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Was having anxiety a legitimate excuse to sit out?

Tom Downie made his AFL debut in round 20, 2013 and played nine games after being selected with pick 56 in the 2011 NAB AFL Draft. In March this season Downie stepped away from the club to deal with his mental health before announcing his retirement last month.

JLT Community Series Game 1 - Saturday February 18, 2017.

How could watching the play, a stoppage 50 metres away, cause me to run from the field… and not return? Sounds pretty silly right. On this particular day, my anxiety took over and I had a panic attack.

Something wasn’t quite right. From Friday morning when we flew down to Narrandera, until the following night when we arrived back in Sydney, I felt on edge.

24 hours out from the game we made a brief appearance down at the ground to mingle with the local community. I remember saying how much of a relief it was to be playing games again, however deep down I was far from relieved. Was I going to meet the standards of my teammates, coaches, as well as friends and family watching from the other side of the fence?

There was this feeling of insecurity I could not escape. It came from a fear of failure.

Game day had arrived. It was not long before the opening bounce when we were called in to go through the game plan. Leon spoke giving his final address, although the only voice I could hear was the one in my head. I could not stop thinking about how irritating this sensation was. I desperately wanted to remove myself from the whole experience, but how? What would I say? I kept choosing to ignore these feelings. 

The game began. The sound of the first whistle failed to kick me into gear. Maybe a big bump or a strong tackle would shake off these nerves. 

After a stand-offish first half, we were told to lift by the coaching staff, an honest critique of our performance. 

This was when my anxiety went to another level. I was already dealing with my own internal pressure, now I had to manage an external one as well. 

We went back out to our positions for the second half. I was playing up forward. It took only a few minutes before it all became too much. My breathing suddenly became shallow and I was no longer in control of my body. I froze for a few seconds, completely overwhelmed. 

After regrouping myself I desperately made a charge for the bench. Getting to the other side of that white line was the most satisfying feeling I felt all day. I had avoided the fear of making a fool of myself. 

The first thing I did was make our staff aware of the scenario, and I am so glad I did. They were extremely supportive. 

I had escaped the immediate spotlight, but it wasn’t over yet. I would eventually have to explain to the group why I had fled.

Post-game in the change rooms, Matt Buntine asked me what was wrong, assuming I had injured myself. I hesitated. After mustering up the strength I explained to him that I had experienced anxiety. His tone immediately changed to one of concern. My mental health took over football as the primary focus in our conversation. Support like this I found extremely invaluable. 

In the weeks leading into this game I had experienced a couple of mishaps at training. I had stepped out of drills, telling everyone my hips were sore, and that I’d join in the next drill. I didn’t know what else to say. Was having anxiety a legitimate excuse to sit out?

Being open and honest was the only way for me to go. 

If I kept burying my issues it was only going to add fuel to the fire. That fire being my anxiety. If I hadn’t have spoken up, I know I would have been back in situations like these once again, ones that would continually haunt me.

As I move forward, I am constantly learning how to positively deal with anxiety. My attitude has changed in a sense that I am no longer trying to fight it, instead understanding how to manage it. This mindset has helped me grow so much as a person (not vertically, that wouldn’t be fair).

I am aware of the challenges out there for me in the future regarding mental health, and look forward to tackling them head on, but in speaking up, I have essentially discovered a path that has put me in a much better place than where I was.

If you or anyone else you know is struggling with their mental health or for when to seek help, see this link: http://livin.org.au/information/getting-help or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This weekend the GIANTS will Shine a Light on Mental Health through our Match Day Community Partner LIVIN. The GIANTS are proud to welcome LIVIN as a Community Partner for the first time in 2017.

LIVIN was founded to wipe out the stigma associated with mental illness and raise awareness for suicide prevention. The round 15 clash will be a lighting spectacle in and around Spotless Stadium with glow sticks for the first 5000 attendees, LED hula hoopers and various other lighting activations around the ground. 

Be there as the GIANTS take on Geelong in a blockbuster Saturday night clash at Spotless Stadium, CLICK HERE to get your tickets for the game now as we Shine a Light on Mental Health.