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'The self-harm was so severe and frequent I'd be in A&E for hours waiting for stitches'

Three years after first picking up a rugby ball, Hannah Tyrrell hopes to be part of Ireland’s squad for next month’s World Cup. She tells The42 about her recovery from an eating disorder which overshadowed her teenage years and how sport helped her on the road to recovery.

There is help out there, you can overcome any hurdle and you can still achieve whatever you want in life. Once you choose hope, anything is possible.’

AT THE ANNUAL Rugby Players Ireland awards dinner in May, Hannah Tyrrell stood on stage and spoke of the overwhelming response she has received since opening up and letting the world in.

The Ireland international winger had just received the contribution to Irish society award for her work with the Tackle Your Feelings campaign and the empowering nature of her involvement with various other charities, including Pieta House.

Hannah Tyrrell is presented with the Zurich Contribution to Irish Society Award Tyrrell on stage with Shane Horgan after receiving her award. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was very much deserved, although it had never been Tyrrell’s intention to seek any sort of recognition for helping others. Being able to do that is just something she is grateful for now.

A few years ago, the 27-year-old found herself in a completely different place and never imagined she would be in a position to tell her story and do it with such searing honesty.

“I never really wanted to tell my story to the world, it just happened,” she admits. ”But the response has made it the best thing I’ve done and it has made me want to speak out more.”

The fact Tyrrell can stand at the front of a room and talk openly and candidly about her experience and battle with an eating disorder which overshadowed her teenage years and, at one stage, threatened her life is testament to her remarkable bravery and mental strength.

She does so because she is driven by the knowledge that there is help, there is hope and there is a light at the end of the tunnel even when a mental illness has darkened everything else.

From the age of 12, Tyrell began to develop bulimia which, as she moved through her teenage years, increasingly consumed her everyday life and caused untold mental torment and anguish.

“I remember feeling like I wasn’t good enough at anything and changing how I looked was a way to change how I felt,” she explains to The42.

“I started counting calories and skipping meals, but also binging and vomiting after eating. These disordered eating tendencies eventually developed into bulimia.”

Tyrrell’s problems quickly escalated and she became trapped in a dangerous and vicious cycle as her mood was dictated by a number on the scales and every thought occupied by what she ate and how it would make her feel. Shame, guilt and then punishment through self-harm. It was endless.

“Any time that I didn’t get the weight loss results I wanted, I’d be very hard on myself and I turned to self-harm,” she continues.

“If I felt things hadn’t gone right that day, if I didn’t see the weight I wanted on the scale, if I ate something that I shouldn’t have or if I binged and purged, I’d punish myself by self-harming.

“The bulimia would get to a point where I wouldn’t eat anything all day or anything I did eat I vomited back up. I would try and avoid meals as much as I could and the self-harm got to a point that I was doing it so severely and frequently that I’d spend hours in A&E waiting for stitches. That happened a lot.”

Hannah Tyrrell Tyrrell is part of the Ireland 15s and Sevens squads. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

By the age of 17, Tyrrell’s world was capitulating as she began to withdraw herself from social circles in an attempt to hide the inner torment she was enduring. Her weight never fluctuated by more than half a stone so she was able to hide behind a fake smile and a public facade until it all became too much.

What makes it all the remarkable is that Tyrrell, as a talented sportsperson, somehow continued to play Gaelic football and soccer to a high level throughout it all and when she was at her lowest ebb off the pitch, the Clondalkin native was winning minor All-Ireland titles with the Dublin footballers on it.

Sport, as it so often does, provided a release and an outlet from everything else that was going on. Crossing that white line kept Tyrrell going through those unimaginably difficult, and dark, days.

“I was pretty good at hiding what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing,” she says.

“The fact I was playing sport also helped burn a lot of calories but I wasn’t doing it for that, I was playing for all the right reasons.

“Outside of sport, I really struggled with a lot of things but for me that hour or two of training was where I could go and forget about what was going on in my head and just go and enjoy something.

“Sometimes I don’t know how I did it [played]. There was a couple of years when I was a goalkeeper and that made things a little bit easier as obviously it wasn’t maybe as physically exerting.

“To be honest, I didn’t know how I did it. I suppose my determination to succeed and be better and how much I really wanted it in terms of being an inter-county player. A lot of Red Bull helped as well to be honest. Sport for me was about just being able to let everything go.

“When it came to game days and training it was something that I just enjoyed doing and that was enough to get me through even if I hadn’t the energy because of a lack of eating.”

As Tyrrell fully reveals the depths of her mental torment and the battles she has overcome, it’s hard not to revert back to a moment during this year’s Six Nations.

With the clock in the red and Ireland still searching for a bonus point score, outhalf Nora Stapleton recognised the opportunity outside her. The cross-field kick wasn’t out of the rugby textbook but it created the opening for Tyrrell to conjure a special, match-winning try. Quick feet, power and pace all wrapped in one piece of athletic brilliance.

In one magical move, Tyrrell displayed all of her explosive attributes and provided further evidence as to why, just three years after picking up a rugby ball for the first time, she is expected to be a key part of Ireland’s World Cup squad next month.

Tyrrell’s rise has been outstanding and inspiring, even more so when you consider the obstacles she has overcome to become an international in a game where physical strength, bulk and power are demanded. And the role rugby has played in her journey to recovery cannot be understated.

“People are a little bit shocked when they hear the extent of my story because I’m now playing international rugby,” Tyrrell explains.

Hannah Tyrrell In action against Italy during this year's Six Nations. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“You never know what’s really going on in someone’s head and just because you see them smiling and being outgoing doesn’t mean their life is perfect and you can’t judge anyone by how they seem. I was able to share my story and explain to people what I went through, how I overcame it. No matter what tough times you’re going through, there is help out there.

“It took me a while to realise that but once I did I began that slow process and it’s important to remember it is a slow process. You won’t be cured, so to speak, overnight. It took me years but once you see signs of improvement, there’s hope. There’s always hope.”

After bottling up her feelings and emotions for the best part of a decade, Tyrrell began the long road to recovery towards the end of her time in secondary school. She initially opened up to the school guidance counsellor and then in confidence to Pieta House, the charity she is now an ambassador for. It was baby steps, but slow progress is better than none at all.

“I was very reluctant to share what I was going through with anyone. I felt I was broken and couldn’t be fixed. In my head, other people needed help more than me, and I didn’t deserve to be helped.

“A lot of people didn’t realise what I was struggling with until it all kind of came out. Even friends and family didn’t realise until I was 18/19 when things were so bad that I needed a bit more medical attention.

“I spent some time in St Patrick’s Hospital and eventually by talking to doctors and counsellors, I was able develop more positive coping strategies to use when I was having negative thoughts about my body.

“That said I was in recovery for a couple of years. I went to UCD to study Geography and History but I still wasn’t 100% committed to my recovery. There was a fear of not being able to overcome this thing and that’s what held me back.

“There was also the fear of the shame and stigma of it but by the time I was 23 I was just sick and tired of my everyday life. I was sick of what I was doing and the way it was dictating my life.

“In the past I probably would have contemplated suicide but I felt there was a bit of hope for me there. I clung onto it and made small steps and that gave me more hope and confidence.”

All the while, Tyrrell’s footballing career was continuing on an upward trajectory.

After enjoying success at U14, U16 and minor left with both club — Round Tower Clondalkin — and county, the goalkeeper progressed into the Dublin senior ranks and got her opportunity during the 2014 National Football League campaign.

But having accepted an invite to go down to Old Belvedere Rugby Club for a training session the previous winter, the Irish Rugby Football Union had identified Tyrrell as a player with real potential for the national sevens programme.

Less than six months after trying rugby for the first time, Tyrrell was contracted as a full-time athlete with the national governing body.

Hannah Tyrrell Tyrrell works with a number of charities and speaks about mental health at schools and colleges. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It was crazy,” she recalls. “When I first started I just wanted to play with Old Belvo and loved playing with the seconds. I just loved the running game, my aim was always to avoid anyone in terms of contract and run as fast as I could. That’s how I first played it and I still try and do that to a certain degree.

“I had been juggling three or four training sessions a day between club and college football and then rugby so when the opportunity to train and play in a professional environment was presented it was too good to turn down.

“While I had to take it, I was taking a huge risk and it was very hard to leave football. Not only was I walking away from the Dublin set up but I also had to leave my club and that was really hard for me as I had been playing with girls from the age of 12.

“I didn’t know if the rugby was going to be successful for me or not and it was a big gamble but thankfully it all worked out in the end and it was worth the risk.”

Tyrrell’s natural athleticism, ball skills and dazzling footwork helped her make an instant impact in sevens rugby and she made her debut in the summer of 2014 during the Amsterdam leg of the Women’s Sevens World Series series.

But the real challenges came off the pitch. Not only had Tyrrell entered a new environment with new team-mates but also a professional programme which involved daily weigh-ins, a structured diet and a rigorous gym plan.

“It was very daunting when I first went in,” she explained. “Particularly the weighing in every day as when I had my eating disorder weighing in every day was a pretty big thing for me. How my day developed would depend on that, would it be good or bad. Whether I would allow myself food or restrict myself.

“When I went in there [the IRFU] there was a little thought at the back of my mind that it could send me back and I would end up falling back into the trap of my eating disorder again.

“I talked it over with my friends and family and instead of those negative thoughts I turned it on its head. It was seen as an opportunity to really work on my mental strength and being able to overcome that and show how far I’ve come.

“When they told me I might have to put on a bit of weight and muscle, I took that as a challenge and really got stuck in and it kind of represented a full circle. I ended up really looking forward to weighing in every day as I wanted to see the progress I was making.

Hannah Tyrrell scores her side's second try The 27-year-old has made seven appearances for the Ireland 15s. Source: Ian Cook/INPHO

“When the weight went up for once in my life I was really happy as I knew I was doing something right. Thankfully I was fully over my eating disorder and it was a really good way of showing how far I’ve come. I was able to put it to bed as I could have easily slipped back into the trap and into my old habits.”

The programme gave Tyrrell a real sense of purpose and direction and all her hard work on and off the pitch was rewarded when she progressed into Tom Tierney’s 15s squad. She made her full international debut on the right wing in Ireland’s 2015 Six Nations opener against Italy in Florence.

“I was probably only recovered five or six months before I became an international. It was a new goal and a new chapter for me. My eating disorder and self-harm had been very time consuming but when I had sevens I didn’t have time to think about slipping back into those habits either. I had new goals and a new challenge and I’m very ambitious and it was something I really wanted to be successful at.

“The biggest challenge or worry was meeting a whole new social group of people and they didn’t know anything about me or my background. I have a lot of physical scars on my body and there was that fear of what would they think and would they like me. It was a whole new challenge for me but thankfully I fell in love with rugby and nothing was going to stop me.

“I’m extremely privileged to be in the position I’m in to represent my country. I’m very lucky to be in sevens squad and 15s squad going down to that session in Belvo and accepting the IRFU’s offer was one of the best decisions in my life.”

Tyrrell is in Kazan this weekend as Ireland look to secure qualification for next summer’s Sevens World Cup in San Francisco, but the immediate focus will be on the small matter of a home 15s World Cup, which is being staged in Dublin and Belfast in August.

Tierney’s squad has been submitted to World Rugby but has yet to be officially announced so Tyrrell is understandably cautious of tempting fate, but admits it’s hard not to think of the prospect of running out in front of family and friends for the campaign opener against Australia.

“It’s really hard not to think about that as it’s going to be such a huge occasion,” she added. “You’re going to be running out in front of family and friends, it’s the World Cup.

Hannah Tyrrell The winger is expected to be included in Ireland's squad for the World Cup. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“In all of the training camps there has just been huge excitement. This is the opportunity to play for your country at a home World Cup and it’s phenomenal. I think we’re going really well at the minute and the girls look really sharp and focused.

“For us there’s no doubt about it we’re setting out to win this World Cup. We’re not settling for second or third best. We’re not here to host it or take part, we’re here to win the World Cup and we have belief in ourself that this squad is capable of doing that.”

It will be a momentous couple of weeks for women’s sport and women’s rugby in this country and if she plays any part, it would be a hugely emotional achievement for Tyrrell and her family all things considered.

“It would be the icing on the cake to be honest,” she admits. “I don’t have the words to say how much it would mean to me, if I can play any part it would be absolutely phenomenal and a dream come true for me.

“I still struggle with opening up to my partner or my friends sometimes, but the difference is that I now know the value of talking, and I know it’s one thing that will make me feel better.

“Overcoming the mental illness has made me the person I am today. I’m now a confident 27-year-old who loves life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Bodywhys (01) 283 4963
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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