The Big Interview: Clare Shine on her struggles with mental health, resilience and recovery

The Big Interview: Clare Shine on her struggles with mental health, resilience and recovery
Clare Shine of Glasgow City and Republic of Ireland. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Irish international Clare Shine opens up about her struggles with mental health and how, after being brought so low that she attempted to commit suicide, she has been able to make the journey from darkness back into light. She spoke to Liam Mackey.

Dear Clare,

I can only imagine the thoughts running through your head with the world seemingly at your feet at such a young age. It will feel like everyone you meet already has high expectations from you, and with those high hopes comes a lot of pressure.

Speaking from experience I can tell you that not everything is going to work out how you might want it to, and there will be many mountains to climb, but that’s all part of growing up as a player and as a person. You will learn how to separate those in time but please be patient with it. I struggle with that and you can learn from my mistakes…

Yesterday, Irish international footballer Clare Shine published a powerful, poignant and courageous letter to her younger self, the introduction to which is reproduced above — in which she opened up for the first time in public about her struggles with her mental health, including the revelation that, in late 2018, she reached such depths of hopelessness and self-loathing, that she attempted to take her own life.

But, crucially, the letter is also a remarkable document of resilience and recovery, as it signposts the pathway that has led her out of the darkness and back into the light.

“It took me about four or five days to write,” she tells me, when we meet in a Dublin hotel to talk about her story.

It was the first time I’ve ever done something like that and I took a lot from it too. Hopefully, it reaches someone who needs it.

That is the main reason Clare Shine has decided to go public with her experience — the hope that it will be of benefit to others who might be enduring similar pain and have yet to reach out for help.

“Yeah, 100%,” she says. “I suffered in silence for so long and I was kind of in denial about a lot of problems I had. And once I was able to realise that, and control it, I felt I could pass on my experience to somebody else who was in the situation I was in four years ago, or even two years ago, when I tried to commit suicide.

“So it’s about trying to educate people as well as overcoming one of my own fears — which is talking about it and coming out of my comfort zone, something I struggle to do.

“Because that’s the blind side of mental health — as much as you want to talk about it, it’s the most difficult part to do. But once you make that jump, you’ll never look back.”

The Cork-born 24-year-old, earmarked from an early age as an outstanding football prospect, seemed from the outside to enjoy a relentlessly upward career trajectory, from starting off with her local club Douglas Hall and then playing with Cork City to winning a league and cup double with Raheny United before going on to achieving even more success, this time on foreign soil, when she signed for Glasgow City.

On the international stage, she was only 15 when she was first called up to the Irish U17 squad which reached the final of the 2010 European Championships and the quarter-finals of the World Cup in the same year.

Having continued to rise through the under-age ranks, she made her senior debut for her country in 2015, a year after recovering from a broken leg.

But even as her football career appeared to be on the up and up, Clare was privately struggling with the increasingly debilitating effects of depression and anxiety, compounded by chronic insomnia, and, later, exacerbated by a growing dependence on alcohol.

At the start of 2015, having been advised by her coach at Raheny United to speak to someone about her problems, Clare got in touch with the suicide prevention service Pieta House where, over a number of weeks, she undertook a course of one-to-one therapeutic sessions.

Shine in Ireland training last November. Picture: Sportsfile
Shine in Ireland training last November. Picture: Sportsfile

What she didn’t grasp then, to her cost, was that this was the beginning of a healing process, not an end in itself.

“When I came out of Pieta House I thought that I was invincible,” she says.

“I thought I didn’t have to do anything else. I thought I was cured. What I didn’t know at the time — and the reason I kept going back up and down — was that I lacked the self-love and the self-care to do the things I should have been doing. Instead I was doing the complete opposite.

“There would be a period of maybe four months where I would be happy and then it would just cut off and I would find myself back to square one.

“And I hated myself for it because I didn’t know why I kept going back. I didn’t understand the whole process of it. As I said in the letter, ‘each comeback proved to be a greater fall’.”

It was only two months after she finished her course with Pieta House that she signed for Glasgow City, “a step too far”, as she now recognises, even though she would crown her first stint with the club by scoring a hat-trick in the 3-0 Scottish Cup Final victory over Hibs.

The following season, she availed of the mid-season break to return home and attend Pieta House for a second time. Then she went back to the club, “thinking that everything was fine”.

But soon her mental health was deteriorating again.

In 2017, she made the decision to leave Glasgow and return home, signing back with Cork City and going on to score the winning goal for her hometown club in the 2017 FAI Cup Final.

But behind that latest triumph on the pitch, her personal life was in turmoil as she increasingly sought escape from her mental distress in alcohol.

“I became very dependent on alcohol over a three-year period,” she says.

To be brutally honest, in 2017 I had been drinking for the whole year and only stopped for three weeks before the cup final to try to get myself in some kind of shape.

Was she able to take any kind of joy from that memorable day — when Cork City sides pulled off an historic double — at the Aviva?

“Yeah, I was — because there was a party afterwards,” she replies. “And that’s where I found myself in my comfort zone. I thought drink was my best friend. The following year I was still with Cork City but I wasn’t really there.

“I was making up excuses — like injury — for why I didn’t really want to go in. I wasn’t showing up for games or training. And when I was, I was turning up under the influence, straight from the night before. Alarm bells were ringing for a lot of people.”

Shine in Cork City colours.
Shine in Cork City colours.

Her downward spiral culminated, after a night’s drinking in Cork, in a suicide attempt in the early hours of October 21st, 2018.

“I had been thinking about it for nearly the whole year,” she says.

“And things escalate after a few drinks. It struck my mind and it was the only thing I could see myself doing. I hated myself, really, I thought I was letting everyone down and I thought the world would be a better place if I did this.

“Anyone who has gone through these suicidal thoughts will know how powerful they are. It’s like a tunnel vision. It’s the only thing you can think of, you don’t think about anything else. You don’t think about friends or family. And once you’re there, it’s very hard to prevent.

“So my advice would be for people to know their triggers and know their breaking point. To see them coming before it’s too late. And reach out and talk to someone — talk to a friend, to your family, to anyone you think can help.”

What she knows now, she didn’t know then, however.

I don’t really want to go into detail about what happened but when I woke in hospital, my best friend (Irish goalkeeper Amanda Budden) was actually asleep on the hospital bed. I was thinking, ‘this isn’t happening to me, why am I here?’

I was bawling crying and she was crying and then she picked me up and said, ‘look, we’ll get through this together’.

“And she has been a massive part of my recovery as well. I’m so thankful she was in my life and still is. She really dragged me through the hardest of times and we’re still best friends.”

FOR Clare Shine, the darkest hour really did presage the dawn. Eliminating alcohol from her life was a crucial step in a process of recovery she feels she can now sustain.

Cork City FC put her in touch with an alcohol treatment centre, linked to Pieta House, where she was introduced to the concept of lifestyle change, with fitness and well-being a key part of her recovery programme.

“I got the hunger back from when I was in the centre,” she says.

“I think exercise is one of the best medicines for people who struggle with addiction and extreme mental health problems. Once I conquered the alcohol issue — because I had become so dependent on it — I was able to see life from a different perspective. I always thought drink was going to cure everything when it was really the devil on my shoulder.”

Recovery takes work and commitment, of course — there is no magic wand alternative. Follow-through, she emphasises, is vital.

“For someone who is going through a low period in their life and finds themselves in a situation like I was, it’s important for them to make that jump of reaching out,” she says.

“But when they do speak to someone and get help, it’s just as important to make sure that they continue once their treatment is over. It’s like me training for football and doing the extra work that will get me those extra yards for 90 minutes.

“It’s the same when you’re dealing with mental health: the work you do afterwards to keep it going is what’s most important.”

By April of last year, Clare felt secure enough in herself — and sufficiently back in love with the game which, at one point, she had come to hate — to re-sign for Glasgow City.

“Going over there this time, I was in a much better place,” she reflects.

Sine playing for Ireland in 2016. Picture: Sportsfile
Sine playing for Ireland in 2016. Picture: Sportsfile

“I was more confident in myself because I had set boundaries and a discipline that I knew I was capable of keeping. I knew going over there I was going to be a completely different person.

“I would look at my career in a very different way and do everything for my happiness, let’s just say. I kept up all my check-ins with myself, and my self-love and self-care, when I went over and it helped me throughout the whole season. And it has just kicked on from there and I’ve never looked back.”

Indeed, it turned out to be a stunning season for both club and player, as Glasgow City won their 13th title in a row and, in November, sealed a double with a 4-3 win over Hibs in the cup final, thanks to a sensational 89th-minute solo goal by their rejuvenated Cork star.

Clare’s return to form also saw new Ireland manager Vera Pauw recall her to the senior Irish squad for the first time in two years.

Now, she can look forward to a potentially milestone month in March when Glasgow City play Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and she will also be hoping to claim a place in the Irish side to face Greece in Tallaght, as the Girls in Green continue their quest for an historic first-ever qualification for the European Championship finals.

“If someone had told me this time last year that I’d be in this position now, I probably would have laughed,” she says.

“I set goals for 2019 that were unreachable, really. When I wrote them I was probably three stone overweight, I wasn’t playing football, I was still coming out of the darkest time.

“But I still wrote them down on paper. And when I got selected for the Ireland senior squad in October, that was all my goals achieved.

“And, having thought I would only reach one or two of my goals, that was a really proud moment for me. One of my main goals would have been just to be back enjoying life and to be happy and to be able to say that the smile on my face is real again.

“To be able to achieve all that of that, when I was coming from such a low point in my life, was…amazing.”

Clare Shine has certainly come a long way but, like all of us, she understands that she will always be a work in progress and that, particularly for someone experiencing issues with their mental health, the need to recognise triggers remains an important first line of defence.

Clare Shine of Glasgow City and Republic of Ireland. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Clare Shine of Glasgow City and Republic of Ireland. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

“I’m happy all-round, which is something I never thought I’d get back to,” she says, “but there are still some days that I would get upset over something or maybe because I didn’t sleep.

“Or just days that I don’t feel like doing anything. But I know when I get into that kind of mood or that state, I know that exercise or going for a walk, listening to music or a podcast, reading or writing stuff down — it automatically gives me the motivation to realise how far I’ve actually come. I would always reflect on that at the end of a week.

“It’s important to keep on top of things because if you drop off, you slowly start to deteriorate again. It’s something I will always be doing and something I will always need to do to be happy — which is the most important thing.”

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Pieta House for 24/7 support at 1800 247 247. You can also text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)

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