Rugby stalwart Keith Earls has said growing up in Moyross, Co Limerick, was “challenging at times” due to the violence and feuds that occurred during his childhood.
He remembers a time when he was in the back garden with family and they heard gunshots.
“Myself and my cousin ran out to the porch, and you know there was a guy standing there with a balaclava, firing shots at a group of young lads running,” he said on theon Friday night.
“Not sure if he was actually going for them or was it a couple of shots to scare them. You know that was, I suppose, a unique situation that not many people I suppose in the country would have grown up with.”
He added: “It was tough at times and, as I said, I know I'm painting a tough picture here of Moyross but I can only tell my story and I am very proud to be from Moyross but you know this was my experience.”
Earls was speaking in advance of the publication of his autobiography, in which he opens up about his battle with his mental health.
He said he had his first panic attack following the death of his cousin at the age of 12.
Earls recalled the moment vividly, sharing how his parents were out of work at the time and he was sitting on the couch at home when the gravity of the moment overwhelmed him.
“I was still in my primary school uniform. What kicked it off was I had a cousin who died in a car accident and I found that tough because he was only 19, he was young, and that was my first time I came across death or spoke about death.”
The thought struck that he would never see his cousin again.
“It just went downhill from there and I was thinking, ‘when I die I’ll never see my parents’ and I was shaking, I was trembling. The panic attack had started. I didn’t know what was happening. I genuinely thought I was going to die.”
The attack eventually passed but, as Earls pointed out, this was a time when there was less of an understanding and maybe even empathy for mental health issues in Ireland.
Further attacks happened over the years and the Moyross man went on to talk about what he described as “the other voice in my head”, a voice he called Hank which owed to the 2000 movie ‘Me Myself and Irene’.
“Jim Carey’s character has a split personality. I suppose my Hank isn’t as mad as his Hank but my Hank is there in my head and he is the other side, the depression and the negative thoughts that have been living in my head since that day, since I was 12 years of age.
“He just doesn’t want me to be happy. He just makes me think quite negative. He makes me do a lot of things that I don’t want to do, like, just negative thinking in general. Thankfully I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but Hank is always there and he’s always negative. And he’s a fella I’ve lived with for most of my life now.”
Earls, a 93-times capped Ireland international, Munster legend and British and Irish Lion, explained that this could even surface during games, that there have been times on the field when his biggest battle was with this alter ego.
“There are games I probably shouldn’t have played in I was in such a bad place mentally, but I found a way to get out onto the pitch and take Hank down.”
He continued to have panic attacks throughout his career, with paranoia, depression, anxiety and negative thoughts being pervasive.
Eventually it got to a point, in 2013, that he felt he needed to reach out for help.
“So, I rang the doctor… I explained everything to him, he was brilliant. I went down to see a guy in Cork, a psychiatrist, and diagnosed me with bipolar 2,” he explained.
“You know there is obviously bipolar 1 as well, but bipolar 2 is probably the better out of the two to get. I was delighted to get the diagnosis; I was genuinely losing my mind."
In the intervening years, Earls said he has come to the point where he feels more secure in his mental health, and in his battle against Hank.
"Thankfully over the last couple of years, I have got a great hold on it. You know, I have found my identity,” he said.
“I didn't know who I was, and I was always trying to be other people. I didn’t know when I was Keith, I didn’t know when I was Hank. And thankfully I can tell the difference now.”