My staple reading diet is newspapers.
However, recently I broke a habit and read ‘Unbroken: A Journey of Adversity, Mental Strength and Physical Fitness, the autobiography of ex-Kerry footballer Aidan O’Mahony, who won five All-Ireland medals.
The book left an indelible impression on me. It was powerful, honest and raw.
Coincidentally it dealt with the same topic as Munster rugby player Keith Earls’ autobiography ‘Fight or Flight: My Life, My Choices’.
Both were high performing and successful athletes while secretly trying to cope with a mental illness.
In Earls’ case it was a bi-polar disorder, whereas O’Mahony suffered from depression as a result of being constantly beaten down by negative thoughts.
As a result, he become a negative person.
Over the years he kept driving himself – only to be repeatedly knocked back and in the end he could see no way out.
O’Mahony explains in his book that he kept all this to himself, thus allowing negative thoughts fester rather than talking them through with somebody.
He walked away from football at the height of his career.
He rates his decision to sign himself into a treatment centre as one of the bravest decisions he ever made.
Certainly, it took a lot of courage to do what he did.
He writes about running out in front of a packed Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
But says it was nothing like what he experienced when he stepped out of a car and walked through the doors of the Aisérí treatment Centre in Cahir, County Tipperary.
“Even now I can’t pinpoint what it was: nerves, anxiety, being completely overwhelmed. Maybe all of the above. Should I have gone sooner: maybe,” O’Mahony writes.
After six weeks in the centre he participated in a ceremony.
He wrote down all the negative thoughts and feelings he had discussed during his treatment programme and burned the paper he had written them on.
“A weight was lifted. Everything I had been holding on to for years had been released,” he recalls in the book.
He details what he learned from his treatment: That mistakes are a normal part of life.
He no longer sinks into dark days and becomes overwhelmed by negative thoughts about himself.
Life is for living – not holding onto issues inside
He was concerned about what other people would think of him when they heard he was booked into Aisérí.
“This was the trouble all along. Worrying about what people were thinking about me was draining me.”
We should all take those lessons on board.
I get angry when cynics suggest that sports people write about their mental health issues just to garner publicity and boost book sales. Frankly, that’s a load of bull.
It wasn’t easy for the likes of Aidan O’Mahony or Keith Earls to bare their souls.
My fellow Sunday World pundit Paul McGrath did likewise in his autobiography. It takes a huge amount of courage to do it.
But it is so important that role models like footballers talk openly about these issues.
We have a mental health crisis in this country, and it will get worse as Covid finally ends.
As a nation we need to normalise the conversation around the topic.
The key message has to be that it is ok not to be ok.
There is a perception that elite athletes are invincible.
The reality is they’re just as human as the rest of us with the same personal issues to cope with. The difference is they have to deal with these issues while in the public spotlight.
Autobiographies like Aidan and Keith’s provide an invaluable public service.
They raise awareness of mental health which sadly remains an unseen and often not talked about illness in Ireland.
Christmas can be a particularly challenging and lonely time for those who have mental health issues.
The take-home message from the books is that help is available – just talk to somebody about your problems.
Well-known Kerry GAA journalist Murt Murphy posted a lovely tweet last week: It read: “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.”
How apt that message is.
So, my Christmas advice to all is to read ‘Unbroken: A Journey of Adversity, Mental Strength and Physical Fitness.” There are lessons in it for us all.