RAY CARROLL is lucky: he does something that allows him plenty of time to think.
Having achieved record breaking crossings of the Atlantic, he admits that the solitary, grinding nature of the challenge appeals to him, but then, he never feels he is entirely alone.
He believes he has been accompanied on all his journeys by his brother, Aiden, who took his own life back in 1997.
A native of Salthill in Galway, Ray admits that were it not for the traumatic events of that year, he may never have considered throwing himself into such arduous physical challenges. He also cites his rowing escapades as a form of therapy allowing him to deal with the passing of his brother.
“He died in 1997, he was 22 at the time and I was 20,” Ray recalls. “Basically I was coming up to the 10 year anniversary and I was bored with my life, I was a marine engineer and I really hadn’t dealt with the whole loss. I was never going to cure cancer or win the Eurovision and so I said I would do what I was good at and that was row and raise money for charity.”
And that, from 2007 onwards, is what he has done. A rower since he was a schoolboy, jumping into record attempts was still something of a leap of faith. The cathartic nature of it has allowed him to dwell on the memories of his brother and the time leading up to his death.
“Rowing is a very solitary thing to do. You don’t really talk too much [to your fellow rowers], you have sleep deprivation, you’re always hungry, you’re basically a bit grumpy. You are your own company and your own best friend.”
Aiden was working as a carpenter at the time he died by suicide, but Ray says he and other members of his family knew that he was ill in the time leading up to the fateful day.
“My relationship with him was very good and getting better all the time,” Ray says. Sibling rivalry had been forgotten and the brothers had even done a bit of travelling together, but it was apparent something wasn’t quite right.
“I knew he was sick and he was not happy in himself and a bit lost. I was too young to pinpoint it and see if I could help him and that is a regret going down the years that I didn’t do more to help him. Knowing what I know about depression, he was displaying nearly all of the symptoms of clinical depression. He did get clinical treatment towards the end but that did not make it any better.”
Ray mentions the “lack of resources that there are in this country” for mental health services, claiming: “Often it’s just that these young people need to talk to someone.
“They wake up and they feel terrible, they can be the last to know often that they have depression. He went into the health service, they didn’t help him, threw him into a ward with alcoholics and down and outs and he was not on that plateau at all, he needed to be properly diagnosed and I don’t think he ever was.”
In the year or so before the end, Aiden approached his father and explained that something was wrong and he wanted to get help. Despite the best efforts of his family and friends, Ray says, “he was getting sicker and sicker”.
Then came the news of his death.
“It was like being in a dream. You don’t know what’s going on, everything is happening so fast, there is shock, devastation and sorrow and that is what remains, with regret: should we have done more, could we have done more? Looking back on it now, I know we could not have done anything more than we did.
“There is an ultimate, profound, deep, deep sorrow that never goes away.”
There is a “common thread” of grief which runs through everyone affected by Aiden’s death, he says, but others found different ways of dealing with it.
“For my parents, they were never the same again,” he says, recalling how they retired from work in the aftermath of Aiden’s death.
“They have come out of it very well and we are a very strong family and stronger than we would have been if that event had not entered our lives.
“Looking back on it, my sisters were older and they were married and had children so they took solace and comfort from their families. From a male point of view, I think it led me to bottle it up much more. I do have a bit of recollection from them of the solace they took from people around them, much more than I did – we [men] tend to go it alone, and the Atlantic experience was the epitomy of that.”
Lessons can be learned, he believes, from tragedies such as Aiden’s death. “It is a disease and it is in most human beings, I would imagine. It can be triggered at any stage in your life by something, the breakdown of a relationship, a bang on the head, anything.
“The taboo aspect of it is the one overriding thing that we need to combat and confront. People don’t mind going to work saying ‘I have the flu’, but not ‘I am feeling a bit blue and I’m going to go home.’”
Making information easily available, and people being able to pass on a helpline or a leaflet, can help, he says, as can others who come into contact with those feeling down. He says teachers are among those who should receive training to help them deal with anyone sending out the signals that they need help. He has worked with groups like Jigsaw in Galway and raised funds for Aware and others.
It was through this that he launched himself into his transatlantic voyages, with his firm belief that physical exercise can aid mental health, and that “the best things in life are free”, a lesson he wishes he could have impressed upon his late brother. “I figured out that through physical pain I could [deal with things] and I had always been successful in rowing in college. The greatest moments of clarity I’ve experienced are when you’re exhausted and your defences are down, with no outside distractions – with rowing the Atlantic, that was very much the case.”
Rowing allowed him the chance to finally come to terms with Aiden’s passing, and has brought him closer to his memory. On both of his rowing boats, he has a little wall in front of him on which he was written, ‘All things come to pass’.
“I have four world records and I wouldn’t have contemplated it were it not for the loss of my brother,” he says. Even in the midst of the Atlantic roar, Aiden was never far away.
“He was with me all the way,” Ray says. “I felt we were doing it together.”
* Ray Carroll will be one of the speakers at the 3Ts Galway Candlelight Vigil, from 8pm-9pm on Thursday September 16, at St Nicholas Collegiate, Galway city.
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