UCD's Caolan Carroll: 'My mental health flew under the radar - from the outside it looked like I had everything going for me'

Tue, May 01 2018

Carroll made her return to football after two years against Shelbourne last month. Credit: Al Robinson (ETPhotos)

On Sunday 23rd of April, 2018, Caolán Carroll stepped back onto the football pitch in her first competitive game in over two years – something at times she couldn’t ever see happening.

It was during this time that things came to a head, unknowingly suffering in silence with severe anxiety and low mood.

After taking the decision to confide in others and seek help, Caolán is working on getting things back on track in all aspects of her life – football being an important one.

Now, the UCD Waves player is in a much better place both on and off the field of play.

Caolán very kindly spoke to extratime.ie about her journey, discussing the need to put elements of her life, such as football, on hold to get into a better headspace to make such ventures possible again.

The 23-year-old began by sharing her story and experiences from that day up to the present moment.

“My entire life, I have struggled with mental health”, she explained

“When I was younger, I was bullied a fair bit and given quite a hard time for being different to the other girls.

“I figured it was better to just take it on the chin and get on with it. It’s hard enough being a teenager on its own with all the baggage that comes with it, never mind anything else.

“I very much just thought that I was different, I didn’t realise at any stage that it could be anything deeper than that.

“When I was just 19, that’s when things spiralled for me. My granddad, who I was very close with, passed away and what was my life for 19 years changed in a matter of two weeks.

“I was absolutely miserable. I continued on a downward path for a few years, slowly chipping away. I buried my head in work and college, and I was fortunate to be able to do so.

“I think that’s why I flew under the radar with regards to mental health – from the outside I’m sure it looked like I had everything going for me.

“Looking back, I was in an extremely low place just going through the motions of life. Anything that should have been a happy moment wasn’t for me. My college graduation, my 21st birthday, nothing.

“It took a massive toll on friendships and relationships in my life - I pushed away some of the best and most important people, while spending all my attention in places I shouldn’t have.

“I stopped playing football altogether and barely spoke to any of my team mates at Shels who were some of my best friends. Football used to be such an important part of my life, an escape for me.

“I’d step onto the pitch and forget everything, and then it flipped – I was at my most anxious when I was on the pitch. I had no touch and I had zero confidence, I just didn’t want to be there.

“I eventually couldn’t take it anymore and I got myself to a doctor. I told him word for word: ‘I’ve been at such a low point for the past few years and I can’t do it anymore.’

“That was at the end of 2016 and now in 2018, I’m still working to understand a lot of things but I’m on my way back to being myself again.”

Along the way, there were times when Caolán thought she would never play football again, something which had always meant so much to her. thoughts like this took quite a toll on her.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have changed the subject instantly,” she says.

“I viewed myself as weak and felt I had no place in a dressing room never mind on a pitch. I felt that I was a liability to my teammates and a general pain in the arse.

“If anyone asked me, I used to just say ‘ah I’m sick of football’ or any excuse I could think of but I’m here now and taking baby steps to get back into it.”

Two and a half years later and Caolán is now back playing football and is in a much better place as a result of taking the decision to ask for help.

As with anything, the initial steps at the start had to be taken by Caolán herself but she also stresses the importance of the support of her friends, family and teammates – especially her good friend Aisling Dunbar.

“She is like a sister to me. Her dad Jay raised me at Shelbourne and I consider them family. Ais hounded me to get back plying and was onto me to ask why I wasn’t training, she really kept at me.

“She knows me so well; she knew as soon as I had a ball at my feet again I’d enjoy it. I played my first game in two years last Sunday and that wouldn’t have happened without her not giving up on me.

“It has been the exact same with other friends and family who just refused to give up.”

Moving onto the present and also looking ahead to the future, Caolán has a very important message for anyone else who may also be feeling the same way and isn’t quite sure what to do.

“For anyone who may feel down in any way whatsoever, I urge you to confide in someone.

“I cannot emphasise enough the weight that will be off your shoulders, you will surprise yourself at the strength you will have. Ask for help and let people help you.

“Nothing is ‘too small a problem’ to go through. Nothing is too bad that it can’t be fixed, and things will get better. Ask for help and let people help you.

“For friends/families/teammates - look out for one another. If someone isn’t at training, check up on them rather than slamming them for not being there.

“If you notice a difference in someone, ask them if they’re ok. Let them know you’re there for them. Don’t listen to respond to someone – listen to properly hear what they are saying to you.

“Don’t assume just because someone has a great job, or is bossing college, or anything at all, that they can’t be going through something.

“Don’t assume anything at all about someone full stop. Do not give up on anyone – ever.”

After stepping onto the pitch for the first time in over two years, Caolán is so happy to be back involved and to have a memory like it.

“It doesn’t matter what level you play at, when something means so much to you and you can’t do it anymore, for whatever reason, it’s crippling.

“So, it’s brilliant to be back involved in football when it is such a huge part of my life. It has been three years since I was myself on a football pitch and I am delighted to be getting back into it slowly but surely.

“This season is all about setting small goals for myself and surpassing them. My coaches are well aware of my situation and have been amazing.

“I’m working my way back to full fitness and starting to enjoy football again.”