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'I knew it had to happen, but the reality was that stepping away from the panel terrified me'

Cavan footballer Alan O’Mara has written a memoir about his struggles with depression. An extract from his book, The Best is Yet to Come, tells about his choice to take a break from the game.

Alan O'Mara

I GRIPPED THE handbrake and held the phone up to my ear.

I stared at the shiny silver button at the top of the brake shaft, and it was the perfect metaphor for me. With our 2014 Ulster championship campaign just around the corner, I needed to press eject.

I waited anxiously for the ringing tone to stop as I called my team’s boss. ‘Terry, Alan here. How’s the form?’

‘Ah, I’m not too bad, I suppose. More importantly, how are you?’ he asked, upbeat.

Not for the first time, silence lingered between us on the phone as my brain worked rapidly to construct a sufficient response.

The truth was, I was absolutely terrible. I had just walked out of a counselling session, and it had been deeply hurtful to lay bare how rotten and incredibly low I was feeling.

‘To be honest, Terry, I’m not good. I’m not good at all. My head is gone. I’ve tried everything that normally works and I just can’t get this block of depression to pass. Right now, it is as bad as it was the first time, if not worse.’

It felt worse because, this time around, I knew exactly what was going on: I knew it was depression. I remembered everything I had learned in counselling, and I knew I was more self-aware than ever before, but none of it was making me feel any better.

‘Is there anything we can do for you? Would you like a break from training, or is the training helping? I know you said to me before how the training tends to be a good thing for the head when you are having tough patches,’ he said.

‘I don’t know, but I am just not enjoying my football at the minute. I haven’t been enjoying it for some time. I just feel like I am in a negative frame of mind all the time and I think I am bringing negative vibes into the dressing room. It’s at the stage where I almost feel guilty for being in there with the lads. I think you would be better off without me.’

‘Well, I haven’t noticed that and I’ll be honest with you, it hasn’t transferred across into your training or performances. We were only talking the other night about how well you were moving the past few weeks,’ said Terry.

‘Well, I just don’t feel that, Terry. Football is meant to be a hobby, I’m meant to love doing it, but I’m getting into the car giving out about having to go to training and I just feel like I’m going through the motions. I think I need to step off the panel for a while.’

‘Can I ask, is the fact you haven’t been playing driving this?’

‘I’ll be straight with you, Terry, I’m sitting outside my counsellor’s place right now where we’ve just spent the last hour discussing whether I should leave the panel. It’s not something I have just decided on a whim or in the heat of the moment. You know me well, and you know how much I love playing for Cavan, but I really think this is something I need to do for me.’

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‘Okay,’ he said, hesitating. It was clear he wasn’t expecting to have this conversation when he answered the phone. ‘Look, there is no need to make any big decisions now. We have a big game coming up against Armagh, and if all goes well then I would hate for you to miss out on something down the line. Just do me one favour, will you? Take some time to think all this over and we’ll touch base again in a few days, all right?’

‘No, Terry, I really just need to do this. You know what I am like when my mind is made up, and as much as I don’t want to do it, this is the right thing for me. I need to feel like the decision has been made in my head. I need some sort of clarity,’ I said, a bit more forcefully than was my usual manner.

‘I want you on the panel, I want you to know that. We both know you have struggled with injuries and form all year, there’s not much that can be done about that, but I certainly don’t want you to go and I know the lads won’t either.’

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The two voices in my head were screaming at me. I was in a complete state of flux. It felt like the biggest decision I had ever made in my life. I knew it had to happen, but the reality was that stepping away from the panel terrified me. So much of my identity and my life had been defined by putting on that jersey over the years.

‘I appreciate that. I really do, but even my counsellor has suggested some time away from the game could help me at the moment. It just can’t go on like this. I’ve just started a new job and whatever spare energy I have for now needs to go towards that,’ I said.

‘Okay, Alan. I can see your mind is made up. Look it, as long as I am the manager of this team, the door will be open for you. I mean that. Pick up the phone to me anytime. Let’s stay in touch regardless of whether you come back or not in the next few weeks. I hope you feel better soon. Keep going, you have been through it before, and you will get there again,’ he added.

It was an honest, sincere and caring remark that has long stuck with me.

‘Thanks, Terry, chat soon,’ I replied, and hung up.

I was liberated. I was devastated. I was happy. I was sad. My eyes filled with tears. There was anger, and then guilt. Regret, and then hope.

Alan O’Mara is also founder of realtalks.ie. His book, The Best is Yet to Come, is available to buy now.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

About the author:

Alan O'Mara

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