanna moved home again.

"I felt like I was back to square one, but at this time it was really the rise of MMA and I was hearing all about the positivity in the sport and I really wanted to get back to feeling well," he explains.

"So in April last year, when I turned 26, I decided to take control of my life and I joined The Performance and Fitness Academy, which is close to where I live in Kildare." Once Éanna had built his fitness back up, he contacted Conor McGregor's coach John Kavanagh and set about his MMA training journey at SBG. "The change started when I decided to give myself time off to recover and rebuild.

"Everyone has times when their mental health is better or worse than it has been before. I think mental health diagnosis or mental illness should really be referred to as mental injuries, because you will get over them. You can recondition yourself out of it."

To help others going through similar circumstances, Éanna began the Bare Knuckling Bipolar social media campaign in April 2015, in a bid to launch an open and healthy conversation about mental health.

"The idea is that people can get involved in Bare Knuckling Bipolar in any way they choose; just go find what it is you enjoy, even if it is yoga, painting, whatever, go and do it.

"I'm fighting in August and I don't care about winning or losing. I just want to turn up and scrap hard and show what you can do when you put your mind to it," he adds.

"I want to show people that you can start off with an injured mind, but you can build it back up again."

* For more information on Éanna's campaign, see:

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