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Dublin: 6 °C Monday 9 December, 2019

'I check in with myself every day': GAA star Nicole Owens on rebuilding her mental health

The Dublin Ladies player now has a range of tools to help her cope.

Source: Aware/YouTube

AT THE AGE of 25, Nicole Owens sat in front of Ray D’arcy for a powerful and honest conversation on national TV about something close to a lot of people’s hearts – mental health. 

She opened up not only about her ongoing struggle with depression, but she also offered advice to young LGBT people about coming to terms with their sexuality. Needless to say, the Dublin Ladies player hadn’t always found it that easy to be so open.

Nicole has played GAA since she was five years of age (well, she’s played a lot of sports, but that’s the one you’ll know her from). Even though she didn’t always realise it, the sport often acted as a mood regulator for her: “I’d go to training in a terrible mood and my mum would pick me up and by that time I’d be in a great mood.”

For her, her teammates were always an extended support network: “These are people you see four or five times a week for hours and hours.” When you train together in the rain on a dark January night, there’s always a sense of comradery.

And when you’re feeling a bit off kilter, there’s a sense of recognition and understanding.

The early days of depression…

When Nicole was a teenager, she struggled with the realisation that she was gay: “I conceived it as something that wouldn’t be accepted”. At the time she was also finding things tough with her mental health, but she felt that to talk about that would mean talking about her sexuality: “It was a part of myself I wasn’t comfortable opening a dialogue on at the time.”

Fortunately, these days Nicole is comfortable enough talking about both her sexuality and her mental health that she’s able to do it on national TV, and hopes that she can help people struggling with either:

I’d say go easy on yourself. A big worry I had was that I was letting people down around me which absolutely wasn’t the case. Society in general even since I was a teenager has become a lot more accepting.

While Nicole was a student, things with her mental health built up and eventually she experienced a bit of a breakdown one day in college, calling her mom to pick her up. For the first time, she spoke to her loved ones about how she had been feeling:

I talked about it for the first time properly with my girlfriend at the time and my mom. My mood was very low and my thoughts were very negative and I was worried about it.

Like a lot of mothers, Nicole’s mom is a problem solver – which was “in this case very helpful”. She knew that they needed to involve a professional to give Nicole the support she needed: “That precipitated a journey to recovery. It opened that channel that I needed, that I had denied myself by not talking about it.”

But like a lot of mental health stories, it wasn’t just one dip for Nicole and when self-compassion levels decreased, things got tough again. In the spring of 2017, work got very stressful for Nicole and she experienced a relationship breakdown. At the time she had built “a support network of one”, which was suddenly gone.

Now I see that that’s a silly thing to do – one person can’t be your entire support network, that’s not fair on you or them and it’s not realistic.

Eventually, it came to a point where it seemed impossible for Nicole to go to work or football the next day. Fortunately both her manager Mick Bohan, and her work in a social media agency were understanding. She was given a few weeks off for both and allowed to come back gradually to work, until she felt back to her old self.

Sleep tracking and daily check-ins

These days, Nicole has realised that for her, exercise and sleep are huge: “I track my sleep religiously and can really see its impact on my mood.” She points out that when a day seems very overwhelming, looking at it the next day with a full night’s sleep can help things to not seem so insurmountable.

She also “checks in” with herself daily using a notebook. She asks herself how she is feeling physically, and mentally, and whether she is giving enough time to her relationships, which can be tough as an athlete: “Trying to keep relationships does get lost when you’re playing at such a high level, you don’t want to lose people that are important to you.”

And the biggest help of all for managing her mental health? Practicing a mixture of compassion-based therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): 

I’m very like my mom in that we both hold ourselves to a high standard. Sometimes I’d be overly self-critical but now I address the way that I talk to myself and what my anxious voice is saying.

If she’s having a bad day, she tries not to allow herself to feel like it’s a set back, and instead to head to the gym. Having sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), one of the worst injuries you can get as an LGFA player, she’s been spending a lot of time there. 

Nicole says that her cruciate injury has been a good test of the tools she’s gathered over the last few years in therapy. While initially she was so upset about it, she realised that she knows what she needs to get back on the pitch: “It’s tested my resolve but it’s probably made me a better person and a better player.”

She adds: “It’s about reframing it from ‘it’s crap that I’m in the gym’ to ‘here is a chance to make myself better’ – I’ve never done so much leg work before in my life.”

Getting back on the pitch just in time for the year that will celebrate incredible women playing sport around Ireland, the future looks pretty bright for Nicole Owens. 

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 Nicole’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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