I'm quite soft. I get emotional

 

MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE: ALAN QUINLANRugby star tackled feelings of depression by asking for help

GAMES DON’T come much bigger than playing Leinster in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup in Croke Park, which I did with Munster in 2009.

It’s a full house, 82,228, a world-record crowd for a club match, we’re the holders and we’ve beaten them twice already that season.

We’re going up there to take their scalp again. In the end Leinster beat us comfortably 25-6. They played very well and we played poorly.

It was hard to take, but harder still was the outcome of a moment of madness for me. I came to learn there were things worse than defeat.

I was cited for eye-gouging Leinster player Leo Cullen. There was nothing in it at the time, but the television replay told a different story.

Cullen wrote to the ERC (European Rugby Clubs) hearing, saying I had not put my fingers in his eye or touched his eye. Nevertheless, I still got a 12-week ban.

That meant I missed the Lions’ tour in the summer of 2009, a lifetime’s ambition thwarted in 0.4 seconds, the time it took for me to put my hand across Cullen’s face.

I became depressed. To feel that low and depressed in your life is horrible. I didn’t have any interest in going anywhere and doing anything.

Every minute was like an hour. The days were so long. I didn’t have any motivation to do anything. I felt like it was the end of the world. I felt sorry for myself.

It all manifested itself in those kinds of thoughts and feelings. I have been pretty hard on myself all my life. I would have had a lot of negative thoughts in my head over the years. I’m a nervous, worrying type of person.

I went to my GP and then to a psychologist. I gradually just spoke about how I was feeling and tried to change the way I thought about things.

Luckily, I had great support from my friends and families and that is how I got out of the rut.

The season came around again and I knew I had two choices. I could stay at the bottom of the barrel or I could claw my way out of it.

Over time I changed my thought processes with a lot of help from other people. I will always have the regret and the disappointment of missing out on the Lions’ tour, but it happened and there is nothing I can do about it.

Being down at that time was a good opportunity for me to analyse where I was at and the mistakes I had made in my life.

I am a very stressful sort of person. I would suffer a lot from anxiety which, in turn, would make me feel depressed and feel bad.

It gave me an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say to myself, “It’s not the end of the world”, and try to change my behaviour, the way I act and the way I think.

When people ask me, I say that I don’t suffer from depression. I suffer from anxiety and stress which makes me depressed.

It was a great opportunity for me to stop being such a worrier and stressed and anxious about myself.

Being a Munster player is a pressure in itself. On the one level we are tough and strong and have made a lot of sacrifices in our lives to achieve great success.

On the other hand, we are just normal people who motivate themselves to achieve what we have achieved.

My childhood in Tipperary was one of great freedom, great fun, but, looking back, I started working too early. I was earning money in summer jobs and not even spending it.

The need to work, to earn money, has been like a pressure cooker all my life. It’s made me stressed and worried.

When I first broke into the Munster team I went to a doctor with depression. I was thinking about the future a lot and worrying about it, but it passed at that stage.

There is a macho image which means that you can’t display any weaknesses and I just played off that at the time.

I’m quite soft. I get emotional, but, at the same time, I was talkative on the field and in the media. I was strong and could look after my problems.

That would have been an attitude I had growing up. I didn’t need to talk to anyone. I can solve all my problems.

I got into bad habits of withholding my fears and anxiety. It is now a part of my experience that there is no shame in sitting down with a family member or a friend to talk about fears and anxieties.

I’m very much aware nowadays of what makes me happy and I’ve spent a bit of time taking time out to relax. I see myself as a work in progress.

I announced my retirement in April and the Munster fans gave me a rousing ovation when I left the pitch against Connacht in what was probably my last competitive game at home.

I found that deeply moving and it gives me hope for the future. I’ve been preparing myself for a long time to give up playing rugby and it is a challenge.

I look at it as a new stage in my life. I’m trying to be positive. I keep saying to myself that I won’t have that pressure of performance week in week out and all the sacrifices and time that goes with it.

It will take a lot of the stress out of my life. I can be more relaxed and try to enjoy life and look forward to the future.

Looking back now I’m pretty proud of my achievements. The mistake I have made over the years is to be hard on myself while not giving myself credit for what I achieved. I’m 37 at my next birthday and the years have flown by.

I want to enjoy life, play a bit of golf and look after my son AJ. I’m going to take a little bit of time out when I’ll carve out a career for myself, possibly in the media or in coaching.

I was in a pressurised environment for a long time and it was a case of being at the bottom of the barrel.

I reached out and asked for help. It helped to talk to people and see someone.

That is why I’m involved in the Lean on Me campaign. The point of this campaign is to help people to be more open and not afraid to talk. Certainly a problem shared is a problem halved.

There’s lot of challenges nowadays for people, a lot of suicides. If I can help in any way to change people’s mindsets, I will regard it as time well spent.

I come from a professional sports background and it is instructive that people in my position can experience the same sorts of challenges as everyone else.

John Kirwan, the former New Zealand player, has been an inspiration to me. He has talked openly about depression as has Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager. I think it is important for sportsmen like us to talk about it.

Of course, it was difficult on my family when I was down like that. I often had periods when I did not have the motivation.

I have responsibilities as a father now which are the most important thing in my life. For both his mother Ruth and I, AJ is the light of our lives.

At the end of the day I have a positive story to tell because people can get through what I experienced if they are willing to talk about it.


Supporting Positive Mental Health, the first event in the series Lean on Me, will take place at the Radisson Hotel, Lough Atalia Road, Galway, at 7pm tonight. See leanonme.net. Alan Quinlan’s autobiography Red Bloodedis out now.

In conversation with RONAN McGREEVY