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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 3 August, 2020

'I did the alpha male thing of pretending all was okay': David Gillick on the importance of opening up

The track and field athlete struggled with his mental health after a series of injuries.

Image: YouTube

Source: Aware/YouTube

WHEN DAVID GILLICK was a teenager, things were good. He had found a sport that he “happened to be good at” (he was extremely good – he claimed two gold European medals and a bronze world medal for the 4oo metres and 4 x 4oom metres relay, respectively). 

Athletics gave him “a lot of confidence, self-belief and self-esteem”. At the time, he didn’t know a lot about mental health – it wasn’t really in his vocabulary. He just knew how to look after himself physically and to make sure his body would perform under pressure.

During his career, he was quite fortunate that he didn’t have any big injuries, so he didn’t suffer from the major setbacks that often plague athlete’s bodies. However, when he was 28, he was badly injured – tearing his soleus, a muscle in his calf.

david2 David celebrating winning gold at the 400m European Indoor Championship in 2009 Source: YouTube

Suddenly, everything felt very different. At the time, he was living outside Orlando, Florida, having previously moved to the UK. Inevitably, he didn’t have the same support system he would have had back home:

I was surrounding myself with new people, in a new location and with a severe injury. I couldn’t train the way I was supposed to. I felt really isolated and began to worry about my future. 

David was out of training for three months and he didn’t know what was going to happen. The London Olympics were on the horizon and he felt he wasn’t going to make it or run fast enough: “I was in a low place, I couldn’t run and I was getting frustrated”.

Leading up to London

At the time he hadn’t built any resilience to coming through injuries. He was living by himself and had “an awful lot of time to think”. In frustration, he logged onto an Irish jobs website to look at what he could do if his future didn’t lie in athletics.

On St Patrick’s Day 2012, with only a few months left until the Olympics, David re-tore his soleus: “I knew straight away – this is bad. My heart sank”. Things were “very touch and go” about whether he would make the Olympics and inside his head, everything started to cloud over:

My mental health deteriorated. I was depressed and resentful and I hated that everyone was talking about the Olympics. It was all over the media and I was thinking ‘I should be there’ – I found it really difficult.

David was back in the UK but didn’t want to come home. He had missed the deadline for the Olympics and he had missed the time that he needed to qualify. It was what he calls “a bad oul summer”. 

david3 Source: YouTube

He had fallen out of a routine and felt he had no purpose. He was looking at friends competing and people that he had trained with: “Your whole life revolves around it every four years.” For one of the first times in his life, he felt out of sync with his body:

You’re afraid of your body. You don’t trust it when you’re out running. Every time your foot hits the pavement, you’re listening for something – you’re running with a lot of tension. 

Though David trained again the following year to get back into shape, his achilles let him down – it was the moment that he decided that he was going to move on. Initially, he really struggled with depression and anxiety: “I didn’t know what I was good at and got fixated on what was happening.”

It was an extremely tough time for David:

That first year was horrendous. I was in a really bad place. I didn’t want to socialise – I didn’t have the answers to people’s questions. I did the alpha male thing of not showing any weakness. I put a mask on and pretended everything was OK.

Reaching breaking point

On a Sunday in late 2015, David realised he needed help – everything had completely changed in a short space of time. His wife Charlotte was eight months pregnant at the time with their first child: “I dreaded Sundays because I dreaded the week.”

He had a massive panic attack (though he didn’t know what it was at the time) and got completely overwhelmed. His wife got very upset: “I remember thinking ‘shit, I can’t bring a baby into this world if I’m not right’”. Within two minutes, he realised he needed help – seeing his wife shed a tear was what he needed as a wakeup call.

He knew that he needed to “get back to basics” of regular exercise, getting up and going to bed at the same time and opening up to both his counsellor and his friends. “I told the lads that I was going to a counsellor and they were all like, ‘fair play’”.

David laughs that his friends wanted to ask about his mental health, “but it’s an awkward ask – like how’s the head?” They began to do things like ask him for tea (“they never asked me for tea in their lives”), but David preferred communicating with them in a different way.

“They say women talk face to face and men talk shoulder to shoulder”, explains David. He finds that when he’s beside his friends in the gym or on bikes, it can be easier for both of them to open up. People around him will often be open and explain that they are struggling themselves: “They’re aware of my journey and it probably makes things more understandable when others are struggling.”

Finding stability at the ‘mind gym’

These days, David is busy with two kids – Oscar and Olivia, and they’ve been brilliant for his mental health: “It slows you down – you look at these little people and they just need you so much”. He explains that things are no longer “all about David” as they had been for years when he was training – the focus is on his wife and their two kids.

david4 David with his son Oscar Source: YouTube

He’s also very aware of the inner voice in his head: “I went through a phase where it was very negative and consistent. It would berate me and tell me horrendous things”. Now he has the toolbox he needs to show himself compassion. It’s been a huge impact of his weekly attendance of the “mind gym”- his counsellor.

“I’m definitely more aware of little triggers – I can see them coming. I didn’t understand them before”, explains David. And he’s finally learned to use the discipline he learned as an athlete to protect his mental health:

Resilience for me is going back to basics – looking after yourself physically with the gym and cycling, and mentally with regular counselling sessions. It’s about sleeping and eating right.

His advice for others going through a big change or struggling to stabilise their mental health? Go easy on yourself: “Allow yourself some time, get to know yourself.” And most importantly, don’t put all your eggs in one basket:

My self-esteem and my self-worth – it was all coming from athletics. When that river dried up, I was lost. Be aware of where you get your confidence from – if it’s only one thing, it might go.

It’s also about simple things like: “investing in yourself – give yourself 5-10 minutes to read the paper or go for a walk – if you don’t plan it, it won’t happen.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 or email supportmail@aware.ie (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Does David’s story feel familiar? Cadbury have partnered with Aware this year to bring you the Resilience Series – stories from the people you admire about their experience managing their mental health. If you could do with a little support with yours, please call 1800804848 or email supportmail@aware.ie. There’s a glass and a half in everyone.

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