Thursday 14 November 2019

'There's every chance I would have taken my own life' - How a call from Brian Cody changed everything for Eoin Larkin

For years, Eoin Larkin wrestled secretly with depression, his condition spiralling to the point of considering suicide. The Kilkenny legend tells Vincent Hogan about Brian Cody's intervention.

Eoin Larkin appeared in 12 All-Ireland finals, winning eight in a stellar career for Kilkenny. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eoin Larkin appeared in 12 All-Ireland finals, winning eight in a stellar career for Kilkenny. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The Prologue of his book, ''Camouflage', spills Eoin Larkin's secret in words that are instantly seismic, bracing. Suicide, he declares, was "becoming increasingly inevitable". This instant declaration of candour from a marquee figure of Kilkenny's transcendent years establishes an immediately stark emotional tone. If depression wears a mask, Larkin has chosen to go bare-faced.

Yet a real strength of the book becomes its avoidance of self-dramatising the depressive's predicament. Larkin shares the disorientation and vulnerability his condition brings without falling into the easy survivor's trap of wrapping it in the language of the past.

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Eoin Larkin celebrates with club and county team-mate Jackie Tyrrell after victory in the 2008 All-Ireland final. The pair will line up together again tomorrow as James Stephens take on Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Kilkenny club SHC final. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Eoin Larkin celebrates with club and county team-mate Jackie Tyrrell after victory in the 2008 All-Ireland final. The pair will line up together again tomorrow as James Stephens take on Ballyhale Shamrocks in the Kilkenny club SHC final. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

This is one man's ongoing journey, a story unsoftened by tidy conclusions.

"How could it be any other way?" he shrugged in a Dublin hotel on Thursday. "It (depression) is a minefield. Being honest is my only motivation here. Anyway, who am I to lecture anybody? One size can't fit all. Everybody's circumstances are different."

Larkin's collaboration with journalist Pat Nolan shines a light then into a world gone dark. Outwardly, his life was anchored and calm, an admired, garlanded sportsman, happily married, sociable, ambitious.

But the regression came in inches and just around the time Brian Cody's men were playing the hurling of their lives, dark thoughts began spidering down deep inside of Larkin.

Cody’s phone call was the catalyst but it could – Larkin admits – have come from anyone. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cody’s phone call was the catalyst but it could – Larkin admits – have come from anyone. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

His wife Anne read the signals early, communicating to her husband a suspicion that he might be depressed. But the word served only to antagonise him; placing him on the defensive. Sometimes he'd use alcohol to blur the alternating emotions, only to find all the bad stuff then accentuated by a crushing hangover.

It all came to a head in 2016. It probably had to.

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A week spent in bed before turning out, almost zombie-like, in a club game for James Stephens in Castlecomer. A justified sideline rebuke from manager, Niall Tyrrell, triggering the bitter response, 'Ah just f*** off will ya!' A retreat again behind closed curtains and a pulled-up duvet that night.

Then Brian Cody's voice on the phone the next morning. "How are you feeling?"

Authority Cody's had been a voice of authority in his life since Larkin was in sixth class at St Pat's De La Salle Primary School. A selector with James Stephens that night in Castlecomer, he'd been standing next to Tyrrell and knew, instantly, that Larkin's outburst had little to do with hurling.

Anne had never seen her husband cry until walking in on that telephone conversation.

"I was gone," Larkin recalled this week. "Convulsions. Just floods of tears. There was no conversation as such."

Cody's counsel was for him to ring Kilkenny team doctor Tadhg Crowley. And, soon, Anne was watching the tears slide down her husband's face for a second time, this time in a doctor's clinic. In the book, Larkin recounts telling Crowley that he'd been considering suicide.

"Have you anything planned?" the doctor responds in an almost matter-of-fact tone.

Reading it, it's impossible not to imagine Anne's turmoil at this moment. Was she prepared for that exchange?

"No, I don't think she knew the extent of things at that stage," Larkin reflects now. "In fact, even recently she was going through some chapters of the book in bed one night when, at one stage, she just stopped reading, turned to me and asked: 'Did you really think about doing that?'

"When I said I did, her response was 'Jesus, I never realised...'

"You know it was a shock to me even saying those words. Even though I'd been thinking about it for a while, I still hadn't really accepted that there was something wrong with me. Still wasn't really asking myself the obvious question. 'Why are you thinking like this? Looking back, I actually don't think I was giving those thoughts the importance I should have.

"I suppose I was worried about showing any weakness as well. I know Anne nearly 20 years and the first time she saw me cry was that morning Brian phoned.

"But the moment I admitted considering suicide to Tadhg, it was as if somebody had taken their legs off my shoulders. I could actually feel my head coming up a bit.

"Obviously it wasn't next or near finished, but... just to have somebody who understood. To be fair to Tadhg, he just took it all in his stride. It was like he was after hearing it a hundred times that day. The conversation was so normal, which I didn't expect.

"I wasn't talking a whole lot in there. He was asking me questions and Anne was describing everything. I was still in floods of tears. But he made the conversation feel as if I'd gone in telling him I had a sore throat. And he asked me probably the one question that needed to be asked. Had I anything planned?

"But it was in such a way he might as well have been asking me about a cough. It was said in that tone, no hullabaloo."

Larkin hadn't been long back from a tour of duty with the Irish army in Syria, admitting in the book that his life "hit rock bottom" on the back of that trip. He describes himself as "a shell of a man" at the time, admitting frankly that "there's every chance I would have taken my own life" without intervention.

Cody's phone call was the catalyst then, but it could - he admits - have come from anyone. And soon, with his condition no longer occupying that aching, murmured space, the resentments stopped piling up.

Admission of a problem brought the first real crack of light, prising open the closed doors inside of him.

Asked to compare the Eoin Larkin of that evening in Castlecomer with the Eoin Larkin of today, he is unequivocal.

"That Eoin Larkin wasn't comfortable with himself," he says of 2016. "Would never have spoken about anything like this. Hid everything. Definitely wouldn't have spoken to Anne about it. In fact, would have blamed her for a lot of the arguments. Would have taken it out on the kids.

"Whereas now, I'm enjoying doing things with the family. Back then, all I wanted to do was slump onto the couch and watch the telly.

"Today I'm totally comfortable with who I am, whereas I wasn't before."

Our habit is to view sports people in broadly superficial terms, defining them exclusively by what they do as distinct from who they might actually be. In Larkin's case, that was all too easy. A man who played in 12 All-Ireland finals, winning eight. Hurler of the Year in 2008. Winning captain four years later. Twice an All-Star.

Sanitised

No question, the modern managerial habit of permitting only the most sanitised of interaction with media is partly responsible, restricting our knowledge of top GAA players to little more than the arithmetic of what they do.

For Larkin, that basic idealism of chasing a Celtic Cross seems almost bizarre in recall now. A few weeks after retiring from the inter-county game in 2016, he took daughter Ellie for swimming lessons at the Springhill Court Hotel where he bumped into Charlie Carter.

"Well, ya finished up?" said Carter.

"Yeah, I did."

"Well, let me tell you, you don't realise it when you're in there, but you will realise it in a couple of weeks. That there are things outside of Kilkenny hurling that are important too."

Larkin says he sat listening, unconvinced. "I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm not really seeing that at the moment Charlie!' But he was dead right.

"Because everything I did, be it with my family or friends, it all revolved around hurling and getting ready for something or other, training, a match or the gym.

"Like I missed a good few of my friends' weddings. I was at them, but not really at them. Everybody's getting drunk and you're sitting there with a 7-Up. It becomes a pain in the hole eventually and you just want to be gone. So, soon enough, I was out of there.

"Looking back, it's extraordinary that we can get people to commit to this and, effectively, put their life on hold. For what?"

It isn't that Larkin regrets a single second of that devotion, more the fact that he is struck by a sense of wonder at how all-consuming it became.

In the book, he reveals that occasional struggles with his weight meant he would sometimes allow himself eat nothing more than two bananas in a given day.

Every Valentine's Night, he and Anne traditionally go to dinner with Tommy Walsh and his wife Marlis. But Larkin frequently left for training after a single course.

"I'd leave the three of them there... and that was only for club training," he says now, mildly incredulous. "Even just being out for a meal with your wife, you'd be, 'Will I have a dessert? Maybe not!' Only small things in the course of a life, but big things at the time.

"If you were seen having a couple of pints the week of a championship game, Jesus there'd be murder. I've always been good friends with Brian's son, Donnacha, through hurling with the club and that, and he'd say the amount of phone calls that would come to the house, 'This lad is drinking, that lad is drinking...'

"You could be having a Lucozade, but everything grows legs. So it was pure tunnel vision for the hurling. We used organise a round of golf among a few of us at one stage, maybe on a Thursday after training Wednesday night. But we were pulled up on it. 'Walking around a golf course isn't getting you ready for Friday night's training!' That's the way it was. You just got on with it.

"It does seem a little bizarre looking back, because it's crazy when you think about it. It's like you're in this little bubble and, once you're in it, nothing else matters."

Already, the distance between those days and his life today feels like an ocean. Tomorrow, a 35-year-old Larkin will play centre-back for James Stephens as they bid to shoot down reigning All-Ireland champions Ballyhale in the Kilkenny final. Behind him will be a 37-year-old Jackie Tyrrell.

In launching his book on Wednesday night, Cody jokingly suggested that the game will be his only priority this week.

The bond between the two men is deep, yet resolutely old-fashioned. Loyalty goes unquestioned and unspoken. Larkin's last game for Kilkenny was the 2016 All-Ireland final against Tipperary, a fitting dénouement to his troubled year.

Only this summer did he sense those old, urgent feelings return.

Watching the team line up to meet President Higgins before this year's final against Tipp, he found himself sitting in the press box, unwittingly focusing on his breathing. As if he, too, was standing in that line.

The Limerick semi-final, he says, reawakened something inside.

"It was like revisiting 2007 and 2008," says Larkin. "That's what the players were like, just possessed all over the field, working like savages, nobody putting themselves before the team.

"That's what Brian brings. I'd argue with anybody that nobody else would have got that performance out of them."

Hurling still courses through his veins then, just not with the fury it once did. Win or lose tomorrow, he won't be tyrannised by the emotion.

There's a cautious realism in his life today that wavers only when he forgets to take the medication. A struggle with depression isn't one that can ever truly be won. It's more a battle you find the tools to control.

Eoin Larkin will forever be thankful that those tools fell his way when they did. As he sees it, Brian Cody just asked him the right question at the right time.

And the future? "If I have to take a tablet for the rest of my life, who cares?"

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