David Gillick (© David Gillick)
I can still remember the low-point, the turning point, the moment that might just have saved my life.
It was December 2015, I was sitting in the kitchen at my house in Dublin and had just finished lunch when I felt a familiar, dreadful feeling rising up inside: a panic attack, only this one was bigger and more terrifying than any I’d had before.
At the time, I’d been retired from athletics for more than two years, and in that time my self-worth had fallen off a cliff, the negative voice in my head growing louder, more convincing every day.
My wife Charlotte was sitting with me, eight months pregnant with our first child, when everything I’d been dealing with for the previous two years all came flooding out in one big rant filled with anger, frustration, rage.
I hate my life. I hate athletics. I hate myself. I hate everything.
Something about that moment, of seeing Charlotte in floods of helpless tears, changed everything.
I sat down, took a breath, and that’s when I made the phone call. It was then I knew I could no longer cope myself, that I wasn’t going to be able to fight this thing alone.
I needed help.
Looking back, the signs were there throughout my career.
The seeds of my depression were sown long before I stepped away from the track. But back then, at least I had something very specific to blame for the times I felt despair: injuries, a bad race, a disappointing workout.
It’s easy now to say I should have been more relaxed, not been as hard on myself all the time, not always looking for more, more, more, but when you’re in the frame of mind as a professional athlete, you’re so passionate, motivated, determined to always better yourself.
You’re always looking for the next championship, the next medal.
In 2005 I won my first European indoor 400m title at the age of 21, and at that age you think it’s all going to be plain sailing – you have plans about what you’re going to achieve and you think after you’ve done it, you’ll sail off into the sunset, content in retirement.
But the reality isn’t like that. Far from it.
In 2009, I had the best season of my career, lowering the Irish 400m record to 44.77 and finishing sixth in the world final in Berlin, but the good times didn’t last. They never do.
In 2011, I got the first big injury of my career, and I couldn’t handle it. I tried to come back in 2012 but got injured again, missed the London Olympics and said, okay, I’ll give this thing one more go in 2013.
Then I got injured again.
By this stage I said, I can’t keep doing this to myself – getting over one injury, doing all the rehab, getting into the physical and mental shape where you’re ready to race again and then, boom, you’re out again, back to square one.
I can clearly recall the day I knew I was done: July 9, 2013 – my 30th birthday.
I tried to do a session at a track in Dublin and just couldn’t run without piercing pain in my Achilles tendon. That was the final straw, the truth I’d been denying now staring me in the face.
I was finished, physically and mentally.
I needed to get away from this sport and move on with my life. I didn’t want anything to do with athletics. It was killing me. I’d had enough.
Those first few weeks, though, that’s when the panic set in – complete and utter panic. Who am I? What am I?
My whole career, I’d been so fortunate to have good sponsors and funding, so it wasn’t that I didn’t have any money. I could pay the bills, but it was this question hanging over me, tormenting me: what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I had no income and no plan.
It’s a big dark hole of uncertainty and that’s the thing for athletes. In our careers we’re very on top of things, routine-based. We train, we work towards a goal but after you stop you come into this space where it feels like you don’t have any control. Lost.
People would talk to me, ask about my plans and I’d give these answers where, inside, you’re thinking, that’s not what I want to do. You’re trying to paint them a picture that I know what I’m at, when the truth is I was completely, utterly lost.
I married Charlotte in August 2014, but looking back now I know I wasn’t right that entire first year away from the sport.
The depression was always there, going up and down, up and down, again and again and again.
I knew the job I’d accepted wasn’t right for me, but I kept telling myself things would change, that this was just a transition phase, but how long does that last? It seems nobody knew.
For two years I struggled without opening up, without asking for help.
The best way to describe it is like a voice inside your head that you want to quieten – the most negative voice imaginable. It’s constantly talking to you, like a little radio that you can’t turn off.
Initially it wasn’t that bad and I thought it would get better, but after six months, 12 months, it only got worse. I packed in the job, got a new one, which I thought would change everything.
But it didn’t.
It was the same scenario, only worse. I grew more frustrated, more anxious and slipped deeper into depression because I hadn’t done anything about it. That’s when the thought process got even more negative, dangerously so.
On several occasions, I thought about taking my own life.
I remember driving back from work one day and seeing a truck coming in the other direction and a thought hit me: I could turn the wheel right now, put the car into that truck and make it all end right here.
That was rock-bottom.
The thing about depression is it’s something those around you also have to battle, that they also have to cope with while you’re fighting it.
Charlotte knows that. She’s walked every step of this journey with me.
One Halloween, I remember my friends were having a party which I’d agreed to go to, but when the time came I just couldn’t leave the house. I was in that panic mode again.
In the end Charlotte had to go by herself and tell people I was just feeling a bit sick. That’s hard for her, all dressed up for Halloween and trying to have some fun but knowing I’m at home wallowing in absolute defeat.
Through everything, she’s been a constant and it’s only now I realise how good she was in my darkest times. We’ve been together since 2007, so she’s been through the highs and the lows of my athletics career and all that came after.
Back then, she fell in love with a person who was full of life, determined to achieve his goals, but all of a sudden she watched me crumble, which was really hard for her.
But many forget that when people have mental health problems, there’s always someone else trying to fix things and having to pick up the pieces. People always asked her, ‘how’s David?’ but nobody asked, ‘how are you, Charlotte? How are you coping?’
The first person I went to was a doctor, and I left his office with two prescriptions: one for anti-depressants and another for psoriasis cream – the stress of the previous months had caused me to break out all over my body.
But later that day, I walked into the pharmacy and ended up doing laps of it because I just didn’t want to go on medication for depression. I ended up only getting the one for the skin cream and I still have the other prescription at home, which I never collected.
Everyone is different, but for me the key to overcome this was a combination of counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which I only committed to a couple months after walking laps of that pharmacy.
I spent so long refusing to seek help.
I always thought I was the only one who thought the way I did which only made the situation worse. I’d tell myself no one will understand where I’m coming from, my situation is too different and as a result, I wouldn’t talk. That was the wrong attitude.
People would tell me to talk to someone, but I absolutely hated being told me what to do. You don’t understand, I’d think.
One time I did go just to prove a point: I walked in, did a session, walked out, just so I could go back and say, ‘yeah, I tried that.’
But that’s not how it works. It’s a journey, a process, and you have to buy into it.
Don’t get me wrong. There were good and bad days. It wasn’t just walking in and everything was fine, and it wasn’t the first counsellor who I connected with – it took a few. But I stuck at it, which is the main thing.
The counsellor went through various procedures to get me to open up and there was an element of empowerment in that – you begin to implement changes yourself.
I found out a lot more about myself, why I had been thinking like that, and when I understood it I realised it was normal. There was a reason I felt like this, which gave me confidence.
We worked on building a mental toolbox, doing the things I like: running, eating well, getting into bed at night and reading a book – simple things that I always enjoyed but I’d gone so far away from.
Other things, too, like writing a journal.
As an athlete I wrote down everything but after I retired I stopped, and it’s only now I realise how therapeutic it had been for my mental health – getting my thoughts on paper instead of storing them all in my head.
My son Oscar was born in February 2016, right around the time I was confronting my situation, and I’m so glad for him, for Charlotte, that I did seek help. My daughter Olivia is the latest addition to the family, born last month, and I know that because I’ve opened up about my depression I’ll be a better father to her.
But here’s the thing: I believe a lot of athletes out there are struggling, often in silence. They’re athletically minded, always projecting an image of confidence and because they’re fixated on goals, they won’t talk.
But you can’t suffer in silence.
It’s vitally important to find someone you can trust and who you can talk to. It might be your coach, a psychologist, friend or family member, but you need someone to tell how it is – how you really are.
My whole career, I only had one river of confidence and it came from athletics, but what happens when that runs dry? If you’re not running, if you don’t have a great race, it can wreck everything.
You need other outlets – family, education, whatever.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve learned to embrace my new identity. It’s no longer David Gillick, professional athlete, and I’ve come to accept that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For so long I resented athletics, seeing it as the thing that caused all the hurt, but I realise now that was wrong.
I even made a comeback in 2016, competing at the European Championships in Amsterdam, and when I did I learned again why I fell in love with the sport all those years ago.
And when I moved on for the second time, there wasn’t the same void, that same despair.
If it wasn’t for running, I wouldn’t be able to do all the great things I’m doing now – bringing out my second book, staying involved in the sport through media work with RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster, and doing various other roles in the health and nutrition industry. If I didn’t have running I wouldn’t have all this, so I’m grateful to the sport, but also wary that so many other athletes will face similar issues.
I’d love to say everything is perfect now, that the issues are completely in the past, but the war with mental illness is never truly over – all you can do is stay on top of the battles. It’s an on-going thing, and I know I’ll be managing my mental health until the day I die.
But I’m doing much better.
I’ve climbed out of that pit of despair, and this wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t open up, seek help and learn the strategies to cope. I’m a lot happier, a lot more balanced and in control. I know myself a lot better and what makes me, me.
If you’re struggling, please do the same, and always remember you’re not alone.
For more from David Gillick, read: Back on Track: Eat, Move, Think and Rest Your Way to Your Happiest, Healthiest Self.