As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end, Wycombe Wanderers Ladies striker Tara Woodward reflects upon the game that she says, in more than one way, has saved her life:
In early 2018, after years of not feeling entirely 'normal' and living in fear of the unknown, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, social anxiety and generalised anxiety, and my world stood still.
However, a huge weight felt like it had been lifted off my shoulders; I was no longer in the dark about how I was feeling and things all started coming together. I started a course of CBT therapy and medication and adjusted the way I was living in order to try and get over this illness that had somewhere along the line, consumed everything I was.
I let my team and my coaches know as I didn’t ever want them to think that I couldn’t be bothered with football or for them to think that my commitment wasn’t there. Telling my family was the biggest challenge and I tried so hard to pluck up the courage to tell them and to this day I still kick myself that it wasn’t me who got the chance to tell them.
As I came to terms with what I was dealing with, I slowly came to realise that the doctor could prescribe me tablet after tablet and refer me for therapy session after therapy session yet they wouldn't come close to the one thing that had kept me alive prior to the diagnosis: football.
Football has always given me a purpose; people have always known me for playing football and I didn’t want this to change; no matter what gets thrown at me in life, nothing will ever come between me and my love for the beautiful game.
The moment I step over that white line, everything makes sense again - I’m there and I have a job to do and I’ll be dammed if I let this illness take that away from me. Football gave me the space to breathe and the mind space to forget the pain I was feeling mentally and focus on one thing only for 90 minutes.
Living with a mental illness isn’t easy, the voices don’t ever quieten and at the time of my diagnosis I was in the mind-set of sleep being my only way of escape. I didn’t enjoy doing anything other than being asleep or playing football; those were the only two ways to escape the horrible thoughts that occurred in my head. I told myself that I didn’t spend the past 16 years of my life making myself a better player, putting in practice after practice, hour after hour, for this illness to suddenly take that all away from me and turn me into someone I no longer knew. Football kept me going, gave me hope and showed me light that in all honesty, I didn’t think I’d find again.
I’ve started to become honest and open on my social media platforms as I came to realise I wasn’t alone and there was a hell of a lot of people in the same boat as me. I’ve learnt a lot more about mental illness but the biggest thing that has stuck with me is that it’s ok not to be ok. I have received some outstanding support from those around me whether it's family, friends, my boyfriend or complete strangers - the support unit around me is amazing.
Wycombe Wanderers have been amazing from day one and have always treated me as an equal and I have never been looked at as an outsider or been pushed to one side for being ‘different’.
My message to anyone out there who may be feeling this way is to talk. Talk until you can’t talk anymore. Talk to your friends, your family, colleagues or complete strangers. When your hands are shaking and your lips are trembling, remember the tough times don’t last forever, even on the darkest of days, the sun will shine again and it will be so bright you’ll ask yourself how it was ever so dark.
There is still a lot to be done for people who suffer with mental illness; there is still a stigma attached and it’s our job to challenge that stigma and to create a world where no individual is looked at differently because of their mental illness. You are not your illness and you never will be; you are not flawed because of this, you deserve to be here, you are worthy of care and love even on your worst days, your existence matters and this world needs you. But, most importantly, you are not alone. Speak up and reach out, it will be worth it.
Thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with me. Recovery is not easy but so far it has been worth it. Not every day is a good day but every day is a chance to wake up and realise what this world has to offer.