Alan’s Well-being Journey

Written by Alan O’Mara, this article was originally published in May, 2013 by the Sunday Independent,, and the Gaelic Players Association. The first active intercounty GAA player to go public about living with depression, Alan’s story was read by hundreds of thousands of online readers and sparked a national conversation on mental health. 

1 May 2011; A dejected Alan O’Mara, Cavan, after the game. Cadbury GAA All-Ireland Football U21 Championship Final, Cavan v Galway, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

To my friends and family, I was living the dream. But beneath the surface, I was caught in a nightmare world. I felt trapped, and alone.  I penned this story back in 2013 to show others that help is never far away.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but going public back then was the first step towards creating Real Talks – an organisation I am so proud to have founded.

I am an Ulster champion. I am an Ulster champion, I tell myself again. I know I should be confident.

I know I should feel privileged after winning a provincial title earlier in 2011 but I don’t. I feel terrible and I can’t sleep anymore. Night after night I lie in bed staring at the ceiling; questioning my existence. I question the GAA too and I wonder why I give the commitment I do.

My drive and focus have left me. My weekly dose of adrenaline and satisfaction is gone. Playing football used to make me feel ten feet tall but that all seems a distant memory now. I have come to dread a sport I once adored. My life feels pointless.

It’s three days after Christmas in 2011 and I am gazing at the flickering flame in the fireplace at my family home. It’s comforting. I can feel the heat rising out from the fire and hitting me in the face. I look at our tree, the gifts I have, the endless food nearby and I’m telling myself I don’t want to go to a two-day training camp with my college, DIT.

There is a voice in my head telling me to stay right where I am. It tells me I hate football. Despite this internal conversation I force myself off the couch, pack my bag full of waterproof gear, boots, gloves, towels and get into my car. Football is the Grinch to my Christmas right now but I know I am obliged to be present. Despite ongoing injuries and niggling pains, I train that night.

The pitch we are slogging away on is barely lit. We rely on the floodlights from the astro-turf running perpendicular behind the goal to light up the area where we are working. I’m standing in the middle of a puddle and although I am there in body, I don’t feel there in mind or spirit. The feeble light flickering its way through the net and railings reminds me of the warm comforting fire at home. My mind is away in the clouds, wondering why football is not enjoyable to me anymore. That little voice is whispering in my ear again; asking me what the hell I am doing here. It has asked me that question so many times recently. Still no answer.

After training I stay with a team-mate. I am dosed in negativity. It is manipulating my thoughts and that night I spend my time moaning about a sport I had always adored. I am completely and utterly disillusioned with football. Eventually, after being blitzed with all my pessimism, mixed with some recollection of fond old memories of playing football together for Cavan and DIT, we decide it’s time to hit the hay because we have a challenge match in the morning. After he showed me to my quarters for the night he went into his room, shut his door and I presume he nodded off to sleep like any normal person.

Me? I took a sleeping tablet but even that didn’t knock me out. Altogether that night I got three hours’ sleep.

“I’m taking sleeping tablets and I still can’t sleep. I mean, what the hell is wrong with me?”

This has been happening nightly for a while now so I came prepared for my insomnia, on this occasion in an unfamiliar house. I stay up reading Olympic boxer Kenny Egan’s book in the hope that it might distract the hushed whispers in my head enough so that I will be able to get to sleep.

Tiredness gradually descends upon me and my eyes get heavy so I turn off the bedside lamp and close them, desperately hoping to get some much needed sleep. It’s a complete waste of time. Thought after thought races around my head. After switching to my iPod I eventually dose off but by 7.0am I’m wide awake again. That voice is talking to me once more.

I glance around the room to see if there is a TV; no joy. My head falls back into the pillows. I lie there staring at an unfamiliar ceiling; thinking, questioning and wondering about everything in my life. Football, my prolonged struggle with injuries, the death of a loved one, love in general, money, and all else that goes with it.

The voice in my head on this morning focuses on how every game I have played since losing the biggest game of my career has seemed a massive anti-climax to me. It tells me football is the reason for my unhappiness. That march to the 2011 All-Ireland under 21 final in Croke Park, the adventure of a lifetime with a special bunch of players, seems a lifetime ago.

For some reason nothing has been able to match the feelings I had playing on that team. Maybe I was too emotionally attached to it; maybe I invested too much energy, physically and mentally. It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing that crossed my mind before I went to sleep. My dreams were often about that team.

The problem is I have not been able to match the feeling and satisfaction it brought me. It’s like being taken to Disneyland as a child and being allowed to go on the most dangerous and thrilling ride only to be told after just one go that you have to stay on the bumper cars from now on. I was lucky enough to experience that rush, that extreme high and I thought nothing else could compare to it. All of a sudden the conversation in my head is interrupted by a knock on the door to wake me up for this game on a miserable winter morning by my good friend. Little does he know.

Three hours of sleep and a game of football later I am driving home on the motorway. This is a mundane, boring and soulless road. Its markings flash by in a blur.

“Now I am simply staring into space and thinking about how I’ve just played the majority of a challenge match with tears in the back of my eyes.”

I ask myself what the hell is happening to me and why I am feeling like this? I tell myself to pull it together and snap out of it but I can’t change my train of thought. It’s negative. So, my morning replays in my brain once more as the road continues to whizz by in a monotonous blur.

I hate myself for making me go to this challenge match when I could have stayed by the fire at home. I remember being younger, when all I wanted to do was play sport. I would spend my days jumping and diving on the concrete paths. When the call came from my parents to come in for the evening I had a sponge ball in my house and I jumped around after it on beds, on couches, on carpets and on wooden floors. I would commentate to myself, always so happy in my own little world. Back then the voice in my head was a far more innocent and positive friend to have around; we would dream of stopping goals in big stadiums some day.

The challenge game on this December morning couldn’t have been any further from that innocent and inspiring place I imagined myself to be in my youth. All I remember was looking at the deteriorated surface around me wishing for a hole to open up and swallow me. Anything to get me out of the living hell I found myself in. This was as far from that exhilarating rollercoaster I had ever felt.

That’s the conversation I am having in my head as I am driving home. There is nothing to catch my attention on this road; nothing to distract my brain. It’s just me in the car, me and the voice that has become more and more prominent lately. It is getting louder. It gets to the point where it muffles out the radio. I keep driving. I keep thinking, questioning and wondering. How have I got to this point? The point where there is even a thought of swerving my car into the concrete wall on the side of the motorway.

I feel trapped; it’s just me and that voice in the fast lane of a motorway. Deep down, somewhere, I’m aware that is not a good mix. The concrete wall to my right looks so appealing. How easy it would be just to swerve into it and finish it all. The voice whispers in my ear: ‘Will anybody even care if I do it?’ The visualisation of my parents at my funeral rescues me from this horrible train of thought. I wind the window down and let the crisp air hit my face.

Eventually I get home and I want to switch off. I’m tired, I’m cranky and I’ve had a realisation that I am depressed.

A week after a chat with my GP and my prescription for sleeping tablets, a read of Kenny Egan’s book, the experience of playing a game of football with tears in my eyes and an hour-long conversation with myself in the car and it finally sinks in. At least that miserable drive was good for something.

Like most mothers, mine has that special talent of immediately sensing when something is wrong so when I get home she asks. I say “nothing”. She knows I haven’t really been sleeping, I told her that much, but I’m not me right now. I’m a pale shadow of me and she knows. She asks again. I try to convince her I’m just tired but she knows I’m lying. Mothers always know.

Now she is standing over me on the couch while I lie there with headphones over my ears and my hood pulled up. I try to pretend I am listening to them but she knows. Then she asks me if I am feeling depressed?

Eerie, creepy silence invades the room. Should I lie? What excuse can I give? All these thoughts are flying through my brain at a hundred miles an hour. My head has been swirling like this regularly. Sod it, what have I to lose. Look at the state of me. I swallow the lump in my throat, hold back the tears in my eyes and cough up something that sounded like “yes”.

She asks what is going on with me and what is getting me down but I don’t open up. I still don’t fully understand the whole process myself and why I feel like this. I head to my room to try and make sense of how I have reached the miserably low point of suicidal thoughts entering my brain. More thinking; more questioning and wondering but still no definitive answers.

* * * * *

It’s March 2012 and I’m back on the same couch. I have tears in my eyes again. Two or three times earlier that evening I swallowed the lump in my throat and closed my eyes waiting for it to pass like it had done over the previous few weeks but it didn’t seem to want to go anywhere this time. Something was different.#

alan O’Mara pictured for Sunday Independent sports. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 22/5/13

Conversation would temporarily distract my tired brain but each time silence, other than the TV, spread around the room, thoughts start bouncing around my head at a frightening pace. We, my brain and I, have been doing this for months now. Talking to ourselves and questioning my existence. I felt like the Smeagol/Gollum creature from the Lord of the Rings series. Two voices within one person constantly debating and arguing.

The waves of emotion keep churning internally so I remove myself from the room pretending to be shattered and head for the sanctuary of my bedroom. I turn off the light and get into bed. I had been warned that this moment was going to arrive. My GPA counsellor, who I had been seeing on a bi-weekly basis since January, told me this was going to happen as part of my healing process. As my depression would lift my body would need to offload emotions.

“The best thing I ever did was call the GPA counselling service. Twice before I had sat alone with the number typed into my phone but I just couldn’t find the courage to push the green button. Who is on the other end of the line? Will he think I am making a fuss over nothing?”

I was lucky enough that the service was free for me and, ironically, the clinic was based on the road where I was living. On the day I was first due to go to a ‘session’ my body shook with anxiety at the mere thought of opening up to a stranger. Part of me wanted to reach out for help but the other strand saw the solution as getting back into bed, pulling the pillow over my head and waiting for all my problems to go away. I spent so much time in my bedroom my friends called it the ‘Batcave’. Day after day I was just lying there on Facebook and Twitter doing nothing, eating crisps and sweets instead of cooking food. I don’t remember when or how the negative voice in my head became so prominent, but my brain became poisoned and I needed help.

As I lie in my bed on this March night I think about what he said to me over our sessions and playback the conversations in my head. I see the jar he drew in a box of sand beside the desk where we sat. I see the first line he drew towards the bottom of the jar — the point where a normal person’s emotional content is meant to be. Then I can see my level a few inches above it, worryingly close to the brim.

We have talked about a lot in our sessions, and this races through my head now. My grandfather dying and how it inflicted a sense of loss that I had never really experienced before. My diminishing relationship with football and how I gradually sank deeper and deeper into a state of depression after losing that All-Ireland under 21 final in Croke Park. That journey was the happiest time of my life. I invested so much time, energy and thought into it and truly felt part of a team; a family. It’s a special feeling.

For some reason, playing with other teams failed to fill the void I was feeling. Football became a chore and I think my consistent struggles with injuries played a part in that. They were intrinsically linked.

Luckily I had a job I loved. The brilliant thing about work was that it gave me responsibility and accountability. Things really spiralled downhill when that work came to an end. My energy levels declined and I rarely left the house. For a while the only thing I enjoyed was drinking but then the nature of the hangovers began to change. Sometimes I would just drink again to get rid of them. A temporary illumination of the dark mood I found myself in.

The alcohol began to affect my train of thought. Normally a feed of drink brings a sudden high which lulls you into a false sense of happiness but that changed with me. One night while out, I found myself sitting on the lid of a toilet in a Dublin nightclub hiding from the world. Laughter and conversation filled my ears from the outside, while on the inside my eyes filled with tears and my head filled with negative and self-conscious thoughts. I sat there trying not to cry.

On top of all this I think about love, my family, work, college and how it bores me, and my life in general; the point of my existence.

For the first session, I walked into the room with the intention of telling this stranger that I hated football and that anything going wrong in my life was its fault. A few weeks down the line, with the help the GPA service provided, I could see that wasn’t actually the case and I just wanted to be able to get out of bed in the morning and see the pleasure in life again.

I decided to try life without football and stopped playing for Cavan and my club, Bailieborough Shamrocks, after I was knocked out of the Sigerson Cup with DIT. I no longer wanted to be a pitiful human who passed day after day lying in bed. I yearned to be happy, confident and outgoing again.

As I lie in my bed reflecting on all this a tear makes the breakthrough from my right eye and begins to trickle to my neck. That sole tear is soon followed by another one on the opposite side of my face but this one decides to linger somewhere between my lip and ear. I lie flat on my back trying to relax the frame of my body.

I feel like I want to cry. I know I need to. But for some reason I can’t. Am I imagining all this I ask myself? Is it all in my head? If the tears aren’t coming, well then maybe I just think I am depressed. Is this all just a figment of my imagination? Have I just been fooling myself over the past few months and giving myself a reason for losing my drive and appetite to succeed in life? Gollum and Smeagol are at it again.

I search for a distraction. My bedroom is dark. Night has descended but my eyes have adjusted to the surroundings and I can make out things that I couldn’t a few minutes ago. I can see my light-blue curtains and the outline of my television with a blue dot shining from the surface to signify it is on standby. I wipe the tear away that has been clinging to my cheek and think the worst of this peculiar mood is over. Is this it? I ask myself. Is that all you can muster?

Then my eyes fill up again. This time I roll onto my side and curl up into the foetal position. I pull a pillow out from underneath my head and draw it close to my chest. At that moment I could almost feel the jar physically shatter within my gut.

“Tears start oozing out of my eyes and roll down my face like raindrops on a window pane.”

The feeling they create whilst touching my skin is unnatural. My stomach contracts as if more of my contained emotions are being forced up through capillary action towards the exit point. Memory by memory and emotion by emotion they climb.

I hear movement in the next room so I bite down on my duvet to smoother the sobbing noises. Tears are flowing freely down my cheeks and I can’t breathe through my nose anymore as it is completely blocked with slimy snots. No cold or ’flu ever created this stuff.

My phone vibrates with a message but as I go to press the buttons I am trembling. My eyes are blurred and I struggle to make out the text on the screen. I toss the phone somewhere into the darkness and return to my curled up position. I am not going to fight this anymore.

Once or twice I thought I was done, wiped my face and blew my nose only for another wave to ooze out. About 30 minutes after I entered my bedroom I lie with my head in a wet and bogey-ridden pillow. I had been warned that at some stage I may erupt into tears for no apparent reason but I don’t think I really believed my counsellor when he said that to me. Thankfully for me, however, it happened in my own bedroom where I could have this private and important moment. Nobody has a clue what I have just done.

It dawns on me that before I went upstairs I sat listening to Niall Quinn, the former Republic of Ireland striker, tell Ryan Tubridy about his experience with a mental health problem. Perhaps, that was my trigger or maybe it was going to a Cavan match for the first time in 2012, standing on the terrace feeling completely detached from the team.

All the time I am thinking about this dark spell of my life. I can see the light though, literally, as a ray of light meanders its way through the bedroom door frame and into my line of vision.

* * * * *

Depression has reared its head in my life again since that March night. I have hit potholes; there have been one or two occasions when I found myself with tears at the back of my eyes whilst sitting at work.

When I began my treatment the biggest mistake I made was that I thought I was just trying to beat depression in a one-off fight. Me and Depression. Twelve rounds. When I delivered what I thought was the knockout punch and finally felt good again for the first time in months, I naively thought my fight was concluded.

When depression stepped back into the ring for a second bout I was caught with my guard down. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m glad I got taught that lesson.

The difference now is I can identify when it is starting to hang over me thanks to the process I went through. I sense the dark cloud over my head. Normally my relapses have occurred after a session of binge drinking and, moving forward, I know I will have a wary relationship with alcohol.

I also recognise my head physically feeling heavy, a lack of concentration and energy in my day-to-day life. When I sink low I get headaches that no amount of paracetamol can cure. They are at their worst in the mornings and will try to convince me to stay in bed.

I returned to football for the 2013 season and it definitely helps me. On the few bad days I had, especially at the beginning, and then when I broke my arm in an Allianz League game, I could be driving to Cavan for training and subconsciously I’d start thinking of excuses, but I never once turned the car around. By the time I’d be completing the return trip I’d feel great. I’m certain that is to do with the post-exercise mood-enhancing endorphins that experts talk about. Football can be the cause of fluctuations in my moods, I suppose that’s the nature of competitive sport and investing your time, energy and emotions, but in general playing helps me keep these demons at bay. I love playing for Cavan. Having a job I love and daily structure helps me massively too.

The key thing for anyone who is feeling depressed is to always remember there is light at the end of the tunnel. And if you ever get to a point where you are struggling to see it, like I did, then that is the moment to reach out for help. Opening the vault that had become my head was crucial in lifting my depression.
I’m only 22 years of age but that dark spell has taught me so much about myself.

I have felt depressed when actively involved with a football team and when I have been idle from GAA. I have experienced depression whilst in love and when single. It’s hung over me when living with friends and been there when staying with family. It has been there as a student and been there at work. The common denominator in all those things is me. What’s very easy to forget though is that I have also felt happy during most of those stages too.