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'I had a panic attack on the pitch, but I didn't know what it was at the time'

DLR Waves star Katie Burdis delves deeper into her mental health struggles, and stresses the importance of speaking up.

IT WAS THE morning after the night before. A few hours earlier, Katie Burdis had clicked send on a tweet, a tweet in which she told the world something she never thought she would.

“Please speak up if you’re not feeling 100%,” the caption read. “It’s okay not to be okay.” There were three images attached; the first a collage of two football pictures of Burdis smiling, and then two screenshots of her story, typed out in the notes app in her own words.

Within, the DLR star opened up on her mental health struggles, giving an insight into her experience with anxiety and panic attacks through the years.

What followed was surreal.

“I remember waking up, my phone had blown up,” she says, two weeks on. “I was overwhelmed at first. I couldn’t really believe the response, to be honest.

“I got so much support off my team-mates, my coaches, ex-coaches from over the years, other players in the league, and even strangers were texting me and commenting under the post.

“Clare Shine, she even commented under it. I admire her, how much she’s come on. She’s back into the Ireland set-up now and that just shows how well she’s doing.

I’m delighted I done it because I had a few texts from people saying it helped them. That was the main reason I posted it — to hopefully spread more awareness of when you do speak up, it makes things a lot easier and that you never really know what someone’s going through, so always be kind.”

There were surely nerves before pressing tweet and letting the world in on something Burdis had only ever shared with her nearest and dearest. But there appeared to be none whatsoever as she delved deeper into her story with The42 yesterday.

21 now, she points to third year of secondary school at Coláiste na hInse, Bettystown, as the starting point of her mental health struggles.

“It was kind of towards the Junior Cert, I started to notice that I was getting anxious and starting to have panic attacks,” she explains. “At the time, I hadn’t a clue what they were.

“I can guarantee you if you look back at the signout sheets for all the Junior Cert exams, I’m probably the first name on all of them. I just couldn’t sit in a room in silence full of people. I was thinking, ‘People are looking at me’ and had loads of thoughts in my head.

There was a rule that after 30 minutes, you could leave. I was only halfway through exams and I just left. I wanted to get out, I was starting to panic, getting sweaty palms, pins and needles in my hands and not being able to breathe and stuff.”

This became a regular occurrence in school, Burdis barely able to last a full day without breaking down — or worse. She did everything she could to avoid class and distance herself from her friends, terrified that the mask she became so good at wearing would fall off. 

katie Burdis is targetting a big 2021 with DLR Waves. Source: DLR Waves/Andy Fitz The WNL Show.

She’d smile and pretend everything was fine in public, but behind closed doors, that was far from the case.

“I bottled it up. I didn’t tell anyone. I was skipping class and going to the bathroom on my own. Pretending I needed to go toilet to my friends and saying, ‘Ah if the teacher asks, you just don’t know where I am.’

If I knew we had a test in class or if I knew a class was going to be quiet, I just panicked and went into the bathroom. I was having panic attacks but I hadn’t a clue what they were at the time.

“I was just freaking out, I remember crying in the bathroom on my own and trying to not get sick. I got sick a few times from them, just from worrying so much. I remember even sometimes making myself sick just so I could go home because I didn’t want to stay in school. I just bottled it up and didn’t tell anybody, just kind of made it more of a physical thing that I ‘wasn’t feeling well’ or I was getting sick instead of saying it was mental.”

From the outside looking in, though, she was living the dream.

A hugely talented footballer whose star was rising at a meteoric rate, Burdis had earned a call-up to the Ireland U15s, was climbing the ranks at Shelbourne and had played a key role in a Gaynor Cup-winning squad.

Football was always a constant in her life, from when she started playing and five or six, and when her enjoyment and love for the game started to fade, that was a worrying time.

I put in a lot of work over the years and I kind of just wanted that throw it all away. I wasn’t enjoying it, I had fallen out of love with a lot of things.

“I actually had a panic attack in England on the pitch at U15s. Again, at the time, I didn’t know what it was but looking back now, it was a panic attack and I ended up having to be taken off after 10 minutes. Nobody kind of knew what was going on. I didn’t end up playing international level at U16 because I just couldn’t cope with the pressure.”

Her strained relationship with football was one thing that sent alarm bells ringing inside her head, another was the onset of alopecia. The manifestation of physical changes as such was nothing short of scary. 

dlr-waves-training-session Burdis training with DLR Waves. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

“The alopecia was down to stress and bottling it up,” she nods. “I became overwhelmed and that’s how I did get alopecia. I was left with a lot of bald patches all over my head.

“That didn’t help my confidence either. That was probably the worst patch I went through, but that was a nudge I think I needed to speak out and realise I’m not actually coping with it. Pretending I’m okay and going to the toilet, that wasn’t working.”

She knew she needed to verbalise how she felt, and lift the lid on the inner demons that had tormented her for so long. And one day, the dam burst.

That feeling Burdis had become so accustomed to in school came over her, so she rang her mother to come and collect her. She was tied up in a meeting and couldn’t.

“Once she said no, I felt like I just shut down,” she picks up the story. “It was the first time I broke down to her on the phone, crying. She kind of knew then, ‘She’s not alright,’ and I needed to speak to somebody.

I ended up going to the school counsellor, and then a psychologist outside of school. It does take time, you’re not going to click with the first psychologist or counsellor you go to either. It does take time and with the right people around you, it just makes it so much easier.”

Talking was the best thing she ever did. Bit by bit, Burdis came to terms with what she was going through and learned to cope better with her anxiety and panic attacks. 

She got through school, sitting her Leaving Cert in a separate centre to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of exam halls, and was much happier with how that went.

She rekindled her love for football and found her way in the world once again, but makes it clear that she still has bad days — and “rough patches,” just like before the start of the 2020 Women’s National League [WNL] season. 

“I wasn’t looking forward to going back and I ended up not showing up to the first week of pre-season,” Burdis tells. “Graham [Kelly], our manager, he was on to me to just come up and have a chat and see how things go.

kt graham Burdis with manager Graham Kelly. Source: DLR Waves.

“I’m delighted I did go up and actually speak to him about it because I did want it once I got back in the environment. He’s constantly checking up on me, he’s been great to me and the same with the coaches he’s brought in.

“They’re constantly looking out for everyone on the team, not just me. Speaking up makes it so much easier and you have people around you that want to help you, they do actually care. You’re not annoying people when you speak up, I know a lot of people think that, but you’re really not.”

As the new WNL season kicks off this afternoon, Burdis is thoroughly enjoying her football and playing with a smile on her face once again.

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Herself and her DLR team-mates will be interested spectators through Series One, the only side left waiting patiently for next weekend to get up and running.

Burdis is nursing an injury at the minute so won’t be lining out against Wexford Youths next weekend, but can’t speak highly enough of her team and the positive environment there. The person always comes before the player, and it’s like one big family, she says.

“How can I not have a smile on my face with all the Waves girls? They’re such a great group to be around. I count down the days to training. I can’t wait to get up now.

“I’m delighted it’s like that and my family are happy as well with how happy I am and how much I’m enjoying it. I think a lot of it is down to improving my confidence and self belief. That’s hugely down to Graham and our coach, Sullo. I can’t thank them enough. 

“Sullo was actually only bought in last year, and he’s been a really great addition for the team, and for me personally. He’s a very positive person, he’s mad but he’s very positive and it feeds off on the team. There’s a great buzz around training.

“He’s made me realise my true potential, and he’s constantly pushing me. He’s just helped me change my mindset and outlook on things, even outside of football. When you’re enjoying life outside of football, I think it’s a lot easier to be enjoying football and you play better as well.”

Having finished sixth last season, a top-four finish is the target this time around in what will be another hugely competitive campaign. Of course, there are individual goals and too, with international ambitions never too far away.

But above all else, for Burdis, it’s about enjoying her football and being happy — something that she didn’t think was possible during those dark days, until she opened up.

Talking is so, so important, and you are never alone. That’s the invaluable advice she offers to others now.

“I can’t say enough how important it is to speak up,” she concludes. “Tough times don’t last and they’re a lot easier when you have people helping you through them. People do care about you.

“I think a big thing is to focus on the now and not something happening tomorrow that you’re going to take away today’s happiness by worrying about something that hasn’t even happened.

“The world is crazy right now. Nobody could have seen this coming, the pandemic. I think we need to stick together and constantly check in on friends, teammates, family, everyone. You really don’t know what people are going through.

“As I said in the tweet, a smile can hide a lot. A lot of people are struggling, it’s difficult so we definitely need to stick together and help each other out.”

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If you need to talk, contact:

  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 (suicide, self-harm; 24/7 support)
  • Samaritans 116 123
  • 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)

You can also text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply) 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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