Conor Cusack transformed from club hurler to a national figurehead

They say a week is a long time in sport, but Conor Cusack has never had five days speed by in such a blur.

Last Monday morning, he sat down in front of a computer and wrote a blog post. Almost instantly the lengthy article, describing his past mental health struggles, his suicidal ideation, and how he turned it around, went viral. The Irish Examiner picked up the story and social media, Twitter in particular, took a hold of it and threw it around the world, Conor’s words opening a new front in the discussion on how we feel — sometimes, how desperately hopeless we feel — and how we can address it.

The post, entitled ‘Depression is my friend, not my enemy’, has been retweeted thousands of times, and Conor’s phone has been ringing red hot all week. He stayed up until 5am yesterday writing an article for a Sunday newspaper, he will appear on the Marian Finucane radio programme this morning, and yesterday he admitted he knew his words would strike a chord, even as he tapped the keys.

“I have to be honest and say that I did. I am fairly conscious of the amount of people who are struggling with depression, the fact that, down my area, people would know my story. The amount of people I know down my area struggling not just with depression but anxiety — it has to be magnified around the country.

“The only thing that has surprised me is the number of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds sending me really nice notes and messages,” he said, remarking on how many of them had “opened my eyes”.

He referred to a possible view that any engagement with issues involving mental health might see someone depicted as being in some way “soft”. But the flipside of that is the overwhelming support he has received from the people of Cloyne and his hurling clubmates, going right back to the period more than a decade ago which he wrote about so forcefully last Monday.

“Hurling is an incredibly physical, challenging game to play and out on that field there is hell for leather,” he said. “My experience is generally nothing but support from people in Cloyne and my club.

“When I was 19, nearly 20 stone — these were the guys who were giving me massive support, not even words, it could be a look or a tap on the shoulder

“I don’t think that it’s a unique situation but with my weight a lot of guys down there would have been aware of that.”

Likewise, while things may have got “hot and heavy” on the pitch, “never once have I had any comment from anyone over the difficulties I have had with my mental health issues”.

The focus on Conor’s message has led to people from all walks of life tapping into his message that there are routes out of depression and suicidal thoughts, with doctors, psychologists, student groups, sports people, broadcasters, pretty much everyone weighing in with their support. The Cloyne man said he hasn’t had time to comprehend the magnitude of the reaction, particularly as his words came days after the tragic death of Galway inter-county player Niall Donohue at the age of 22.

He said he hadn’t told anyone he was planning on writing the blog post, but had mentioned it to his brother, Donal Óg, who was going to attend Niall’s funeral. He said he felt it was a good idea but, in truth, Conor had already decided that he was going to write the piece. “I had my mind on it in the last number of weeks, ways to bring the idea forward,” he said. “The honest truth was I got a promotion in my job recently and I just didn’t have time to do it, you know? It was going to be a once-off thing.”

Now, given the scale of the coverage this past week, Conor is possibly in the position of being sought out as a spokesman for issues which in the recent past have remained in the shadows, seldom spoken of, sometimes off limits.

“I am not seeking to be any type of role model,” he said. “I am not a perfect person, but it’s not something I shy away from either. It’s too important and too serious an issue.

“There was a TD [minister of state Shane McEntee] who took his life last year and I was astounded afterwards at the silence from politicians about it, like it was a taboo subject.

“It was a tragedy, but we have to think about the people who are alive and still living, and my view is there is no lost cause. “How long are we going to wait? Until suicide figures get into four, five, six figures? The time is now. That was one of my big things. You need to make a point and do something.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that this is a silent epidemic in our country and there are enough bad things after happening here.”

The searing honesty in Conor’s article almost burnt a hole in your computer screen the depths he plumbed in his younger days at times reminiscent of a Hopkins poem from Leaving Cert staple, Soundings. Yet he emerged fromit in his own way, although he is quick to stress that “there is no ‘one size fits all’” approach.

“It’s very important that people get the message that I am not anti-medicine — whatever helps a person to get through the day.

“It was a model that didn’t work for me, [but] I’m telling my story and that is my truth.”

With his recent promotion in a job “I love and relish”, with the support of his workmates and friends in Cloyne and studying for a degree at night, his life now is very different from that in the period when he was at his lowest.

Even keeping a narrow focus on hurling, he said the pressures on modern day inter-county players is different from in the past, adding: “There is an awful lot of living that goes on between the games. “The modern inter-county player is living in a media age. There is a lot more analysis and commentary, and demands and pressure. I genuinely don’t think people are aware of the pressures.”

His own relationship with hurling had been “incredibly unhealthy”, with what he terms as “a level of dependency on it”.

“Most of the time your identity came through hurling,” he said.

It’s easy to imagine any sportsperson falling into the same trap, one from which Conor managed to extricate himself. “I came to a point where I was very comfortable with hurling and fell in love with it even more than ever. When I started to enjoy the game for the game’s sake I got better at hurling.”

Now it seems he is a magnet for positivity at a time when the country could do with a few. Considering the mantle has been thrown onto his shoulders since last Monday, he is wearing it well.

“In the last three nights, I’ve had about five hours’ sleep, I’m busy at my job and doing different things,” he said. “It’s been a whirlwind week and absolutely fantastic and everything I am hearing is positive.”


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