Sunday People

The former Strictly pro tells Lizzie Catt why he wishes he’d got help for his mental health sooner


As one of Strictly Come Dancing’s youngest-ever profession­als, AJ Pritchard was known for his big smile and boundless energy. But in 2021, months after his then-girlfriend Abbie Quinnen was injured in a Tiktok stunt gone catastroph­ically wrong, AJ woke one morning in the grip of what he now knows was “the worst panic attack”.

“I couldn’t see, couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe,” he recalls.

Not realising what was wrong, AJ, now 28, was taken to hospital.

“Even they thought I had some crazy disease, they were going to do a lumbar puncture. I was delirious. There was nothing coming out of me. I just sat rocking in the corner in the dark.”

In January 2021, AJ and Abbie had been attempting to recreate a ‘life hack’ tutorial, cutting a wine bottle in half using a burning rope.

But the bottle exploded, engulfing Abbie in flames.

She was admitted to intensive care with second and third degree burns, losing part of her ear and undergoing several skin graft operations.

With lockdown restrictio­ns in place, AJ became Abbie’s carer, cleaning her wounds every two hours and helping her moisturise the damaged skin.

“The accident happened at the worst time during Covid,” he remembers.

“Nobody was allowed to come to your house and I was suddenly a full-time carer.”

Abbie, 25, slowly began to improve, but months later AJ reached the pivotal moment he now describes as his lowest point.

“Once I’d calmed down, which took days, I realised I needed to talk to somebody. I needed to get this off my chest and try to deal with it.”

Asking for help sooner, AJ now realises, could have stopped him reaching crisis point – and he’s determined to encourage others to be more aware of their mental health. “I kept insisting that I was fine but I obviously wasn’t,” he admits.

“It took me being taken to hospital and going through multiple panic attacks before I could admit I needed to talk to somebody.

“In reality, I should have opened up earlier – that’s the stubborn kind of person that I am. Now, I’m making sure that I can talk openly about it to help others, because there were so many signs before it got to that degree.” The red flags had been there, says AJ, he just didn’t know how to recognise them.

“For example, even when I was dancing for 10 or 12 hours a day I’d always made sure I sat down for half an hour, had lunch and a cup of tea.

“I’d stopped doing that – it sounds so silly but I have OCD and everything has to be in order. My routine allows me to get through the day, that’s the way my brain works. Changing small things like that really messed with my body.”

Other warning signs, he says, were the headaches. “They started to become more and more regular. And I started to sit down and be silent for like five, 10 minutes a day, and that got longer and longer.”

Now, he tries to listen to his body.

“The body’s an amazing thing if we just

‘‘ I kept insisting that I was fine but I obviously wasn’t

 ?? ?? ENERGY Dancing with Saffron Barker on Strictly
ENERGY Dancing with Saffron Barker on Strictly
 ?? ?? RELEASE London Marathon last year with Abbie
RELEASE London Marathon last year with Abbie

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