Saturday 24 February 2018

Run for my life - how exercise eased Niall Munnelly's depression

Niall Munnelly tells our reporter how a decision to go for a run, in the depths of his depression, saved his life

Personal trainer Niall Munnelly. Photo: Adrian Melia.
Personal trainer Niall Munnelly. Photo: Adrian Melia.
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Ten years ago Niall Munnelly's life was very different to what it is now. These days Niall (34) runs one of the largest and most successful strength and conditioning gyms in the country, the Performance and Fitness Academy in Co Kildare. However, just a decade ago, Niall was suffering from depression, regular panic attacks and he was planning to take his own life.

During his early twenties, after he qualified as an electrician, Niall travelled to Australia. It was a dream existence; Niall remembers feeling at his most happy and tranquil. However, a couple of years into Niall's new life, things took a turn for the worse; his work visa ran out despite the fact that he had a successful job with a crew under him. Niall found himself in a predicament; he could pick fruit for a couple of months in order to extend his stay or stick with his job and hope to stay off the authorities' radar. The then 24-year-old chose to take a chance on the latter, he applied for a holiday visa and continued working. A short time later Niall found himself unceremoniously deported back to Ireland. On his return, Niall began to drink a lot.

"I wasn't happy. I was taken away from my tranquil life to be back home where I did not want to be," Niall says. "I was going out partying every weekend. I was in self-destruct mode."

In Australia, Niall had been keeping in good shape. However, after a couple of months drinking and not working out, he started to gain weight. "I started to feel bad about myself. I started going down a road I really didn't want to go down," Niall tells me.

"I was at a party one night and my mind was f****d; someone offered me drugs and I took them. Before I knew it I was in a cardiac unit in Naas Hospital. I spent four days there surrounded by guys in their eighties and nineties; I was 24. That was a massive reality check for me, but it also brought on something which I never had before, panic attacks."

The incident left Niall with a lasting psychological trauma. From this point on, every time he exerted himself he would suffer a severe panic attack, convinced he was about to die.

"If I tried to run, if I tried to walk, anything," Niall says. "It would bring on a panic attack and panic attacks are the most disgusting things in the world, you honestly have yourself convinced that you are about to die. I would run into the GP shouting 'I'm dying! Help me doctor! Help me!' So throughout all of this I lost my job, I lost my friends and most importantly I lost my mind."

"From there I was diagnosed with panic attacks and depression and I was prescribed drugs, which can help people," Niall adds. "I wouldn't tell people that Prozac and Xanax don't work, but in time I learned that they did not work for me. I knew that wasn't the route for me, but at the time I was desperate so I started to take them."

Niall describes the next year of his life as a 'living hell'. "I was at home and I was doped up to my eyeballs," he explains. "I found myself just sitting in my room for nearly a year watching the seasons go by. Friends didn't know how to deal with it. They didn't understand."

The battle raged inside Niall's mind even as he tried to sleep.

"Having a good night's sleep rarely happened, but I used to love sleeping because the pain went away. I used to be afraid of waking up," Niall tells me. "Sometimes I used to pray going to bed that I wouldn't wake up.

"Growing up, I was always fit. I used to do athletics and be one of the fastest kids in the country; I played for Leinster in basketball and played football underage for county," Niall explains. "So this ruined my confidence and as anyone who suffers from a mental health issue will tell you, the first thing that goes is your confidence. You look in the mirror and see a failure."

He contemplated suicide. "I thought about killing myself a few times," he tells me. "I just didn't think that anybody would miss me because nobody knew how to deal with it. I was going to psychiatrists and they weren't working for me - even though they do work for some people. I didn't trust anybody who didn't suffer from the same thing themselves and I didn't know anyone who had, so I felt really alone in it.

"It all came to a head one day. I'd put on a few stone, I was sitting at home depressed and a friend called over, he was going on holidays and he wanted to borrow some board shorts," Niall explains. "I sat on my bed, I gave him the shorts and I looked at him with tears in my eyes. I hadn't said it to anyone else before, I looked at him and I said 'I feel like I am going to kill myself, I need help'."

"What happened next was extraordinary," Niall smiles. "He stood there and eventually said 'that's pretty heavy, sure listen rest up there and you'll be grand in the morning,' and he walked out.

"I don't blame him because it was that act that saved my life in a way. I planned to go out and drive my car into a tree. I was going to try and make it look like an accident. I'd go to do it and then I would stop. Something inside just stopped me, so I just got out and went for a run," Niall says. "I knew I couldn't run maybe 300-400 metres without having a panic attack, so I decided I was going to run until I died. I know that sounds stupid now, but at the time I honestly thought I could run so hard and so fast that I was going to have this unbelievable panic attack and my heart would just explode.

"I ran and I will never forget it, this build up of panic was just coming and coming and there was tears in my eyes, I was screaming, I wanted God or whoever is up there to take me. My chest was so tight, my heart was bouncing, I got to the point where I felt I was going to die and I pushed harder and all of a sudden this euphoric feeling of calm just came over me. I can't explain it, I was confused. I had just beaten a panic attack and I had won and that gave me confidence. I jumped into the car and felt like I floated home. I walked in at home and I said to my father, 'I think I can beat this. I'm ready'."

Niall's father enlisted the help of his friend, fitness guru Gerry Loftus, known for his success in the Superstars TV series in the early 1980s. "I grabbed all of my tablets and I threw them in the bin and my dad set me up with Gerry and he saved my life," Niall says. "He brought me to a gym, started to work out with me and he helped me to get my confidence back. From then, exercise became an addiction. I started to love myself and motivate myself.

"Sometimes you need to lose your mind to find out who you are," Niall adds. "I look back on my depression now, not as a gift but as something that has steered me in the right way in life. It makes you a very strong person. Eventually the panic attacks stopped and never came back fully, there were little glimpses of them, but I was able to control them because I had that confidence.

"I went travelling again to New Zealand for a few years and I found myself in gyms talking to people and helping them, so I decided to come home to Ireland and become a trainer. I knew I wanted to do this, I wanted to help people. It helped me with my mental health; it gave me confidence in my body which translated straight into my head."

In January 2012, Niall set up The Performance and Fitness Academy, starting in a 1,200 sq ft building and progressing to a 8,200 sq ft premises now.

"It's the most rewarding job in the world. You could be having a bad day and someone will say, 'Thank god for this place,' and that is such an amazing feeling," Niall tells me. "We held a charity 5km fun run at the Curragh this summer and we raised €7,590 for a local charity that helps people with depression called Hope D.

"I stood up in front of that crowd of over 400 people and told them that I had come to the Curragh 10 years ago to kill myself and now I was standing in front of them hoping to save lives. It was breathtaking and something I'll never forget."


Niall's ­Advice...

Be supportive and encouraging, give them compliments, make them feel good about themselves.

Ask them are they okay, particularly men. Don't be afraid to ask your friends or family members if they are they okay or simply ask how they are feeling from time to time.

One day they will hit rock bottom and look for help and until then, all you can do is be there for them. Let them know you are there in any way you can.

Depression is tough - you need to be mentally strong enough yourself to help someone else. If you do not feel strong enough, ask for help on your friend's behalf.

Seek help. You will find somebody who will suit you. I went through five or six doctors and psychiatrists. You will find somebody, keep searching and if someone doesn't suit you, move on. Do not give up.

Think of the pain you are going through right now; killing yourself will not get rid of that, it will just leave it behind for your family and your friends. You have to think about that.

This world is so much better with you in it. Yes depression, anxiety and panic attacks are tough, but they are curable. You will get through it; you will find a way out.

Hang around with positive people. If you ­surround yourself with negative people you will live a negative life.

Successful isn't a fancy car or house, it is being happy in who you are and what you are giving to the world.

You need to conquer your brain and your ­emotions, you need to breathe and move more. When you hit rock bottom, you stay static, you need to get up and move, meditate. You need to work to get your confidence back.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

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