Back on track: Former athlete David Gillick on overcoming depression

Former athlete David Gillick talks with the kind of startling honesty that will give hope — and inspiration — to anyone who has ever taken comfort in binge eating to dampen down emotions, writes Clodagh Finn.

At the end of 2015, he was feeling so low that he found himself gorging on muffins in the forecourt of a filling station.

He ate vats of ice cream and packets of biscuits at one sitting, promising himself that he would run it all off later. But the run never happened.

“I was not happy in my skin and I let my emotions dictate how I ate,” he tells Feelgood, explaining how difficult he found leaving his stellar athletic career behind.

Gillick won two 400m European Indoor Championship titles in 2005 and 2007 and fulfilled a dream when he competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. However, repeated injury forced him to retire and abandon his ambition to call it a day at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

“They say professional athletes die twice,” he says, the first ‘death’ happening when they retire.

At first, it seemed Gillick had navigated that transition with ease. He won MasterChef in 2013 and followed it with a bestselling book, David Gillick’s Kitchen, in 2015.

But he had been putting a brave face on it. In the winter of 2015, self-doubt and anxiety consumed him. “I developed psoriasis all over my body, night sweats that were so bad the entire mattress was soaked through. I became moody and fractious, arguing over trivial things,” he recalls.

It was one of those trivial arguments that eventually led to his depression diagnosis and his slow journey back to health. Early one morning, the ‘red mist descended’ after a row with his wife Charlotte, who was then eight months pregnant. He stormed out.

When he finally looked at his phone, he saw 20 missed calls from her. She heard a radio report of a suicide on the M50 in Dublin and was worried it might have been her husband. “Thoughts of suicide would have run through my mind on a regular basis,” he says.

After what he now knows to have been a panic attack, he phoned a friend and told him how things really were. It was the first step in a process poignantly described in his new book, Back on Track.

In it, he describes how he made his way back to health by working on four areas in his life: Diet, movement, mindset, and rest.

The first change he made was deciding to tell someone he trusted what was really going on. “Women might be more comfortable talking face to face but blokes are a bit more shoulder to shoulder — go to a match or go for a walk and talk then. All the other person has to do is listen.”

He began to gradually work his way back to movement. The elite athlete started with a parkrun and built on that, eventually running three times a week.

Rest proved challenging too because he believes we never really switch off, due to the frantic pace of life and the endless distraction of technology. Gillick’s book offers easy-to-follow tips on digital detox, relaxation, and meditation.

Finally, Gillick explains how he “made up” with food. He started slowly with a bowl of porridge for breakfast. “There are no shortcuts, no miracle pills,” he says.

When he felt a little better, he did the same the next day and began to reintroduce healthier habits — planning meals, not shopping when he was hungry, cutting out the petrol-station junk.

He is not one for extremes and uses all the food groups in a series of recipes that are designed to be healthy but, most importantly, practical and sustainable.

Things are much better for David Gillick these days. He works for himself as an inspirational speaker, media contributor, and health advocate.

He lives in Dublin with Charlotte and their two children, Oscar, two, and Olivia, five weeks.

It’s not all plain sailing though; there are good days and bad days — and the occasional muffin. “That is real life and I believe that people can relate to it. If just one person gets something from my story, it will be worth it.”

Back on Track is published by Gill Books, €19.99

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