Mind games: Australian hockey star's struggle with mental illness and triumph

 

Credit : Harpreet Kaur Lamba


Kookaburra Simon Orchard share his experiences of mental health issues

In the microscopic world of sport that dwells on every high and dissects every weakness, athletes are often on the edge. The mental pressure of going from a hero to a zero is intense, and anxiety and fear of failure often gets to even the best of them.



Australia’s hockey player Simon Orchard has seen quite a lot of it. If one were to look at his career achievements, it is stuff that dreams are made of. Orchard is a successful striker with medals at the World Cups and the Olympics. Australia are ranked number 1 in field hockey and Orchard is central to their plans.

But far from the world of on-field encounters, Orchard goes through a thousand battles every single day, and almost at every hour.

The 29-year-old Orchard suffers from "health anxiety", a syndrome that he begun to understand "in depth" only recently. While most of us dismiss signs of common ailments like cold, cough or headache with a simple shoulder shrug; for Orchard, they are sometimes as big as "life-threatening diseases". The anxiety grips him so hard that he is unable to focus on training and matches.

In a detailed chat with this newspaper, Orchard says it "took him sometime to come to terms with it" and he now wants to "share his story with people to make them understand mental health issues and wants athletes with similar problems to draw inspiration from it".

"Mental health has a stigma attached to it. People don’t understand such things and just say ‘toughen up’, ‘get on with life and you will be okay’. 

"But it is hard. One needs a broader spectrum to understand and more importantly, to accept," says Orchard.

"I suffer from health anxiety. The first signs came when I was 20-years-old and had left home for hockey and my scholarship, but I never understood what it was.

"During one of my training sessions, I felt this sudden pain in the chest. I checked with my trainer, we got scans done but nothing came out. But I seriously believed something was wrong with me. That was how it begun.

"Then the more difficult time came in Holland a few years ago. I remember a little lump popped up on my neck and I panicked. I started Googling. Was it a swollen lymph node? Was it life threatening? The internet mentioned it could be cancer and I froze. Was I going to die?

"I remember training the next day and picking up balls between drills when I stopped and thought to myself ‘How can I play hockey with cancer? This might be it for me.’ The thought consumed me until I saw a doctor who said ‘It was just a fatty deposit which will go away on its own. Don’t worry’.

"I never focused on the last two words it seems. I never stopped worrying."

As time passed, things got so bad for the sprightly forward that he finally took time off the game last year to understand "what was going wrong".

Says Orchard, who declared to the world about his suffering last August through a hearty-wrenching blog, "It was a hard decision, but a well-thought one. I was doing well, winning medals, travelling... but everything was taking a toll on me. I was constantly under the scanner and my mind made it more difficult for me.

"Everything from my hockey, relationships and university to simple things like what I order for dinner or other mundane things. I was anxious about all of them.

"I am usually a good speaker but on that day I was a complete mess. I gathered my team mates and the coach, and had a feeling that once I’d told everyone what was happening, I would be fine. I think I got five seconds into my speech and lost it. Our coach Poss Reid jumped in and saved me. I spent the next few minutes crying uncontrollably and looking at the floor. I felt like shrinking into the hole. 

"I have no recollection of what I said but I think the guys got a grip of what I was going through. Someone said "We love you Orch" towards the end and I think that’s how I begun my recovery process," he recalls.

Hockey wasn’t the only worry for Orchard during this time. His personal life too was affected.

"I must thanks my parents, sibling and my partner for being so supportive. They could have backed out, but they stood strong and helped me get out of it. It was tough on them too," says Orchard, who returned stronger and better after two months of treatment.

He was back in the national squad, and recently took part in the Hockey India League here in February, representing eventual winners Punjab Warriors.

"I returned a changed man. The symptoms have not gone away completely but I am more in control of things. I know there can be times when I will fall over again, but this time I will pick myself up," says Orchard, who is now eyeing to represent Australia at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"My perspective towards life changed, I realised that there is more to life than just one’s career. I think it made me more compassionate towards life and people.

"I decided to share my story and also in future, I would like to help people who go through a similar struggle. If I can reach out to them and help them, it shall help me too."

The Asian Age