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'The sun does rise and there's always a way through things, using the people around you'

Irish hockey international Grace O’Flanagan delves deeper into her story and mental health journey.

IT IS HOPE that is key for Darkness Into Light. It is the hope that comes with that sunrise, the dawning of a new day, where yesterday’s problems can be banished – albeit momentarily – and we can all look forward with optimism for the day ahead. 

We can join together under the sunrise and remind ourselves that light will always follow the dark. That hope is always there, even if you can’t always see it.

- Irish hockey international Grace O’Flanagan.

grace-oflanagan Irish hockey international, Grace O’Flanagan, along with Electric Ireland is encouraging people to sign up for this year’s Darkness Into Light, which takes place this Saturday, 8 May. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Her positive outlook is infectious, her strength admirable.

With each and every word Grace O’Flanagan utters, her powerful mindset shines through. As does her sense of appreciation and gratitude for life itself; just how fickle it is put firmly into perspective in recent times.

A brief time in her company, albeit over Zoom, is a breath of fresh air. It’s a learning experience, almost, and a reminder that no matter what, there are better times ahead.

The last few years have been like no other for O’Flanagan, a goalkeeper and doctor who has experienced the highest of highs along with the lowest of lows on and off the pitch. She’s opened up about the darkest period of her life — a cancer diagnosis in 2015 — before, explaining how she’s stronger for it.

“Whatever comes I know I can handle it,” she told The Belfast Telegraph almost two years ago now. “I feel a stronger person for it, a better doctor, and I appreciate all the incredible opportunities in my life so much more.”

That’s evident throughout our conversation ahead of Saturday’s Darkness Into Light event in aid of Pieta, who provide free, professional services across Ireland for people at risk of suicide and self-harm, and those bereaved by suicide.

Through her work, O’Flanagan sees that devastation first-hand too, with the last year or so particularly challenging through the pandemic.

Hope, she says, can be found in unity and togetherness and that’s an important message Darkness Into Light gets across as it raises awareness of Pieta’s services for those in crisis, and breaks down a stigma.

“What I just think is so powerful is the thought of 200,000 people coming together at one point to see the sun rise,” she tells The42.

To see that light is shining over darkness. To show support for people that are struggling. To stand up for their mental health and to stand up to suicide, and say that one life lost to suicide is one too many.

“Sadly we’re still seeing too many lives lost each year. It’s a really important initiative and a really powerful movement that Pieta are running with Darkness Into Light.”

Like last year, participants are encouraged to unite for sunrise while staying physically apart — though connected through social media. While it’s different to the previously organised walks, it’s special in its own right.

“It shows that even though you might be physically alone, or feeling alone somewhere, there’s so many people with you,” O’Flanagan nods.

“That was probably the special thing about last year, that even though people weren’t physically together, just knowing that support is still there is a nice message.”

It’s one she has always carried. Not just because of the events of recent years.

That difficult period certainly hammered it home, though she always tried to appreciate the positives and control the controllables.

“For me, mental health is really important,” the 32-year-old explains. “It’s something that I have always paid attention to. Thanks to my medical education, being a doctor, and playing as an elite athlete, I’m very aware of not just my physical health, but my mental health, and what an impact that can have on my body, on my day-to-day activities.

“It is something that I’m very acutely aware of; checking in on my mood and sleep, and just making sure that things are going the right way. And if I’m feeling low for too long, then I pick up the phone, I talk to someone. I think that that keeps me very mentally strong. That is something that I’ve probably always done.

“I always probably have been a very positive person, I’m able to focus on what I can control. I think that’s probably what helps get me through those difficult times. But I’m also very fortunate in the support network that I’ve had around me.

I did go through a cancer diagnosis, but also, I was very fortunate in how things turned out. I take those wins where I can, I focus on what I can control and I lean on people when I need to, that helps me get through.”

Her nearest and dearest were certainly needed in 2015, when her world was turned upside down, pretty much without warning.

A small lump at the back of the neck originally raised her concern, her medical student instincts kicking in for something others may have ignored. She wasn’t too worried, though, there was no way it could be that.

Reasonably reassuring results were returned after a scan and biopsy, alleviating any fears, with surgery delayed due to exams.

Alarm bells sounded after going under the knife, though, and some of the worst news imaginable followed: The C word. As she said before, “All of a sudden, I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years’ time. Death isn’t something you think about much as a young, healthy person.”

She picks up the story today. “It was unexpected. And I think that’s probably what caught me off guard.

In the very first instance, the mind can race. My mind raced and went to the darkest, worst possible scenarios. It’s sort of pulling back on that and just taking things one step at a time and seeing, ‘Okay, well, what can I tackle, and what can I do here?’”

A tough few days and weeks followed, and the definitive diagnosis read a rare type of soft tissue sarcoma — epithelioid variant of myxofibrosarcoma — an aggressive cancer. With a clearer picture and prognosis, a plan was hatched, and to O’Flanagan’s eternal relief, further surgery proved a success on the road to a full recovery.

“I was really fortunate in that my diagnosis came after the cancer had been removed. So I had that very positive thing — the feeling that it has been dealt with and what’s the next step forward?

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“For me, it was just shifting goalposts and doing what I could, seeing what can I control and what are the next steps. Just always looking forward. I think that’s what kind of got me through that time. I settled pretty quick once I focused on what I could control… just knowing that the sun does rise and there’s always a way through things, using the people around you.”

zoe-wilson-grace-oflanagan-and-hannah-matthews-applaud-fans-at-full-time At the 2018 World Cup in London. Source: Joe Toth/INPHO

Her story is one of resilience, the Railway Union star recovering to play a pivotal role in Ireland reaching the World Cup in 2018. Ayeisha McFerran’s understudy for the most part, she graced the biggest stage in London, producing some big saves in the final against the Netherlands as the Green Army took home silver medals and stole the hearts of the nation.

That success is about much more than sport, rather a grand culmination of little wins in everyday life. Memories of good times like those, and the knowledge they will come again, help us all through tough days. Many of those coming in recent times.

“The last year has been full of uncertainty and worry for a lot of people, and it’s been difficult for a lot of people,” O’Flanagan, who is targeting a big summer between the Olympic Games and European Championships, agrees.

“Everybody has had very different experiences through this pandemic, people deal with things differently. Not one thing will work for everybody — what might work for me might not work for somebody else.

A lot of it is about finding what does work for you. It’s hard sometimes maybe to recognise that you might be struggling. It’s just checking in. As an athlete, we record our mood every day on a scale of one to five. Something as simple as that: ‘Oh, I’ve had a one for three days in a row, what’s going on?’ Maybe that’s something that people can do, just a trigger to see that they’re keeping an eye on things and to see maybe, ‘Now I need to give somebody a call.’

“That’s the next step, talking to somebody. For some people, that’s talking to somebody they know, like a family [member] or friend. For other people, they might prefer to confide in somebody that they don’t know. That’s where using the support services and helplines [come in].

“Everybody’s different. But the first thing is just maybe tuning into yourself, being honest with yourself and really seeing, ‘How am I?’, and then not being afraid to reach out and talk to someone.”

Talk. Somebody is always there to listen.

There is always hope in unity.

And the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Pieta and Electric Ireland are inviting people across the country to join them in sharing ‘One Sunrise Together’ and sign up at www.darknessintolight.ie

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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