‘It was a wet, cold, grey Friday morning. I rose out of bed having had no sleep the night before. Panic attacks are horrific experiences by day, by night they are even worse. My desire for death was now much stronger than my desire for living so I made a decision. I had the rope hidden in my room. I knew there was a game on a Saturday evening and that my father and the lads would be gone to that. After my mother and sister would be gone to Mass, I would drive to the location and hang myself. I didn’t feel any anxiety about it. It would solve everything.’
Conor Cusack, October 2013
For Irish sport and sportspeople, this was a good week. It may not have seemed that way when, on Monday, one of our biggest names announced his retirement from racing as he moves onto the far more brutal challenge of wrestling with the long, dark tentacles of depression. And for sure, that in itself is tragic if tragically not uncommon. But at 51, Kieren Fallon going public about his illness is hugely important well beyond the confines of mere entertainment that racing and sport usually exist in.
Just consider that when Fallon started into his career little was known about depression; when he was at his pomp in the late 1990s and early 2000s little was said about it; yet now as he gets down from the saddle he can be added to a growing and brave list of those willing to openly discuss it. With so much secrecy and so many variables, that is one of the only ways to measure true progress.
This column has often talked about sport being a microcosm of society in many aspects. In a way this is too, what with Ireland suffering an epidemic, the sort that meant one of the first programmes the Gaelic Players Association decided to put in place back in 2010 as a matter of urgency was a nationwide counselling service. Indeed Dr Adrian McGoldrick, the man who spoke on Fallon’s behalf, also spoke about the wider issue. “What most people are unaware of is that in Ireland anxiety and depression is the second most common illness seen by GPs every day,” he said. “It is exceptionally common – only alcohol in Ireland is a bigger problem.”
Of course he is correct, but when it comes to elite athletes and depression, it’s an area where the illness has an even greater grip. Back in 2013 for instance, a study of past and present collegiate athletes in the United States found that 17 per cent exhibited symptoms of depression. Other reports have noted that athletes are amongst the groups with the highest rates of depression with as many as one in four experiencing it. Worse, despite being exposed to such a high risk, surveys also suggest the numbers seeking help remains low, often due to the machismo and invincibility culture. And while intrinsic stressors from within are at play in all depression, extrinsic stressors or those from the outside world are, for obvious reasons, a greater problem with our sportspeople.
There’s a saying that sports stars die twice, the first time being at retirement. As Sugar Ray Leonard once put it, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” And retirement is often the biggest factor, while far from the only factor. In fact if much has changed within sport since his time, this is an area that has remained much the same.
“Pro sport, it’s beyond sport, the intensity is hard to describe,” says recently returned Irish runner David Gillick who also suffered depression in retirement. “When I left, I suddenly found myself asking who am I? What am I good at? My identity had been so glued to sport that I was rudderless. In athletics you map out everything, day to day, month to month, even four-year cycle to four-year cycle. But suddenly I was without focus and even the changing of the seasons would affect me as I’d think about it in terms of athletics. I was thinking about what I’d achieved five years before and was idolisng the past but never looking forward.
“But the alpha male thing is there and beyond males, as an athlete you show confidence all the time and no weakness. In a team sport you are in a full dressing room and don’t want to say something to the manager as you might lose your place and that’s your career and your life and you’ve nothing else. Even in individual sport, if you’ve a training partner they might be more confident and you don’t want to show weakness or give any advantage to them. Or to anyone. I was hurting when I went to America to train and my parents or girlfriend would call and I’d put on the happy face as it was easier to say nothing.”
Yet then there are the examples of those who never said anything and it’s why we’ve lost so many greats. Gary Speed’s family and friends knew nothing before he hanged himself. German goalkeeper Robert Enke had battled depression for years before stepping in front of a train. Russian judoka Elena Ivashchenko jumped to her death as she slipped into a depression following her failure to win the 2012 Olympics. Meanwhile Darren Sutherland’s father always denied he suffered with it, sighting one of the most bubbly and talented people in our modern sport’s history. But that’s part of the problem as, like Gillick did so well, many can hide it away.
“I was thinking recently about it all,” the Dublin 400m runner continues. “When I was in athletics before I had a sports psychologist but, what I realise now is, I needed an actual psychologist. Out of the sport though I was moving jobs and then it hit me, this isn’t about jobs or anything else, it’s about me. It got too much so I called a friend, an athlete who had been through the same, and he told me to come over and I just unloaded. All the baggage, frustration, anger. He told me some stories about himself though and I thought, ‘Shit, it wasn’t just me’. And now I know it’s far from just me.”
Back when former Cork hurler Conor Cusack went on Prime Time in 2013 to discuss his own depression, the GPA spoke of a spike in those looking to use their counselling service. It brings hope that the likes of Fallon opening up could bring others out of the shadows and the silence. You wish him the very best in his latest battle, but he should already know his honesty has made this a good week for Irish sport and our sportspeople.
Sunday Business Post
10 July, 2016