Coming out

It is wonderful to see mental health issues being talked about in the open. Last week on television, footballing brothers, Ian and Gary Kinsela, launched 32countyjerseys in memory of their brother Jonathan and in aid of Pieta House. Another Dublin footballer Paul Flynn said talking about mental health was pivotal to dealing with it. If he had a hamstring injury he would go to the doctor, so why not a mental issue?

This is a huge step forward. The TV3  interviewer Aidan Cooney, being a man of a certain age, said that talking about mental health was very much frowned upon when he was growing up.  No one would dare say they felt under the weather or needed a hug. It could be misconstrued in a number of ways, and none of them were welcome.

A couple of years ago, I was involved with a Twitter-based initiative called #Depressionhurts run by the admirable Norah Boran and Alan Lavender and through the programme people shared their stories of mental health issues. It was the first time I came across the term ‘the black dog’ which has since become a keystone in describing depression. I remember vividly one man wrote about the randomness of the black dog, how it might appear and stay for a long time before it went. How no amount of being told ‘to pull himself together’ would have any impact whatsoever on his condition. It was an insight into another world and I am very grateful for the chance to understand. I also believe that as we talk more about mental health issues that the shame and fear associated with identifying them and treating them lessens. It is all about coming out – it is hard for shame to thrive in the daylight.

This week too sees the launch of a very popular, annual men’s rowing calendar in the UK. The Warwick Rowers calendar is a bit of a byword for male eye candy; a male version of the Pirelli bathing suit calendar. Only these rowers don’t wear any clothes at all. They are naked. The first calendar was published in 2009 and the purpose is twofold. The first is to raise awareness of homophobia. This year’s centrefold is quoted as saying through the experience he had met many people of the LGBT community and was honoured to be part of the calendar. The second purpose is to raise money for Sport Allies, a charity aimed at ending discrimination and bullying of homosexuals in the sporting world.

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Normalisation of sexual orientation is to be welcomed. If young people can see role models embracing diversity, especially the Warwick rowers, then the accompanying shame and bullying can be overcome. Coming out and overcoming shame, especially if you are not gay, is brilliant.

Shame can be a force for good – if the actions are worthy of shame. Last month an unrepentant Rolf Harris mocked his victims by showing none. But shame applied unjustly can be much more damaging. The shame applied to mental health issues or to homosexuality for example. Or what about the shame applied to debt?

It is estimated some 300,000 households are in mortgage arrears right now. People brave enough to put their head above the parapet and confess their inability to repay their debt are routinely called greedy. Or in more extreme cases accused of not paying their debts on purpose; which is a form of inverted thieving. As a bankrupt I get a lot of reactions to my condition. One woman, a very well-meaning woman, told me that she was brought up to pay her debts. It was only as I travelled home the enormity of what she had said struck me. She was putting me, and the other 300,000 non performing mortgage holders, into the same boat. We were now people who had been brought up not to pay out debts. How had the moral compass moved not only for me, but for the other 300,000 people in arrears? Had we all somehow morphed into artful dodgers?

The answer is of course that our moral convictions had not changed. We had not somehow put aside the tenets of honesty, truthfulness and responsibility. If one person catches a cold, it may be considered unfortunate, if an entire village is laid low, then it can be called a plague. This is a global financial endemic where banks have become too big to fail and where bank debt is socialised but profits still retained internally. The financial system is broken and history will write a very different account than the current peddling in popular journals.

The shame heaped onto people in debt is misapplied. Debt happens. And then sometimes it happens so much that the person cannot repay it. Fact. It is also a fact that ordinary people will lose things if they cannot repay their debt – their homes, possession and income. But they should not also lose their health and their self-esteem. If you are rich and become bankrupt, the unjust system means you hang on to your lifestyle. If you are ordinary and in debt, you can lose it all. But not your self-esteem please. It is only money after all. Let’s shine a light on shame and with whatever money we have left, let’s all buy the 2015 Warwick Rowers Calendar.

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I was built for comfort not for speed

Mr Hook joins our team in the Carlow Rugby Club Tag Festival in June

I was built for comfort, not for speed. I knew this as a child. Although taller by a full foot than most of my contemporaries, I never won races. Looking at me it was a surprise: long and leggy, I should have been fast, but my abiding memory was of running my hardest and yet still seeing titchy things overtake me on the track and win. My school sports were hockey and tennis, neither of which I excelled at. A brief spell in goal seemed to suit me and I even made the senior team and went on tour to Wales aged 13. Too young really to enjoy this freedom as I did not drink and was very much the baby of the team. But my niece was born while away which was wonderful and John Lennon was shot and killed which was not. The Wales of my memory will never be the same again. After a few close misses with hockey balls flying past my face, I opted to return to the field again and finished my school sports career in my final year as captain of the Thirds: the captaincy of which came as result of my age and not any skill. Most girls with little or no athletic ability tended to drop team sports by their final year in school, but I just played away blissfully ignorant of my lack of talent, and more notably, speed.

Ah, speed. This is why I am writing blog today. After a hiatus of some years I have returned to team sports this summer. When I say some years, I mean a great big sum of them, as in almost 30 years. A dear friend texted me at the start of the summer and asked would I join a tag rugby team in Gorey, Co Wexford. I baulked at first, then warmed to the idea. I am naturally active, again without any particular skills. I learnt to horseride after my divorce and went on to win small jumping competitions, went on an amazing cattle drive in Montana and an equally stunning equestrian safari in South Africa. I have joined the local gym, attend classes with regularity and use my treadmill often. I like to walk. I also sing, write, socialise and enjoy pubs. But it has been a long time since I did any team sports and so four weeks ago I rocked up to Gorey Rugby Club feeling excited and a little bit nervous.

How hard would it be I thought. I’ve brothers who played rugby at senior levels. I’ve grown up in a rugby family, went to a rugby school and spent many, many hours cheering on my team or country in rugby matches. It was only when I arrived at Gorey and saw everyone warming up that I suddenly realised I had never chucked a rugby ball round with my brothers in the back garden, ever. I almost turned tail there and then but my good friend persuaded me to stay.
Fast forward to tonight. Learning a new sport is tough, even in a friendly environment. Tonight was my fourth match and boy was it fun. For starters there was no rain, a first in this summer league. I am not sure why but every Thursday it has been bucketing down with rain. At least two nights have been cancelled and last week we played despite the stair rods of rain coming down. At first I was very grumpy but once wet it really doesn’t matter. Running around in the pouring rain is actually quite good fun in summer. It wasn’t cold or rather we weren’t cold. And surprisingly I got a try. Don’t ask me how but I was in the right place at the right time and touched it down! Go Me!

Tonight was very funny and it all goes back to speed. Girls get three points for a try, boys only one. So the emphasis is on getting the girl over the line. At one stage, a teammate shouted at me: “Stay Up,” and I did try but my legs while long are not fast. I don’t know why. I think I run a bit like Phoebe from Friends and I was miles from him at the touch down. Epic fail. Later on, the same teammate looked at me and looked at another girl on the team. Although we were all neck and neck and no one was marking me, he still passed to her. Sadly she was tagged and missed the try. It was a good call based on my lack of speed just unfortunate in its ultimate execution.

Half time came and I promised to try and run faster. And not be scared of dropping the ball if passed to me. I would call for the ball. My time came soon enough. A late run and I was twenty feet off the touch down. I went into my top gear and ploughed on. I was tagged but did not realise it. I was running so fast I could not stop and ploughed into the hedge at the perimeter of the field and got stung all over with nettles. Now, this was playing. I was running so fast I could not stop. A result albeit it without a try.

Five minutes later and getting very close to end of the match and again I was up with our side. The ball came my way, I caught it and ran on to the goal line. Touchdown and into the hedge after. TRY! Loads of nettle stings. I’d taken one for the team! And got a try!

I am now officially the highest scorer on our team. Nothing to do with talent at all. But I have the nettle stings to prove it.

I love Tag Rugby!