'I had been kind of having dangerous and negative thoughts and realised I needed to talk to someone'

All-Ireland winning Dublin footballer Nicole Owens talks to The42 about her experience with depression and her 2017 season with the Dublin Ladies.

THERE WAS A time in Nicole Owens’ life, when she found herself crying on trains.

Nicole Owens Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

She was between 19 and 20 years of age at the time, and had just started another year at college having completed a 10-month stint on Erasmus.

Owens had moments of inexplicable sadness while she was away, and often chose to stay in her room, such was the weight of the emotion.

The difficulties continued when she returned to college and in her own words, ‘it all got in on top of me.’

Owens is in a better place in life now, and on the day we meet in a café in December, she seems positive and confident in her skin as she sips on a flat white coffee.

We talk about the  ‘Blues Sisters’ documentary, and our individual experiences of playing on boys football teams during our time in the underage grades.

Owens was the only girl in a group of 50 boys in the nursery age-group at the St Sylvester’s GAA club when she first started out, and she wanted to quit after her first session.

Her mother was initially hesitant about the whole idea of her daughter playing football, but when Owens was thinking of giving up, she was the one who encouraged her to give it another try.

The Dublin Ladies team will surely be thanking her for that timely intervention, given the lethal set of skills that Owens brings to their attack.

But Owens’ pleasant demeanour belies the difficult few years she has been through.

Nicole Owens, Sinead Aherne and Niamh McEvoy arrive with the cup Nicole Owens with her All-Ireland winning St Sylvester's teammates Niamh McEvoy (centre) and Sinéad Aherne. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

The now All-Ireland winning Dublin footballer wasn’t quite sure what she was experiencing when the symptoms first materialised. She couldn’t understand what it all signified.

But despite appearing to function as normal in most aspects of her life, something was broken within her.

Suicidal thoughts had entered her head and she needed help.

“One day it kind of came to a point where I broke down in a lecture and my poor Mam had to leave work and bring me home,” she tells The42.

At the time I had been kind of having dangerous and really negative thoughts and I realised I needed to talk to someone.”

“I talked to my girlfriend at the time about it, and she kind of pushed me towards talking to my family about it. My Mum is a Doctor so she was quite aware of it.

It’s something that people don’t really… I didn’t really have the classic signs in terms of I still loved playing football but at the same time (I was) deeply, deeply unhappy.”

Owens wasn’t ashamed to be suffering from depression, but when she was struggling to figure out all these feelings in her own head, it was difficult for her to articulate the situation to others. She opened up about her depression to two of her teammates initially.

Various elements of her life contributed to the development of her condition, including coming to terms with her sexual identity in her teenage years.

She never received any hassle about it from others, but she had her own insecurities about accepting that she was gay.

“I probably gave myself a lot of hassle about it. It was more internal I suppose and something that I really struggled with. It’s the culmination of a lot of things for me and just being very sensitive as a person.

“I’m in much better place now, still pretty sensitive,” she laughs.

She went to her GP in the early stages of her treatment, but when the possibility of going on medication was put on the table, she was reluctant to embrace it.

The Sylvester’s clubwoman gradually became more comfortable with the idea, and learned to understand that mental illnesses may need medical treatment in the same way that physical ones do.

“I didn’t really want to go on the medication initially and then it kind of got to the point where I had to and that was brilliant and that’s probably one of the things around the shame and everything.

People sort of see it as like a weakness or something negative about being on it.

“If you break your leg, it’s something tangible and people can see it whereas this isn’t a tangible thing. I would have spoken to my friends about it that it’s hard to be in that place and understand it.

“There’s no physical appearance of it, so it’s hard to verbalise the feelings.

But the same as any kind of disease and you’re taking medication for, it’s exactly the same.

“So I came off that medication after three years at the start of this year but part of the ignorance on my part is that I didn’t address enough of it. I did a few therapy sessions but not enough.

“The last few months I’ve been doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has been massive. That’s in conjunction with the medication but it means that I have to change my thinking patterns and be able to stop myself from getting to a negative place in general.”

Many people will recognise Owens from the RTÉ documentary ‘Blues Sisters,’ the excellent programme by Loosehorse, which charts Dublin’s incredible All-Ireland winning season in 2017.

Pat Comer — who created the famous GAA documentary ‘A Year Til Sunday –’ was part of the ‘Blues Sisters’ production team and was someone who became a regular at Dublin’s training sessions and matches throughout the season.

The programme explores the detailed level of physical and mental preparation behind their success, which culminated in a 4-11 0-11 victory over Mayo in the All-Ireland final.

It also incorporates some personal aspects of the players’ lives. Full-back Sinéad Finnegan spoke openly about her father’s death, and how the difficulty of dealing with his loss prompted her to opt out of the Dublin panel for the 2010 season.

Owens said on the documentary that she sometimes talks to manager Mick Bohan more often than her mother, and while chatting to Bohan over lunch one day, she decided to talk about her experience with depression on ‘Blues Sisters.’

Ultimately, she felt it was the right thing to do, and the right time to do it.

Owens RTÉ Player RTÉ Player

“I met Mick for lunch and we were talking about it and I was at a point where I was in a better place than would have been initially.

“We talked about Pat and that he was looking for a narrative and something to include all aspects of our lives in the programme so he asked if I would be comfortable talking about it and I said I would because it’s something I wished I’d dealt with sooner.

The more people talk about it, it just normalises it.”

During the documentary, Owens also spoke about the friendships that have been forged within the Dublin panel, and her appreciation for her teammates and management who look out for her.

On occasions when Owens is feeling low, some of her closest friends within the panel instinctively know what to do to make her feel better.

“There were times,” she explains, “where you’d be at work all day and you’d get through the day and when you’re going to training, that’s when everything would get in on you and you’re a bit run down.

“A few of them would know at this point if I’m a little upset and they’ll drag me off for a chat to get away from the noise. Sometimes if you’re not in a good mood and the dressing room is kicking off, it’s the last place you want to be.

It would be have been loads of little things like even people you wouldn’t be as close to would text every so often to check in and little things like that. I suppose when I talked about feeling valued as a person, that’s massive because at the end of the day, Mick would have always said that he didn’t care how well I was playing so long as I was ok.”

“At the end of the day, if we’re all unhappy, we’re not going to play well either. It’s just knowing that the whole team has your back, it’s a huge thing mentally.”

Suicidal thoughts were what prompted Owens to seek help, and the impact of suicide on the GAA has become a prevalent discussion point recently.

The Donohue family in Kilbeacanty, Galway, spoke to members of the media earlier this year about the loss of their son and former inter-county hurler Niall Donohue to suicide in 2013.

Off The Ball / YouTube

Owens can remember hearing the news of Donohue’s sudden death four years ago, and was frustrated to see the absence of the word suicide in some of the media descriptions of his passing.

She has managed to overcome the thoughts that threatened her life, and was pleased to hear Galway captain David Burke refer to depression when he remembered his friend and former teammate in his All-Ireland final acceptance speech earlier this year.

“That was the point where I realised I needed to talk to someone about it. I was having very negative thoughts.

I suppose your reason for not doing something stupid (is) someone else. I used to think that I couldn’t do that to my Mum but you can’t live for someone else. But it kind of got to a point where you realise that eventually that wouldn’t be enough of a reason.”

She added: ”I thought it was massive when David Burke in his acceptance speech mentioned it. It was massive because the typical Irish thing of sweeping it under the carpet and not talking about.”

SportOfView / YouTube

Owens won her first All-Star this year to cap off an exceptional season for Dublin, in which they collected their sixth Leinster title on the bounce as well that elusive All-Ireland title following three years of heartache.

She’s still coming to terms with their achievement and even felt a little uneasy when the preview for ‘Blues Sisters’ labelled the team as the ‘current All-Ireland champions.’

Recovering from three consecutive All-Ireland final defeats illustrates the depth of Dublin’s resolve — something which Bohan has helped refine and reinforce in the Dublin team since taking over the management duties from Gregory McGonigle.

A sense of anti-climax is something that athletes often mention when talking about winning in sport. Owens succumbed to that feeling after winning an All-Ireland with Dublin as an U14 footballer but on 24 September 2017, elation was the overriding emotion.

“We all went mental on the pitch and then I was drug tested, so I got segregated and I missed the dressing room celebrations.

Nimah McEvoy, Sinead Ahern, Nicole Owens and Sinead Goldrick celebrate at the final whistle Nicole Owens celebrating Dublin's All-Ireland victory with her teammates. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It hasn’t really slowed down, there were celebrations for about two weeks after and then it slowed down a little bit. But then we had our awards night and then the All-Stars was on, so there was always something else.

The cup was flying around everywhere so it has been everything that we would have hoped.”

Owens will have to remain vigilant of her depression for the rest of her life. She’s a much stronger person now, but she’s always aware that that those symptoms can resurface at any time.

Exercise is something she uses to help manage her emotions, and as the 2018 season approaches, Owens is already looking forward to helping her county to defend the crown they worked so hard to achieve.

“It’s one of those things I would talk to my friends about that it’s never gone.

It’s something that I’m obviously pre-disposed to and something I’ll have to keep an eye on for the rest of my life but I certainly feel like I’m in a much better place than what I was.

“I suppose now I know I’m more in tune with myself.”

If you need to talk – contact Pieta House at 1800 247 247, the GPA Counselling Service on 1800 989 285 (0800 044 5059 – for callers in Northern Ireland).

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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