As modern American democracy faced its greatest threat last month, the Irish reporter best known as “Donie” impressed viewers with his calmness during scenes of chaos at the US Capitol.
CNN’s most famous Irish journalist Donie O’Sullivan earned praise for his solid reporting for the US news channel from the January 6th riot in Washington, DC and for his unruffled poise in the face of an angry crowd of Trump supporters leading a violent insurrection.
His on-the-ground dispatches from the frontline that day and his measured but searching on-street interrogation of the conspiracy theorists he met as they sought to overturn the US presidential election result made the Cahersiveen native a household name at home overnight.
I want to send the message that you can do this stuff but you need to get help. A lot of guys at home don’t get help. They live on with it, in torture
But, for O’Sullivan, his most frightening moments have not been in the face of a violent mob but in the midst of his own battle with depression and anxiety.
His hardest questions have not been ones he has asked of others at the end of his microphone boom but the questions he has had to ask and continues to ask of himself as he manages his illness, through therapy, medication and spotting the warning signs of when it could come back. And there are many questions he is still hoping to answer.
“I would say that the chaos that I have had in the past in my mind is far more terrifying than anything I have encountered, even at the riot that day at the Capitol,” he says.
“The most terrifying position I have been in in my life has been in my own mind in the grips of anxiety and depression.”
It is a week after Joe Biden has been inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States and the TV reporter from Kerry is reflective as he talks to The Irish Times over a Zoom call from his latest assignment on the road in the Deep South. The call is not to talk about the biggest story of his career so far, the tumultuous recent months in US politics, but about his own personal story – he wants to talk about mental health and his own struggles over the past nine years.
Friends have questioned whether he should do this at the start of his career, but the 29-year-old feels that given the attention – and affection – he has received from home for his work in recent weeks, it would be a disservice not to use this new-found profile and the platform it has brought him to talk openly and candidly about this, if only to “help one other person”. He knows that among certain men of his age in Ireland, mental health is a taboo subject, never to be spoken of.
“I just thought it was important for me, while I have my 15 minutes of fame at home – and before it ends – to say, one, I have gone through this and, two, I am still going through this. I am terrified of it still and I don’t want it to come back,” he says.
“I want to send the message that you can do this stuff but you need to get help. A lot of guys at home don’t get help. They live on with it, in torture. I don’t know how they could do that because it is just not worth it. There is help out there. There really is.”
It took time for O’Sullivan to recognise his illness and that he needed help. The anxiety first started taking a toll when he was studying for a masters in politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, from September 2012. At the time, he was working for one of the committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. He thought he was having heart palpitations at first.
“I thought I was having a heart attack in bed one Sunday night,” he says.
“I can’t remember when the penny dropped, but this was anxiety, and it then quickly developed into the anxiety being so bad. I was getting all of these sort of racing thoughts and panicking, every moment of the day almost. And then it started to get hard to get up in the mornings because the only bit of peace I had was when I closed my eyes and slept.”
It was a “fairly hellish” time for 21-year-old Donie. There was the sweating, the racing heart, the panic attacks every day, having to rush into the toilets while at Stormont, in the middle of the day, a few times a day, to vomit because the anxiety was too much.
“I would wake up in the morning and go, God, another day,’” he says.
“For me, it was just a lot of anxiety, which sort of manifested in just worrying about the stupidest things, not even worrying about the masters in front of me or the work.
I was eight or nine months into this thing and every day is the same day of depression and anxiety and worry; is this ever going to end?
“I would be thinking about just stupid stuff. I would be imagining ways I could let my family down or be a disappointment to them or to friends. That would absolutely consume my mind, in these ruminations. It would keep flashing in my mind. It was every minute of the day thinking about whatever the panic of the day was.”
The anxiety not only led to severe mental anguish, but had physical ramifications, too.
“It was exhausting because I could actually feel in bed at night my joints being sore because I would be so physically tensed up during the day,” he says.
Still, he managed to go to work in Stormont and to study during that first term. At home in Kerry that Christmas, after dinner out with his family, he asked his parents if they could go for a drive on their own; there was something he wanted to discuss with them. At the time, a small credit union loan was “occupying my mind, something just inconsequential.”
He talked things through with his mother over Christmas and by the end of the holiday knew he needed help and had to go to counselling. When he returned to Belfast, he started seeing a counsellor arranged through the university and visited a doctor who suggested antidepressants.
“I told him, ‘look, I don’t want to rush in – I don’t want to do medication.’ I had this idea that I would be living in a sort of fog if I was on drugs and I wouldn’t be the same,” he says.
The anxiety and panic attacks continued and by Easter 2013, at home in Cahersiveen again, his doctor convinced him to try antidepressants. They did not work.
By the summer, he thought a return to Dublin, a place he was familiar with given that he had studied for his undergraduate degree at UCD, might help and he returned to live with a friend.
But things got worse. He recalls “one beautiful summer evening in Dublin”, sitting in his bedroom, distraught and panicked.
“I couldn’t control what my mind was doing to me and what I was thinking and this panic and everything. It was just very scared that I was going nuts, that I was going to be institutionalised. I was just in such agony and anxiety,” he says.
“I remember sitting down on the floor of the bedroom bawling crying because I was eight or nine months into this thing and every day is the same day of depression and anxiety and worry; is this ever going to end?”
His despair never reached the point where he would have done something more serious, but he understood then how it could happen, without help.
It really got me back to a place where I felt like Donie rather than a bag of nerves
“I never attempted suicide. I never had the moment where I was walking down to a bridge or something. But I had so many moments where that seemed like the more appealing thing to do,” he says.
In September, after finishing his masters, he moved home to Kerry, still struggling at that big juncture in his life between the end of his education and what should be the start of a career.
“When I went back to Kerry, I honestly didn’t think I would be fit to work, ever. I didn’t think I would be able to function,” he says.
That autumn, he continued with counselling at home, while his doctor “upped my meds a bit” – he takes the antidepressant Lexapro to treat his anxiety. It finally worked.
“It was the tweaking of the medicine – plus all the work I had done with counselling – I finally started to feel a bit better,” he says.
And the medicine never brought that fog to his mind that he had dreaded.
“It really got me back to a place where I felt like Donie rather than a bag of nerves,” he says, though stresses that medication may not be for everyone or work for everyone.
“So 13 months after the first panic attack, I got the internship, starting in January 2014,” he says.
“I moved back to Dublin. I was feeling good, but I was extremely, extremely nervous that the panic, anxiety and depression would hold me back or stop me and that I wouldn’t be able to do it or that I would have to quit in some way.
“But fortunately, that didn’t happen.”
O’Sullivan always wanted to be a journalist. His mother recalls him interviewing his teddy bears in their sitting room and also being “big into WWF/WWE wrestling” as a kid, he says.
“She said I had a spell where I wanted to be the announcer at the wrestling, knowing that I wouldn’t be the wrestler,” he says.
He cut his teeth in journalism at UCD, at the university’s College Tribune newspaper, and by the time he returned to journalism at Storyful, it had just been purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. It gave him a taste of how US newsrooms and media companies operated.
His US citizenship, through his Boston-born mother, allowed him to move to the US with Storyful at the end of 2015. Six months after that, he moved to CNN doing a similar job to his role at Storyful: a behind-the-scenes job verifying videos and images from breaking news situations on social media and learning how “to sift through what is true or false”.
All that time he was still taking his medication. It helped; “I was good for a few years,” he says. Then in 2017 and 2018 he had “some flare-ups” in the US “going back into these sort of ruminations and panic”. Since 2017, he has been seeing a therapist.
“I am sure somebody will read this and be like, ‘oh my God, he went to New York and got a shrink.’ Well I had one in Belfast and in Cahersiveen,” he says, laughing.
O’Sullivan admits it was “very hard” but people battling anxiety or depression “can get help”.
“Getting help is not going to make you worse. It is not going to make you better overnight either – or it might not make you better after a few weeks or a month – but nothing bad is going to come from getting help,” he says.
“People just need to know that when you are in that moment, things can literally only get better when you have reached that very, very dark place.”
O’Sullivan says that, at 21, he thought he was “an absolute goner” but that the professional help brought him back.
“I so desperately wanted to work. I so desperately wanted to be normal and get on with my life, and do all those things. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to do it. So that was hard too because this illness makes you think you are a s**t person, makes you think you can’t do anything.”
His younger self thought: “Is this going to be what the rest of my life is like?”
Now, he talks of the benefits of therapy but feels it is important to burst the stereotypical perception of the therapy chair as portrayed in movies or on television, like on The Sopranos, with “the guy just sitting there, not doing a whole lot or being unco-operative.”
“If you go to therapy, you have to work on it, you have to spend a lot of time thinking about it, you have to articulate and unravel what is going on inside your own mind, and verbalise that and work through it with someone,” he says.
The hard work he has put in on his mental health has brought him a long way in nine years.
“If I didn’t get help, I would not be in America, I would not be at CNN, I would not have been at the Capitol and I am not sure if I would be alive because the way I was in 2012 – nobody could live with that.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, O’Sullivan has been seeing his therapist via Zoom calls, sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month. Lockdowns have been anxiety-inducing for many people; being busy with work and therapy during that time helped him through 2020.
But even when he is feeling good, he continues his therapy because he wants to be ready for a future difficult “big life event” that could push him over the edge again into anxiety and depression. “It is like building up an arsenal of weapons or a defence,” he says.
He anticipates that, for some, an end to lockdown may not mean an end to those feelings of anxiety that many are feeling and that the pandemic might leave lasting effects on mental health.
“People need to be conscious that in a year or two years, or when we are all hopefully out of lockdown and out together, people can be suffering still from the anxious episodes and mental health episodes that might have begun in the lockdown,” he says.
O’Sullivan believes the work he has done in therapy has helped him be a better journalist; it has helped his ability to listen and to understand the importance of compassion and empathy.
“That has helped in terms of telling other people’s stories and knowing the questions to ask other people because I have had to delve very deep within my own experience and within my own biases and weaknesses and insecurities,” he says.
“I have only scratched the surface of it. There is still plenty left to figure out.”
In his interviews with the conspiracy theorists and “QAnon” believers – the group that attacked the Capitol last month – O’Sullivan sees danger in the new anxieties of the pandemic.
“We are spending a lot of time behind our computer screens and smart phones, more than we might have before. We all have these big questions in very, very uncertain times,” he says.
This time of isolation from others and uncertainty leaves many unanswered questions and causes wider anxiety within the population, making the current environment “the perfect breeding ground for people to buy into dangerous conspiracy theories,” he says.
For some, these theories bring the certainty they crave. O’Sullivan’s job, as he sees it, is about trying to figure out their stories, where they have come from and to, by asking questions of them.
“After going through my own thing, I genuinely try and understand and listen to people in terms of why they believe this stuff,” he says.
“Do I fact check them? Yes. Do we call them out? Yes. But I think the listening part is important.”
O’Sullivan believes more listening needs to be done at home when it comes to mental health.
He would like to see better access to getting help and easier routes into treatment before it reaches a crisis point. He describes his approaches to mental health services and the leap to the first question during triage of “do you feel suicidal or have you tried committing suicide?” as something that could put people off.
“It put me off,” he says. “Some people who are suicidal don’t want to accept or admit or talk about being suicidal.”
He knows that it is hard, particularly among men his age, to talk and to seek help as mental health issues are still stigmatised. He appeals to people approached by someone close to them who needs help not to brush it off with an “ah cheer up” or “sure what do you have to complain about?”
“Before I went through this, I had no appreciation or understanding for mental health at all,” he says.
For me, right now, I am obviously very focused on my work, but I try to get time for family chats, for meet-ups and calls with friends, for breaks, for walks outside when I can
“So it’s hard for people who don’t suffer from this to really comprehend this. It is not something that you can just cheer up from.”
O’Sullivan says he was not sure if his Kerry father – “a very Irish dad” – would “get it” but he did; he immediately understood and helped “because he has lived all his life in Cahersiveen and has seen dozens of men kill themselves and how people go through that.”
O’Sullivan now knows the “warning signs” if he is about to go “down there”. He can feel tension in his body or joints at the end of the day; the overthinking; the ruminating on “something someone has said or something I did or something in that day and thinking about it over and over again.”
“It is one thing to think about something and feel bad about it but it is another that it just keeps coming at you and at you and at you,” he says.
“That is probably the most helpful thing I have been able to go through [in] therapy; is recognise when I am about to fall into that hole because if I don’t nip it in the bud, then you can go deep and I can be in it for a week or two.”
O’Sullivan works very long hours at CNN but adores his work and the travel it brings. He has been particularly busy for the past two months because of how topical his beat covering Trump and misinformation has been. He clocked up 36,000 air miles since the start of January and has visited close to 40 American states in all during his time on the road as a TV news reporter.
“For me, right now, I am obviously very focused on my work, but I try to get time for family chats, for meet-ups and calls with friends, for breaks, for walks outside when I can. I love travel. I am a single 29-year-old in the final weeks of my 20s and I take every opportunity to get out on the road and see America. Obviously, I take precautions with Covid but I plan to keep doing that for a number of years more before I have to become an adult,” he says, chuckling.
Between March and September of 2020 he did not travel at all because of Covid-19 and throughout the pandemic lockdowns he has remained very close with his New York pals: editor-in-chief at Glamour magazine Samantha Barry, Orlaith Farrell and John Riordan: “We are four single people from Ireland who are stuck in the city - we sort of have a bubble.”
His housemate Samantha Guff, one of his best friends, has worked with him as a producer at CNN and was called up by the news channel to produce his live reporting from the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. A veteran of reporting from riots and protests, Guff had filled her backpack with snacks grabbed from their New York apartment expecting a long day in Washington and produced one when Donie, having not eaten all day, was peckish: a bag of Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps that someone had sent as a Christmas gift under lockdown.
O’Sullivan knows his job as a news reporter at CNN will bring him into more anxious situations. He also knows that people with anxiety and depression can handle those difficult moments, particularly if they have had help.
“In fact, they can probably handle it better than other people would because they have got help because they have experienced something that is so scary in their own mind,” he says.
But he concedes that his is “an illness of the irrational” where, even with all the work he has done, “it is possible that you get into such a dark place that you can’t even use those skills you have built up.”
“I am very scared,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “It is very scary to think that you could be back in that sort of place.”
O’Sullivan says he takes it one day at time.
“Everybody is worried about the future in different ways, I guess, and as I think about the future, I worry,” he says.
“But I also try to prepare and say, in the next step of my life, or when something happens, as life throws curveballs at you, I take into consideration how I can help work my mental health into that and work out how a challenging situation might be more challenging because of my mental health.”
And that has helped him, in life and at work. Expect to see him on your television sets again soon, reporting from another breaking news event, still looking calm and poised.
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