MUTUAL SUPPORT Wherever he goes, Liam Gildea supports Mayo, the team that gave him a reason to go on during dark times. He is pictured here in Malta
Ahead of World Mental Health Awareness Day on Thursday, Ballyhaunis man Liam Gildea describes how Mayo football kept him going during troubled times
All my early memories are primarily of Mayo football. I attended my first Connacht Final in 1991. I loved everything about it, from the roars of the crowd to the lingering smell of cigarettes.
The players looked like giants, plucking balls from the air. Watching Willie Joe Padden and John Newton colliding like their lives depended on it. My abiding memory was the free kick from Derek Duggan to bring the match to a replay. The roars from the Mayo crowd as the Rossies nonchalantly brought the ball 20 yards further in from where the free was committed.
I was hooked, counting the days down to the replay for my next fix.
Little did I know that Mayo football would be the one constant throughout my life for the next 30 years. From the depths of despair to periods of intense elation, it was always there to fall back on.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with a mental-health illness labelled ‘bipolar disorder type 2’. This disorder could be tracked back all the way to 1999. That was the year Mayo dethroned the All-Ireland champions Galway in Tuam. That year, deep down, I knew something was wrong.
Back in 1999, no one spoke that much about depression or mental illness. I wasn’t even aware of the condition. I would live with this mental illness for the next 14 years until finally getting to the point of a diagnosis.
Basically, the illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain that resulted in severe mood swings from clinical depression to hypomania. I think in today’s society most people have a grasp of what depression is. A feeling of intense despair where, for so many, taking their own life seems the only plausible option to stop the horrifying pain.
Hypomania on the other hand is a beautiful feeling. Think of Ciarán McDonald’s point in 2006 against the Dubs. Recall that feeling of elation, of utter bliss, for that evening. To this day it is still my favourite sporting moment.
I had that feeling for up to six months at a time.
How on earth could you draw a negative connotation from someone who was in top form? Unfortunately this is the crux of the illness. Whilst the hypomania was a feeling to savour, it always led to a serious episode of depression which followed a few months down the road without fail. This culminated in intruding suicidal thoughts for anything ranging from six to 18 months.
The current Mayo team epitomises the resilience that any person who suffers with mental illness needs. To this day, I don’t know how that Mayo team keeps picking themselves up. Kick after kick in the head, no matter: we go again.
For the last ten years, this team’s resilience really resonated with my own situation. Depression after depression, I had to drag myself back up.
Up until last year there was no year that the depression didn’t viciously strangle the life out of me. Year after year I’d hope to die. It became normal for suicidal thoughts to be with me every minute of the day. There was no escaping them. On several occasions I came close to ending it all. I just couldn’t muster the energy to keep fighting.
I tended to be always at my lowest ebb in springtime. There was no logical reason for me to want out of life. It was no different than a lot of illnesses; there is no logical reason why cancer would ravage someone’s body to death.
For any person outside of Mayo, I’m sure the way that I used to coax myself out of suicide is hard to fathom.
I decided to delay my death on numerous occasions in the last decade. When I thought of this great Mayo team embarking on another Championship adventure I knew this was something I’d still like to be part off.
It was something to cling on to. I’d give myself another six months. If things hadn’t got any better then I would take my own life.
Glimmer of hope
How could a football team be the difference between wanting to be dead or alive?
As humans it’s important to be part of something that’s greater than yourself. For many people it’s a career. My career was important, but when I was unemployed all of a sudden, there was a huge void. Luckily, I had Mayo football to fill that gap. In the depths of despair I knew that there might be some hope in the summer ahead.
When I was clinically depressed, like most people I wanted to hide. I didn’t want to socially interact with others. My close friends knew when things were bad. I tended to fall off the side of the earth.
As I said, I was generally in a bad way in early spring, which coincided with the start of the National League. Whilst I could cling on to the Championship I found it very difficult not to be hit by a wave of anxiety by the thought of going to a league game. I was fortunate to have good friends that would drag me to a match unwillingly. Any time I was depressed, my mate Eoin would always be onto me to renew my season ticket.
Whilst I can’t say I enjoyed those league games, it did provide a glimmer of hope. My mind was able to recall how I loved coming to MacHale Park since I was a six-year-old child. The roars of the crowd felt like roars of encouragement to keep fighting the good fight and just to stick in for now.
I always felt a little better after the game. In terms of recovery, this was a massive statement of intent. Whilst to most this wouldn’t be a big deal, in my world the mere fact of actually just attending the game was something to build on. Yes, the progress was slow, but there were signs of shoots of recovery.
Thankfully, I have been well since June 2018. For too long, I thought I could get better by not taking my medication or by reducing my dosage without medical approval. I’ve learned the hard way to do what you are told.
But I am a great believer in talking about my mental health, and I think people need to be more open in this regard. Not just people who might have their own battles, but everyone. Removing the stigma requires a more-open mindset among us all.
My own generation – I’m 35 – is far more receptive to talking and seeking help than, say, men in their early 50s. I know of a lot of cases of men of that age wilting at home but refusing to go and get help.
That’s not just their fault; it is society’s fault that the stigma remains.
For me, I’m eternally grateful to Mayo football. As Andy Moran said recently: “There’s a special relationship between the Mayo players and the Mayo fans.” It connects people young and old. I have so many friends that I wouldn’t see from one year to the next in Dublin, if it wasn’t for trips to Croke Park. These friendships would have broken years ago were it not for Mayo football.
For so many families it’s the one common subject that parents and siblings can discuss. It’s great to be part of something that, in ways, is greater than life.
At times we tend to become obsessed with reaching the holy grail of Sam Maguire. We tend to forget what our team gives us, year in year out. The magical memories, days which are great to be alive. The unaltered joy of watching Ciarán McDonald spread the ball with the outside of his left foot, to the unwavering courage of Colm Boyle putting his head where I wouldn’t put a shovel.
When the great NFL quarter back Peyton Manning retired, he quoted a scripture from 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I fought the good fight and I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Never was a quote more appropriate for the Mayo team of the last decade.
Football runs deep in the Mayo psyche. It’s a part of who we are. It is, for some, life or death. For others, it’s a symbol of hope. In my own case, would I have lived through the last 20 years if I hadn’t Mayo football to fall back on? One hundred percent, I would not have.
God bless Mayo football.
Liam Gildea is currently writing a book about his experiences with bipolar disorder.