‘I LET THIS THING OWN ME’: REILLY OPENS UP ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
Mike Reilly’s story as told to CFL.ca Senior Writer Chris O’Leary
Sometimes in life, the big moments are obvious. I can think of a ton of them off of the top of my head: The day I met my wife, Emily; the day we were married and the days our daughters, Brooklyn and Cadence were born. There was the day I signed my first contract in the CFL and when I signed the last one that brought me back to BC. There was the day we won a Grey Cup in Edmonton.
You watch your friends and family members grow up, get married and move through life. There are Thanksgivings and Christmases. When those moments happen, you know. The mental snapshots you take on those days stick with you forever.
And sometimes life sneaks up on you like it blew past your left tackle and got a good five-step start for a blindside hit.
I can tell you the day that life got me: January 18th, 2018. A week before my 33rd birthday.
You could say that we had a lot going on. Brooklyn was still just a baby. We’d just found out that Emily was pregnant with Cadence. We’d been talking about it before we got that bit of good news, but we were outgrowing our home in Seattle. We’d been to a lender that day to talk about our options, if we should renovate or move to a new place. Emily will say it now that Cadence is here, but she was a little hormonal that day and when you talk enough about money and babies and change, it gets stressful and tense. It was getting late and to be honest, I was glad this crazy day was finally over. Emily was brushing her teeth and I got into bed.
It hit me as soon as my head hit the pillow. The only way I can describe it is a full-blown panic attack.
I can’t even say that my heart was racing. It was like it was trying to beat its way out of my chest. It was racing faster than I’d ever felt it before.
It felt like everything was kind of closing in around me. I couldn’t breathe. I honestly in that moment thought I was going to die. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
I felt frozen, like I was stuck in my bed. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything and I thought that was going to be it. I thought I was going to die. I remember ripping myself out of the position I was in and rolling over, turning the light on, terrified.
I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what the hell was happening. It felt like it lasted an hour. It probably lasted 20 seconds. Probably not even.
Emily came in from the bathroom and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what caused that, I’m still feeling the effects of it and I don’t want to close my eyes. If it happens again I am going to die.’
I remember telling her, ‘Let’s turn the TV on and let’s pick a show and just watch it.’ I remember thinking, ‘I just don’t want to lay back down. If I lay back down and close my eyes, I will die right there.’
We stayed up and watched the show, I think it was Grey’s Anatomy, until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Obviously I didn’t die but when I woke up in the morning, whatever had happened that night, it was all I could think about. I had no idea what was wrong with me and I didn’t know what I had or what was inside of me. But this thing owned me.
This was a really hard thing for me to deal with.
I’ve been voted the toughest player in the CFL for what, the last five years? I believe my toughness is one of the biggest strengths I have.
I don’t think I’ve ever considered myself someone that’s a physical specimen, athletically. I have a strong arm, I can run around a little bit, but in my opinion what makes me great at what I do is my mental preparation and the toughness that I have. That’s part of who I am.
I’ve always felt like no matter what it is, I can overcome it if I work hard enough and if I’m just mentally tough enough. I felt the same way about this.
As scared as I was that night, I went into that tough guy mode as soon as Emily walked into the room. I put up that facade for a good two weeks. I thought if I acted like everything was OK, it would eventually be OK. And I can tell you now that was a huge mistake, because I was far from OK.
I look back on it and I know that I was going through something that lots of people in all walks of life go through. That’s why I want to talk about this now, so that people know they’re not alone and that when it comes to mental health issues, we need to be in it together. But at that point, I was determined to figure this out myself.
As soon as we got that next day started I realized right away I was off. I wasn’t normal at all. I felt like I was in a fog, like I was working in slow motion. I didn’t feel right at all.
We dropped Brooklyn off at daycare and Emily had a bunch of errands to run for work. I didn’t want to be at the house by myself so I told her I’d ride with her and sit in the car while she made her stops. She didn’t know it but I just didn’t want to be alone.
I just felt worse and worse as the day went along.
I couldn’t get my thoughts in order. I couldn’t fight through whatever it was that I was going through and that was causing me a tremendous amount of anxiety. I don’t remember feeling a day that anxious in my entire life. I was just terrified it was going to happen again. I didn’t know what triggered it so I didn’t know what might trigger it the next time. I spent the entire day just scared it was going to happen again.
At some point that afternoon, I couldn’t take just holding it in anymore so I kind of told Emily what was going on. I hoped that if I talked to her about it at least if something happened she could take me to the hospital and tell somebody what was going on.
This was the first time I caught myself talking about it but not fully disclosing everything.
I didn’t want to get into detail about it. I didn’t want to think about it in detail because I was concerned that it would trigger it happening again. We talked about it a bit but I don’t think she knew how severe it was making me feel.
I didn’t tell her I thought I was going to die last night; I just told her that I felt really weird.
“We need to talk about it a lot more.”
As Mike Reilly opens up about his mental health, those closest to him talk about ending the stigma:
Pat Reilly, Mike’s dad:
“My generation needs to wake up. If Mike had said something to me, the response from me would have been, ‘Deal with it.’ That’s all we knew, is deal with it. Mental issues were something that (we dismissed, like) so what? We need to wake up. We need to understand. I’ve had a couple of minor issues in my life, nothing like this, but when I got my degree in social science I woke up, I saw these issues. They’re hidden issues, they’re issues that nobody wants to talk about. We need to talk about it a lot more.”
Emily Reilly, Mike’s wife:
“I honestly did not know what to do or say (when he said what he was dealing with). I think part of the challenge is with support systems. It really needs to become a normal thing you can talk about and get help for and not have that stigma and move on. Not only going through it but for those around it need to understand where to go to get their loved ones help.”
Beau Reilly, Mike’s brother and a psychologist:
“I think it’s critical (to get past an inability to talk about mental health). It’s one of those things where you need stakeholders and flag bearers who come out and talk about this experience. I think we need more male professional athletes that step into this role and say, ‘Yeah, this stuff works for me.’ I think it’s going to make a huge difference for the next generation of kids, our kids growing up. I think it can really add to that momentum.”
I did the same thing a few days later when I still felt terrible and was having a couple of panic attacks a day. I called Nate Hay, the Eskimos’ head athletic therapist and wasn’t completely forthcoming. I told him that something was going on here, but I wanted it to be a physical issue. We don’t get a lot of sunlight in Seattle, so I hoped it was a vitamin deficiency, or something in my blood, or something to do with my diet.
I spoke with Nate and he put me in touch with Dr. Dhiren Naidu, the team’s lead physician. He was my primary doctor for six years, for every injury, every incident I’d ever had. We had a long conversation but again, I didn’t tell him everything. I didn’t want this to be a mental health issue. I wanted it to be literally anything else.
The one thing I didn’t want was for this to be tied to football. One doctor asked me my history and as soon as he found out I played football he said I had to get a brain scan done. That’s probably one of the reasons why I haven’t talked about this publicly, because I think people sometimes jump to conclusions which can be uninformed or unfair.
It had been five years since I’d felt off mentally from a hit, but as soon as I talked to anybody about what I was going through I didn’t want them to chalk it up to, ‘Well, you play football. You must have a brain injury.’
To their credit, the Eskimos were extremely supportive and Dr. Naidu stayed on top of every bit of information I was giving him. I wanted them to fix whatever was wrong but I didn’t want to tell them what was actually wrong.
The day after my birthday I had blood drawn. Shortly after we had a dietitian come to our home and write me up a food plan. If I was just direct, I could have been sent straight to a mental health expert and they could have given me the tools necessary to deal with this. I didn’t do that, though. I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to feel a certain way about me. When my bloodwork came back completely clean, I was kind of devastated.
I look back on it now and I think about the stigma around mental health and talking about it. I was literally at a point in my life where I was hoping to God that there was something wrong with me physically, because if it wasn’t physical I was dealing with something mental and I didn’t know how to deal with that.
So I continued to let this thing own me.
It had been almost a month of going through this every day. Almost a month of not feeling right, of knowing that when I woke up in the morning that at some point I was going to have this panic attack. That something, anything was going to set it off.
I figured that by this point it wasn’t going to kill me, but it’d be extremely uncomfortable and that this feeling was going to just be a part of my life now and I’d have to deal with it. Do you know how limiting that is? I didn’t want to be alone, didn’t want to go out in public. I worried if a team knew about this, that they wouldn’t trust me to lead their organization. I felt trapped.
When I look back at it, what’s sad, the reality of it is I had more tools at my disposal than 99 per cent of the population. That’s not just being a professional athlete that has a team of medical staff to look after him. My brother is a psychologist.
Before he had almost an alphabet full of titles behind his name — his professional name is Beau Reilly, PhD, ABPP, ABPdN and he’s a paediatric neuropsychologist about a half-hour from Seattle — he was the starting quarterback on our high school football team.
We were playing in a mud bowl kind of game one time and Beau took a huge hit. His mouthguard went flying and disappeared in the slop on the ground. They wouldn’t let him play without one, so I ran from the sideline, pulled the mouthguard from my helmet and told him to open wide. I was the only player on the team that could do that for him and I did it without thinking twice. He’s my brother and today he’s one of my very best friends.
So all these years later, I needed his help.
We took Brooklyn out to dinner one night, Emily and I. We parked at this Mexican restaurant and I told her that I needed to talk to my brother about this. She took Brooklyn into the restaurant and I called Beau and told him everything.
He sat there and listened. He said he’d protect my privacy but he’d talk to some of his cohorts about my symptoms. He told me he had a pretty good idea of what was going on. He gave me some tools, a way for me to handle certain things. The toughest one was that he wanted me to journal everything I was feeling when I felt an attack coming on, so I wouldn’t have to go from memory when I talked with him about it.
This was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt like when I thought about it and described it in detail that I was terrified I was going to trigger it. I told him I didn’t know if one of these things would kill me.
He told me first of all, no. I wasn’t going to cause myself to have a heart attack. I wasn’t going to die from this. It’d be extremely uncomfortable but I had to set aside some time every single day and just sit there and write down the thoughts I was having, the feelings I was having and start repeating them. Start consciously thinking about them. It was scary to think about facing this head on. I thought it would destroy me mentally.
Over the next two weeks, I did it. I’d sit down and write honestly about what I was thinking and feeling. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t actually trigger myself to have a panic attack. Once the fear subsided, it became a competition to me. I couldn’t make it happen. No matter how much I went through this exercise, I couldn’t force myself to have a panic attack.
I started looking forward to doing it. I’d spend 20-30 minutes to myself, verbalizing things out loud, all that kind of stuff. It made me feel so much better when it was done. I knew I wasn’t going to feel uncomfortable for the rest of that day. The days started to multiply and that fog that was around me? It finally started to clear up.
I didn’t feel like I was in slow motion. I hadn’t had a panic attack since I started doing these exercises and I felt like finally, I’d found a light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I was finally back to being myself.
That thing that owned me, I wasn’t scared of it anymore. If and when another panic attack comes back, I know how to deal with it and I know that this is not going to define me. This is not going to be my life, dealing with panic attacks daily and feeling like I’m living in slow motion.
I went through last season in Edmonton without any incidents. I’ve been symptom-free for over a year-and-a-half now. The more time that passes, though, I get mad at myself for how I handled things.
What’s really scary and really sad is the culture that we have and the way we look at mental health. It was a big reason why I didn’t talk with anybody about it originally and why I didn’t want to talk about it when I knew something was wrong. Learning how quickly actually talking with someone and getting some help resolved my issues just made me mad. It’s sad that I wasted a month of my life that I’ll never get back because I was too proud to talk with someone about it.
Before I decided to talk about this, there were probably less than a dozen people in the entire world that knew what I went through. But there’s probably a ton of people out there that go through things like this every single day.
It blows me away looking back on it. The league’s toughest player let his pride get in the way of solving a problem. I always say that I’m tough enough to overcome anything. I can play in the Western Final with a broken foot. I can play in the Eastern Final with a dislocated shoulder. I can do all these things because I’m mentally strong enough to do it, to deal with the physical pain. Mentally I can overcome anything. Then your mental capacity starts to question that and now it’s something that you can’t deal with and you’re terrified of it and you won’t get help for it.
A few months after I went through this, I read Kevin Love’s article on The Player’s Tribune.
If I’d have read that article before it happened to me, I probably would have reached out right away. The day that it happened, the morning after it happened, I probably would have said, ‘OK this is not an uncommon thing. If I talk to the professionals, they see it all the time and they can help me deal with it.’
Hopefully by me talking about it, someone else can read this and whether they’ve already gone through something or are currently going through it or they will in the future, have the mindset to say, ‘OK I need to reach out and get some help right now. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme.’
We all walk around and we have no idea what other people are going through. Everybody’s going through something. It can be extreme stuff but it doesn’t have to be and you may not know it. There’s nobody in my day-to-day life that really fully knew. I was able to mask it really well; I was able to mask it to my wife. She probably knew that something was a little bit off, but I was able to hide from her how much it truly was affecting me and how much it changed my life before I finally broke down and told her to the extreme of what was going on.
Sometimes we’re really good at figuring out how to mask things because we’re so terrified that people will put us in that box of, ‘You’re crazy. You’ve got mental health issues so you clearly can’t be a functioning member of society.’ I think it’s terrible what we’ve done with mental health in North America. It’s the same way in the U.S. as it is in Canada. There’s a stigma about it which I think is slowly being lifted but we’ve got a long way to go.
So in the spring this year, as the top points-getter in the Shaw player of the week poll for 2018, I was told I could make a $25,000 donation to a charity in my name. After everything that happened last year, after the toll that month took on me and how much it opened my eyes to this problem, I knew I wanted my donation to be related to mental health.
That money went to Foundry BC. They’re a provincial group that focuses on people aged 12-24 and act as a one-stop-shop for young people to have access to mental health care, substance use services, primary care, social services and youth and family peer supports. I want this to be the start of a partnership. I want to go and talk with the kids that use these services, maybe have them come to Lions games. I want them to know that anyone can need help from time to time and that they’re supported.
I was also recently randomly reached out to through the BC Lions by the ministry of mental health and addictions in BC. They have a program called Bounceback and they asked me to be an ambassador for their initiative. It’s a call-in and online service for people 15 and up that has the tools to help you if you’re dealing with any type of mental health issue: depression, anxiety, stress. You’ll see my face on some of their billboards and advertising for them soon.
I’m starting my 10th season in the CFL and I know I have a platform right now that I won’t always have. This is something that’s worth using it for. Even if this reaches one person, it’s worth it. Hundreds of thousands of people watched us play football last season and had no idea what I went through.
Whatever you do, whether you’re a football player or you’re the manager of your company or you’re a student thinking about what’s next for you in life, life is so fast-paced. There are so many things going on. I think everybody is dealing with something to some degree or another and if you’re not you probably will. It’s pretty naive to think you’ll go through life without some type of mental health issue affecting you.
We all sit there and think negatively about people with mental health issues and yet we all have them. We all deal with stress and anxiety to various degrees. I learned the hard way that the worst thing you can do is not get help, to think you can just deal with it on your own. So if you’re dealing with something, speak up. Ask for help. Take care of yourself.