Lions QB shares men­tal health chal­lenges

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports -

One of the CFL’s tough­est play­ers says he’s no longer afraid to face his men­tal health.

More than a year and a half af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing bout of panic at­tacks and anx­i­ety, B.C. Lions quar­ter­back Mike Reilly shared his ex­pe­ri­ence in a stark piece for CFL.ca on Wed­nes­day, say­ing he hopes it helps oth­ers deal­ing with sim­i­lar is­sues.

“I just hope that (my story) em­pow­ers peo­ple to know that it’s not taboo and it’s not some­thing peo­ple should frown upon,” the 34 year old told re­porters at the Lions’ sub­ur­ban train­ing fa­cil­ity on Wed­nes­day, just hours af­ter the piece went live on­line.

“Peo­ple should cel­e­brate that you’re strong enough to be able to get help in­stead of wor­ry­ing about how tough you are or how big your ego is or how scared you are.”

Reilly ex­pe­ri­enced his first panic at­tack at his off-sea­son home in Seat­tle in Jan­uary 2018. He was com­ing off another sea­son as the league’s top passer, hav­ing thrown for 5,830 yards and 30 touch­downs for the Ed­mon­ton Eski­mos in 2017.

He and his wife Emily had one in­fant daugh­ter and another on the way when, one night, the foot­ball star lay down in bed only to find him­self un­able to breathe, his heart rac­ing, gripped by the fear that he was about to die.

“The scari­est part was that it was some­thing new for me and some­thing I hadn’t dealt with be­fore,” Reilly said. “I was scared that I was go­ing to feel that way ev­ery day for the rest of my life. That’s a pretty rough place to be in.”

Over the next month, the 2015 Grey Cup MVP strug­gled with rec­on­cil­ing his re­cur­ring panic at­tacks and per­sis­tent anx­i­ety with his im­age of be­ing one of the CFL’s tough­est ath­letes. He didn’t want to tell any­one – in­clud­ing his wife or his brother, a psy­chol­o­gist – what he was re­ally go­ing through. He wor­ried with how he’d be viewed and that any is­sue would au­to­mat­i­cally be linked to a head in­jury.

“I thought of my­self as a su­per tough guy. But there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing tough and be­ing dumb,” Reilly explained. “Be­ing tough is one thing when you’re fight­ing through some­thing on your own. But that was not a sce­nario where I was go­ing to be able to just fight through and pre­tend it wasn’t hap­pen­ing. Once I fi­nally re­al­ized that and got the help that I needed, it was life chang­ing.”

Even­tu­ally he reached out, re­ceived sup­port and learned var­i­ous treat­ment tools, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ing. The dark feel­ings and panic at­tacks quickly dis­si­pated and he con­tin­ued work­ing to keep them at bay.

Reilly, who signed with the Lions as a free agent in Fe­bru­ary, said he hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced any symptoms in more than a year and a half, but he still uses some of the tools and tech­niques he learned.

To­day he has con­fi­dence that if anx­i­ety ever en­croaches again, he’ll be pre­pared.

“I don’t worry about it now dur­ing the day be­cause I know that if I start to feel a lit­tle bit off, I can go and talk to peo­ple and it’s not go­ing to be some­thing where I’m go­ing to be judged or I’m go­ing to lose my ca­reer for it or things like that,” he said.

The ex­pe­ri­ence has flipped how Reilly views men­tal health, from some­thing that can be fought through by those who are tough enough to a med­i­cal condition that needs out­side help.

“It’s some­thing that didn’t square in my mind in the be­gin­ning and now when I look back on it, I can’t be­lieve how wrong I was,” he said. “It was a life les­son for me, for sure, and one that I’m for­tu­nate to have had the pieces and peo­ple in place to get me the help that I needed.”

Now Reilly is join­ing a hand­ful of other male pro­fes­sional ath­letes speaking about their jour­ney in a bid to break down the stigma that still sur­rounds men­tal health.

NBA play­ers De­Mar DeRozan and Kevin Love have shared their own bat­tles, while NHL goalie Robin Lehner re­cently spoke out about strug­gling with ad­dic­tion, sui­ci­dal thoughts and bipo­lar dis­or­der.

Reilly is also help­ing oth­ers by work­ing with the B.C. arm of the Cana­dian Men­tal Health As­so­ci­a­tion, and putting the $25,000 do­na­tion he earned from be­ing last year’s top player of the week to­ward Foundry B.C., a group that helps youth access var­i­ous men­tal health care and var­i­ous other sup­ports.

Speaking pub­licly has brought up some nerves for the quar­ter­back, who prefers to keep his per­sonal life per­sonal.

“It’s kind of uncharted ter­ri­tory for me,” Reilly said. “Any time I’ve been hurt, phys­i­cally, I don’t talk about it. I’ve played through a lot of different in­juries and I gen­er­ally don’t like to talk about them. It’s gen­er­ally some­thing I deal with on my own.

“But this is not a phys­i­cal in­jury. This is some­thing that can and will affect a lot of peo­ple. Men­tal health touches so many different peo­ple and you don’t even know about it.”

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