One Step at a Time
Three sufferers of depression open up on the benefits of exercise
Ever had one of those days? Nothing seems to go right? Don't want to get out of bed? Splash your face quickly to avoid glimpsing yourself in the mirror? Dread the thought of going to work and having to be around anyone? Let the phone ring off rather than speak to that friend about that party you missed? Order a fast-food delivery because you just can't stomach the kitchen
That was my every day just three years ago, at the age of 29, tipping the scales at 20st and single for more than 18 months. My friends were planning weddings, changing nappies or talking about the pay rise with their latest promotion. I couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel; I had thoughts about ending it all.
In early October 2010, at a family wedding, I was flying solo after failing to find a date. When I got back to my rented room, I felt so depressed and alone.
A conversation the previous day resonated with me. My cousin Niamh had suggested cookery classes to confront two issues in my life: my diet and singledom.
Also that day, in an attempt to kill some time, I had just watched two movies, namely Yes Man and The Bucket List.
The final inspiration was an invite to a family memorial service taking place for my cousin who had died 20 years previously. I had witnessed the devastation of my entire family on the death of a loved one, who was full of life and taken so young, and resolved to turn my life around.
I compiled my own bucket list; 10 things I felt I wanted to achieve in a year, including losing weight, travelling, completing a marathon, changing careers, learning to cook, getting back on a bike, learning to swim, finishing a triathlon, finding love and getting over a fear of speaking in public.
And then, most importantly, asked my friends for help. Over the next few months, I completed the Dublin Marathon, cycled around New Zealand, completed triathlons, lost four stone, had 50 blind dates, travelled to five countries, started my own radio show and was head-hunted by one of the biggest companies in the country. I found the exercise had a double whammy – along with getting stronger and losing weight, I felt great.
I gravitated towards cycling – that's me in the yellow top, above right – and, in September 2012, I cycled through all 32 counties of Ireland in 15 days with some Irish Olympic heroes.
This year, I participated in Cycle Against Suicide, established by the inspirational Jim Breen, himself a sufferer of depression. It was during the first school talk I attended that I realised this was where I belonged. For the first time, I felt part of something. I identified with almost every word that was uttered by each speaker.
Their message of 'it's okay not to feel okay, and it's absolutely okay to ask for help' is one that is worth spreading. So much so that in March 2014, I'll be setting off on my biggest challenge yet, cycling 29,000k through 25 countries and six continents in less than four months with the aim of spreading that message to as many people as possible.
He couldn't sleep or breathe. That's how it felt anyway. Several weeks after a losing appearance in the 2011 U-21 All-Ireland football final, it seemed to Cavan goalkeeper Alan O'Mara that his world was fraying at the edges.
A student at Dublin Institute of Technology, he was an outgoing young man with his life ahead of him. So why did he lie awake each night, waiting for the walls to come crashing in?
"The loss of that match was the start of the downward slide," says Alan, who has become a leading advocate for positive mental health strategies in the GAA. "At the time, I didn't understand what was happening. I was adrift."
Two years on, Alan has turned his life around. He still has issues with depression and sees a counsellor several times a year.
"If I'm having a bad day (with depression), I tell people. Previously, I might have tried to hide what I was feeling. I was making excuses. It helps to open up – to say 'look it lads, I'm having a bad day here'."
For Alan, depression manifests as a dull, deep-rooted headache which won't go away. Having suffered silently for months, in early 2012 he spoke to his family. Someone suggested counselling. He investigated and learned that the Gaelic Players' Association provided such a service.
"I had decided to ring them on several occasions. And I couldn't go ahead with it. I would sit there staring at the phone, trembling. The funny thing is that the service was on the road where I was living at the time."
Articulating his feelings was liberating. He felt like he was opening the valve on a pressure cooker.
And suspecting he wasn't the only young man who struggled with depression, last May Alan wrote a heartfelt piece on the GAA website. By that stage, he was working for the organisation as social media coordinator.
"It did cross my mind what the lads in the Cavan panel might think. They were wonderful. The response was 'good for you'.
"It is very much an ongoing thing," he says. "You have to take it step by step. And the first step is talking to someone."
Irish rugby ace Alan Quinlan has spoken publicly in the past about his experience of having depression and mental health issues.
The ex-international star battled with the blues after a suspension for eye-gouging Leinster captain Leo Cullen in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup in 2009, which resulted in the back-row star receiving a 12-week ban and missing the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
The incident signalled a couple of burdensome and challenging years for the Munster legend, and mentally he went into a downward spiral.
"It was huge for me to be selected for The Lions, and then for that to change with the incident with Leo was a very difficult time for me. I struggled for a good period after to try and get over it."
Since battling back to recovery, the former Ireland flanker, who turns 40 next year, bravely decided to speak about his testing time.
"I spoke openly about it, which has made a difference, and I became aware of my mental health and how it can be a challenge. Everyone has ups and downs in their lives and this was a difficult time for me.
"I have found it therapeutic as I'm trying to have the courage to speak out and normalise things a little for people. I encourage people to open up about their problems, worries and fears."
Alan feels a remedy towards mental health is to try and get people to make lifestyle changes around their physical health.
"Exercise plays a massive part in having had a bad day. Some people can feel intimidated by exercise but there is a real benefit there. It makes you feel better, look better and it gives your mind a break. People can unwind if they do some form of activity."
The Tipperary man encourages people who are not used to doing exercise to get moving in some shape or form.
"You can go walking on the road or up the mountains. It's important that everyone gets some way active and puts a plan in place where you do this a couple of times a week.
"If you can put one foot in front of the other, do some exercise, it doesn't matter how unfit you are or not."
Since retiring in May 2011 from his beloved game, Alan now minds his body physically and mentally through keeping fit, whereas during his bouts of depression, exercise went to the wall.
"At the time of The Lions controversy, I didn't have any motivation to go out and do any sport or exercise, but it has certainly played a big part in my lifestyle since then. I now go for a couple of runs a week and also go to the gym."
The sportsman is also keen to emphasise that nutrition plays a huge role in looking after oneself.
"If you eat rubbish food, high in saturated fats, you're not going to feel good. It's a vicious circle. If you look in the mirror and don't look so good, you won't feel so good mentally too."