Limerick GAA star - ‘My battle with depression’

Limerick GAA star - ‘My battle with depression’
FORMER Limerick football goalkeeper Seamus O’Donnell speaks to Jerome O’Connell about his battle with depression and his wish to break any taboo surrounding the topic.

FORMER Limerick football goalkeeper Seamus O’Donnell speaks to Jerome O’Connell about his battle with depression and his wish to break any taboo surrounding the topic.

Limerick football reached new heights in the early years of the last decade.

In goals for the historic Munster finals of 2003 and 2004 was Seamus O’Donnell.

Instantly identifiable, with his shaven head and broad smile, O’Donnell played championship football again the following year but then disappeared from the inter-county landscape and not long after he disappeared from the St Kierans line-up on the local club scene too.

O’Donnell was just 24 when he left the Limerick football panel at the end of the 2005 season, with persistent injuries the explanation offered.

Now, eight years on, O’Donnell tells a different story.

It’s not one of the jovial, bubbly character that everyone saw playing for Limerick on some of the most memorable days that football in the county has known.

Instead it’s a story of dark rooms, isolation, tears and depression.

“I’m not doing this for the sympathy vote – if I thought people would treat me differently, I wouldn’t do this. This is something that I have to live with and I am prepared for it but all I want to do is maybe help one person who reads this,” said the Coolcappa native.

O’Donnell’s brave decision to speak out again highlights one of the taboo subjects of Irish culture. This May Cavan football goalkeeper, Alan O’Mara inspired O’Donnell and more when went public with his battle against depression.

“Looking at that Cavan goalie – I remember reading it and thinking, ‘He has some guts’.”

Last month the former Cork hurler Conor Cusack followed.

“I read Conor Cusack’s piece during the week and it was like a mirror image. I cried reading it - myself and Sandra [his wife-to-be] were watching Coronation Street and I was reading it online and tears were coming down my face. I didn’t even realise I was crying, I was just so engrossed reading it. That made my mind up that this is something that is not to be ashamed of,” explained Seamus this week.

“In one shape or form it has been the last 10 years but it has been the last two years that it really hit me that this is depression, whereas before I had an excuse. Like, my uncle died and my grandmother died before that and I thought this was just grief. It first happened when my grandmother died - I was going to grievance counsellors and all after that. But it didn’t really hit me until my uncle [John O’Donnell] died by suicide. After that it just railroaded – I stopped playing football and lost interest and was blaming my knee injury,” the 32-year- old said.

“I had a knee operation that January and that was my ticket out, more than anything else,” he recalled of his exit from the Limerick county team.

“Looking back it is one of the biggest regrets I have, that I turned my back on it - giving up so young was a waste. That time I would have thought, ‘What is the GAA going to do for me?’ but looking back if I had stayed in it I mightn’t have ended up where I did. I was never a great trainer but my interest was gone. I lasted another year with the club and I didn’t even go to many football matches until I joined the St Senan’s management this year.”

He continued: “Back then the GAA and everybody was burying their heads in the sand about mental issues - imagine talking about it in the dressing room, people would have been looking at you saying ‘What is wrong with him now? Cop yourself on’.”

Sport aside, O’Donnell has been battling “mental issues” for the past decade “My grandmother died 11 year ago and that was the first time that I had seen death so close and it hit me for a couple of months and then in 2005 it really came on when my uncle died. My uncle was a very big influence – we grew up with him. There was only 10 years between us and he was like an older brother to myself and my brother [Noel]. That was the first ever case of suicide that I came across and the shock of it I can still remember. I often hear people giving out about people that commit suicide but you don’t know what they are going through until you are in their shoes. After my uncle died I was so mad, I was pissed off at him for ages but now I understand maybe what level he was at,” said O’Donnell, who has been employed as a bank official with AIB for the past 10 years.

“Looking back that hit me way harder than I thought and maybe I was looking for a way out and I got that with the knee injury. Looking back now I know it was far more than grief and this year has opened my eyes to mental issues.”

So a 24-year-old O’Donnell pretty much departed the sporting scene in Limerick at the end of 2005 and barring a couple of sporadic seasons (especially with his local Desmond League soccer side Creeves) he didn’t return until this year when he assumed a selector/coaching role with the St Senan’s football team that was bidding to make an instant return to the top flight of club football through the intermediate ranks.

But after a decade of battling, 2013 has presented O’Donnell with his biggest tests.

“The last year or two, I feel so much pressure – it’s like I am going to burst. I don’t have pressure in my life but it feels like my head is going to explode. I have no reason to be down - I have a good job, good family, a nice house and not under pressure for money. I do think that being away from exercise for so long was wrong - I got up to 22 stone and was massive. I didn’t feel bad about myself but I was waking up tired if I tried to do something about it I couldn’t do it and that would get me down.”

Finally, all came to a head, just eight months ago.

“I was going on my stag in February and I remember going over to my mother about a week before and saying to her that I didn’t want to go - going to Liverpool with 20 fellas, something I should look forward to but I just had no interest. That was the first time that I thought something was wrong this year. Three weeks after I had a complete breakdown at work. I remember I was trying to add something and I couldn’t do it - then I just burst out crying and couldn’t stop. That was one of the moments.”

He paused, gathered his thoughts and continued: “After that I spent nearly three months solid just sitting at home, doing nothing, just inside in bed all day.

“I had reason before with the grief but this year was like nothing I have ever seen - in the space of a couple of weeks, I went from grand to downbeat.

“There were 12 or 14 weeks when I didn’t know what was going to happen. There was an image that I was great craic and bubbly and great for morale and that was the appearance and I felt I had to keep that up and that’s why I didn’t go out because I couldn’t keep that up. I would get panic attacks – and that’s me, the most relaxed man you will meet. If I was late for training I would get panicked, or late for an appointment.

“I don’t wish it upon anyone to sit inside in a dark room all day - curtains closed, watching Sky Sports News 24-7 with my bedroom door locked.”

Seamus lives next door to his parents (Jim and Breda) with his fiancé Sandra Reilly. They will marry on Friday week.

“Sandra was so good, she is a nurse and knows about this and was so good to me but her patience must have been wearing thin. She stood by me. On her days off I would get out of bed but as soon as she left for the shop or something I was straight back to bed and couldn’t get back out,” he recalled.

“I was going training with St Senan’s and I was getting up out of bed to go training at five or six and crying the whole way down in the car and then literally coming back home and going into bed again. But only for the training I don’t know if I would be here.”

His breakdown in work was one key turning point, but recalling another brings tears to his eyes.

“It came to a point when my mother came over one day and it was the one time I had seen her cry in 32 years . She wouldn’t come over because she thought she might find me dead,

“My parents were at their wits’ end. Sandra would be away for a few days and I would stay in bed. I would hate to see my Dad’s lorry next door and if I saw him, he would be trying to get me out of bed. The big one was seeing my mother cry - that brought it home to me that I needed to sort my life out.

“My mother said she saw it a long time coming, she could see it. Sandra could see it – but I was putting it off. It’s like someone thumps you and all of a sudden you are in bed and it’s a chore to get up. I could have gone one or two ways. I was going to doctors and they were asking, ‘Are you suicidal’ and I was saying I wasn’t. I think could it have gone that way if I didn’t pull myself out. People would ask was I suicidal and, yes, I can feel it at times. Looking back, there would be days that I would be driving and I might think, ‘Will I just go in under this lorry coming against me?’ That was stupid and what happened my uncle drew me out of it a bit.

“I was at a stage where I was months off going back to work and I knew everyone was so worried that I was going to do something –I was getting down that road and there were days when I thinking things but the thing to pull me out of that was thinking back to my uncle’s funeral and seeing what he left behind.”

A summer barbeque, organised by his sister, provided another key moment.

“I was going to counsellors but it was a friend of mine that had lost weight and she said, ‘Go to this fitness fella’. I was at the barbeque and I was going away and she was eating a salad and I just said I need to sort my life out . If she can lose 12 stone, I can do something.

“I was going to psychologists and in some ways I found them good but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I was able to go in and have a good cry and come home again and feel better about myself but I think maybe I needed a kick up the arse too,” he said with a smile.

From there he went to meet Kieran Doyle at Creme Dela Creme Fitness in Newcastle West.

“I haven’t looked back since – he got me back on track. I went in and sat down with him and we went through everything and it was like a light switch flicked after going to counsellors for three months and they did not do a thing for me.

“I told him everything that was going on and he said, ‘Give it three months.’ I haven’t looked back. It was a relief, the first training session we did nothing really – a little boxing and some weights. The whole world brightened up for two or three days. He was more driven to find success for me than benefiting his own pocket and only for him I don’t know where I would be. I am far better mentally, although I do still find that if I had a few bad days. I could see that I could do something for myself - once I had a platform. I don’t think he knows how much I owe him – he probably saved my life. Going to him was the best thing ever, because if I didn’t I would be still stuck in a bedroom or a box.

“What works for me might not work for someone else - a counsellor wasn’t my thing. It helped for a few days but that was all.”

Just weeks later, his journey to peace saw him rise to his feet to speak to the St Senan’s football team. It was the first training session in Foynes after they had lost to Rathkeale’s St Marys Sean Finns.

“I stood up in front of 32 of them and told them what was going on. I had missed a few training sessions and maybe they were questioning me and I told them the full story. It was the hardest thing I ever did but saying it in front of the team was big - it was an acceptance for me.”

Accepting that he faced a personal battle was a huge moment.

“This year was the worst year and it was tough to come through it. I said when I came out of it that if I could help one person not to have to go through that, I would. This year was the only time that I wasn’t ashamed to talk about it and I am better for that.

“ I have come to terms with it more than anything else. Up until this year I didn’t want people knowing because I thought they would be saying, ‘This fella is crazy’, but I have come to the stage where I don’t care about those people. One of the girls in work actually said to me, ‘It’s like diabetes and you have to take medication for that every day.’”

After acceptance, come awareness and Seamus O’Donnell is anxious that the taboo of speaking about depression in everyday life changes. “There is an issue out there and we need to be able to talk about it. I still struggle - I don’t want to brush it under the carpet and say I am better and everything is rosy. A couple of weeks ago – I remember it was a Sunday – I was flat all day and I sat on the toilet crying for a hour. For no reason at all, I just felt down.

“I don’t know if there is one answer. There are all these psychologists and doctors but I am not sure if they have the one answer each person needs to hear. There comes a stage when you either get the kick up the arse you need or something drastic happens.”

On Friday week, Seamus and Sandra will marry in Kilcolman church.

“It was a painful year, in what should have been one of the best of my life but I can’t wait to get married. I have great friends and great family and I’m much happier.”