Monday, August 05, 2019

A mental health journey through following rugby by Ciarán Duffy

Editor's note - this post contains extremely personal 
life details some may find distressing

"...mental health doesn’t just happen when it’s appropriate for the opinion leaders and well-dressed.  Everybody is constantly dealing with their mental health, and some people are really struggling."

Drop at Goal!!!… GrandSlam at Stake!!! 

I was going to wait until my 150th HarpinOnRugby article to share this.  But I thought that would actually kind of miss the point.  This is about my mental health journey through the eyes of my life as a rugby fan.  And that’s the thing about mental health; it’s not something that only exists in some people, it exists in everybody.

The world isn’t split into people who have mental health issues and then everybody else who is grand.  It’s not a case of people who are lost and people who are found, people with their shit together and people who need meds for that, damsels in distress and strong independent women who don’t need to know men.  The reality is everybody has a mental health, but often times in this country it has been completely ignored, sometimes by people in power, sometimes by people close to somebody suffering, and sometimes by the person suffering themselves.  It seems we only really talk mental health when: 

  1. Somebody has died
  2. It’s a charity month 
  3. Somebody has had a serious incident resulting from a mental health struggle, which usually leads to the question “Why didn’t you say anything”. 

And that’s a problem because mental health doesn’t just happen when it’s appropriate for the opinion leaders and well-dressed.  Everybody is constantly dealing with their mental health, and some people are really struggling. I’ve had a lot of struggles, and they happen whether Leinster get their 5th star or miss out on even a play-off place.  Mental health isn’t something to be thought about only on occasion.  

I don’t know when I got into rugby really, I think 2000 is the first Six Nations I really got into.  As in I knew what was going on. I’ve always loved the Six Nations. I suppose it was kind of the only rugby I knew.  I didn’t grow up in a rugby family (despite having a relation working in the RDS, who is now, needless to say, the favourite uncle because of the free Leinster tickets).  But I loved what I saw, and without realizing it, each year, the Six Nations was a little place for me to feel safe and happy. As the years went on sometimes I’d hide away for the months of February and March, with green, red, white, and a few shades of blue keeping me company.  I used to keep track of the games in a notepad (this is before I could get away with putting “Proficient with Microsoft word and excel” in my CV so I had to settle for drawing my charts). There was something that just worked for me about it. Back in the day it was England and France dominating.  That made 2004 special, Ireland beating England for the Triple Crown; I remember Shaggy's try well. It was probably the first time I really admired a piece of play in a sport from a skill point of view. I don’t think I was one who had a natural understanding of sport, but I really got why that was a great piece of play.  I’ll always remember that because it was the first time where I was really aware of Ireland achieving something big in a sport.  

The Six Nations was there for me.  I’m the kind of person that goes downhill in the Winter months.  Even in bad situations. I remember once I was staying at my biological father's house, with his partner at the time.  People often gasp and condemn you for saying one of your parents were a bad person. But that’s reality. Some people are horrible people, and sometimes they happen to be related to you. 

After a day of snide comments, bullying, and inappropriate language, watching England v France on a tiny little portable TV before going to sleep on the floor got me through a rough day. And that was the thing with the Six Nations, it got me through a lot.  Rugby got me through a lot. I remember vague details, England won the World Cup, Ireland almost won the Six Nations, then 2009 came along. I think that February to March span in 2009 was possibly the happiest journey I had ever been on. From finally beating France to that Welsh penalty falling short, I lived every minute of it.  This was at a time when I really wasn’t getting any help in school. That’s an area that really fails people in terms of mental health. MY school didn’t want to know. I was clearly getting horrendous bullying of a physical, verbal, and sexual nature, but I wasn’t causing a fuss so they didn’t want to rock the boat. There are a lot of teachers in secondary schools who have no business being educators.  I know there are plenty of good ones out there too, but I wasn’t blessed with having any. School failed me, rugby saved me.  

Often times I wonder why I even like rugby.  Not because of the sport itself, but because I went to a rugby school with an atrocious atmosphere.  If you weren’t a big laddish fella you were nothing. Teachers and counsellors were more worried about buddying up to the cool kids who wore too much hair products than actually shaping young minds in positive ways.  I think that’s the problem in these schools ; jock culture. I know full well that there are people who are reading this saying things like “Man Up”, and that it does know harm. “Man Up” is an atrocious expression. Men are people, and people can have mental health problems.  I was sitting in class constantly getting bullied and being told it was good for me by some of those kinds, I grew increasingly suicidal as the years went on and it’s frankly stunning that I made it 22½ years before trying to kill myself. It’s a problem in rugby. There’s this idea that you have to be some kind of hard lad jock in rugby.  Well in that environment I was being groped in locker rooms and constantly threatened. The word ‘man’ implies an adult, and that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing well-adjusted adults do. And this isn’t an attack on men, it’s an attack on the idea that men shouldn’t show compassion and should throw their weight around. I was on the wrong end of the ‘man-up’ scale.  I would genuinely fear for anybody in that position. But that’s the beauty of sport. Despite all the pure and utter shite that people who claim to hold the value of the game throw around, those that actually do will shine through.  

Rugby, football, and Pro wrestling, I always say, are my religion.  They are 3 things that have kept me going. Maybe someday I’ll write an article like this in a football or wrestling light.  But for now, My first rugby match was in January 2009, Leinster V Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup. Not a glorious game, a fella dressed as a 'naked cowboy' played guitar at halftime.  Good time to really jump on the bandwagon. I think I can slightly shake the gloryhunter tag because my football teams are Bray Wanderers and Charlton Athletic. That semi-final against Munster and final against Leicester are really clear still.  I think that was the time I was in. In 2010, over the summer I started developing a condition; I started having visual hallucinations and hearing voices. I have since been diagnosed with a condition involving schizotypal symptoms. It was likely brought on by trauma.  And it made depression a lot harder to deal with. I didn’t tell anybody.  

When the 2011 World Cup was on the love was real.  This was the first time I really REALLY lived every minute of a World Cup.  It was in New Zealand so I’d be getting up at 5am to watch the first of three or four games.  It was a dream, privacy to watch rugby (and in all likelihood eat pringles for breakfast). I remember the highs of Ireland beating Australia and the lows of being completely outplayed by Wales.  So close once again. But I knew I’d found something I was incredible passionate about, and passion is really all we have.  

I trudged through school just about and kept going.  I lost interest, I was never bad academically, I’m fortunate I never struggled with reading or writing, but I was interested enough to do more than an ok Leaving Cert.  Got through it and made it out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and wasn’t too interested in going to college unless it was for something I loved, so I did a few PLCs.  Suddenly I started to click, I was doing really well. As for rugby it was two Six Nations in a row for Ireland which hadn’t happened in my lifetime. The final day victory over France was great, but 2015 was special.  The last day of the 2015 Six Nations was my favorite day of rugby of all time. It was pure madness. If you don’t know what I’m talking about go back and watch some or even read about it.  

I didn’t realize at the time what a big year 2015 would be for me.  I spent the whole year looking forward to the World Cup, but almost didn’t make it.  I started writing for Harpin’ On Rugby just before then, at the end of the season Leinster beat Treviso in a terrible game and I wrote about it.  From then I started writing pieces on all sorts like African rugby, and eventually the World Cup. But a month before kick-off, August 2015, there was an incident at home when I was leaving for work.  That was that, I decided I’d kill myself. It was a culmination of a life I’d had enough of, and that was very nearly that. I almost did it on my way from work, but I went to bed early instead. The next day when I woke up I was still determined to do it, but I decided I’d wait.  I had gotten my place in Maynooth University, and the World Cup was coming up. I thought I could hold out.  

Despite a busy first year in college I managed to watch every minute of every match in the RWC.  Enjoyed it all despite the heart break. I nearly did it coming up to the end of the year, I hate that Christmas, but I decided to wait until after the Six Nations.  The Six Nations was still special. I eventually ended up very nearly doing it after a bad day in college towards the end of the year, but again made it home. It felt like my days were numbered.  I remember being at a semi-final between Leinster – Ulster in the Pro14, it’s the only game I’ve ever left early. I was sick of it all. I lost my love for it, for life. That summer was disastrous and it was really matter of when because I was certain I would end my life.  If Ireland hadn’t have beaten New Zealand in Chicago it could have happened sooner.  

I didn’t even make it through the next years Six Nations.  I did it early February. That was it. That was the last moment. Staring at the wall in the bathroom stall in college would have been it. The End.  

Obviously it wasn’t the end because I’m writing this.  The knife wasn’t sharp enough, I panicked and ran away, eventually called an ambulance, and woke up in hospital.  The next day I went home. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly busy for the next few months. I left college, and I didn’t go to any Leinster matches for a while.  But again the Six Nations kept me grounded, and I got diagnosed. I did another course for a little while, it was all fairly relaxed. I missed going to games, but I couldn’t get up for it.  It took me over a year after my suicide attempt to finally get to a game. Surprisingly I was also asked to perform punditry on C Radio Wales ahead of Ireland playing Wales in the GrandSlam winning Six Nations season.  Suddenly I was a rugby fan and a pundit again. I had started Post to Post Sport about a year and a half earlier but had given up on it temporarily. But suddenly there was light. That was a great year for Irish rugby, the GrandSlam, the tour in Australia, and the big win against New Zealand.  

He’s got it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

I used that opening line before in an English essay in school, years ago now.  It was an essay about how from the small island of Ireland we’ve actually made a lot of waves.  Obviously she didn’t get what I was going for and read it in a monotonous tone and paused confused in front of the class because we’re not supposed to deviate from the norm in this country.  Sometimes you have to deviate from the norm to make things better.  

There have still been downs, but I look now, under 50 days to go to this World Cup, and it’s a World apart from where I was 4 years ago.  And that’s what this article is about. Things getting better. Things do get better. And when things go bad, they can get better again.  

I give this number out a lot; the Samaritans 116 123.  There are others available in other countries. There’s also a great charity called Suicide or Survive, I’ve found them very helpful.  

Through ups and downs, the ball keeps spinning.  
Losing and winning.  
There’s always hope.  
There’s always something worth living for.

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Ciarán Duffy (@Voicenstein) is a Leinster supporter and self-proclaimed ‘big cheese’ of Post To Post (@PostToPostSport).   He’ll write about anything rugby under the condition he gets to take it too seriously.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019