The JOE Interview: Bodybuilder Kevin Russell opens up on his battle against depression
When he was in his early teenage years, a run-in with a bully had a life changing effect on Kevin Russell's life.
Now 24 and one of Ireland's most accomplished bodybuilders, Kevin tells JOE about his years of struggle against anxiety and depression and how he hopes to help young men who have contemplated taking their own life.
When were you first aware that you were struggling with anxiety?
During my first year in secondary school, life was great. I’m a fairly outgoing, confident person and that shone through. I was popular, good at sports, athletic, life was going fine.
I got into my second year then and had a bit of a scuffle with a lad, and that’s how it all started.
Kevin gives a talk in aid of the charity Help Ireland
This lad proceeded to just torment me. As a bully he probably thought nothing of it at the time, he probably thought I was just another victim, another lad to scare the shit out of but for me – at such a vulnerable age – it felt as if any time I was socialising, or anything like that, he’d just appear out of nowhere. Any time I used to go up for lunch, up to town, I’d see him and his posse and that was when the anxiety started.
I used to get this surging feeling in my stomach, I’d feel sick, dizzy, sweats, I couldn’t breathe. It seemed like any time I did any kind of socialising – left the schoolyard, went to the cinema, went to anything, he was there.
Then, in turn, I just stopped doing these things. I started being a loner. I used to avoid going to sports for fear of bumping into him. We were allowed to leave school for an hour every day but I couldn’t leave because I knew there was a chance of him being there.
I used to come home and tell my parents I hated my life, I was miserable, I couldn’t live my life at all because I was just overcome with this anxiety, brought on by this bully.
How old were you at the time?
I was about 14, 15.
My parents had to bring me to counselling in the end because I was in such a bad way. They didn’t know what to do. I remember telling a teacher and he did nothing about it either.
Still to this day, the thought of bullying, I hate it so much. This guy is grown up now and it probably doesn’t even come across his mind. But he had such a profound effect on my life when I was younger. Those days should be free, nothing worrying you at all, but that was two years just taken away from me.
All you need when you’re going through a tough time is a ray of hope or positivity.
After third year I got picked on to the Connacht rugby academy which, to me, was a huge deal. I was really into rugby. I’d played since I was eight, there was a big sense of accomplishment.
Would you say that, working with the academy, is where your love of exercise came from?
You can visit Kevin Russell's fitness page on Facebook here
We have a home video of me when I was 3 or 4 years of age; my dad was going through some crunching exercises and press-ups. From that age I used to do those religiously every single night before I went to bed.
There was one time in a rugby game when I was younger I got kicked in the back and they had to carry me off the field because my back was so bad. I tried to do my press-ups that night but I couldn’t because my back was so sore.
From such a young age I had an obsession, or addiction, to push the body. When I got on to the rugby Academy that’s where my real love for the weights training came from.
How did you discover bodybuilding?
That was when I was coming out of my roughest period. I was in college and I was repeating my second year. I had failed second year, deferred it for a year, and was failing it again. And this time I was actually trying. This time there was this huge pressure and anxiety taking control of my life.
I just felt as if my life was over.
I was going nowhere and I ended up typing ‘natural bodybuilding Ireland’ into Google and the Facebook page came up – the NBFI (Natural Bodybuilding Federation of Ireland) came up. It was its first year running and at this stage the only satisfaction I had in life was going to the gym, and training.
Before I saw this I was training with no goal and it felt as if my life and future were directionless. When I found this I figured it was the one thing that I was actually good at, this could bring some happiness and prosperity to my life. It gave me that direction.
And how did it go initially?
I came second (in the All-Ireland Under-80kg category) in my first year, in 2013 and then I came first in 2014.
I think I got more satisfaction out of coming second purely because it was a 360-degree turn in my life at the time. I had been at rock bottom so it was incredible. The biggest thing for me at the time was when I put it up on Facebook that I was going for this, I was bombarded with texts and mails saying, “Fair play Kev!” and “All the best!” and that for me was just amazing.
I never realised how happy people were for me and how much they supported. Facebook is normally so fickle and there’s no real happiness from getting hundreds of likes of your status, but when people were messaging me personally it really just gave me a huge boost of confidence.
I realised that people do love me, so that was really amazing.
Can we talk about your lowest ebb, failing college and repeating it again – describe your relationship with people and how it changed at that time.
The statistics show that there are a lot more women that suffer with depression but the suicide rate is much higher in men, which is just a f***in’ horrific statistic. I was lucky that I had my mam who was always there to listen to me.
I’m an emotional enough person and then I hit this low. There was a lot of stuff going on in my life, a lot of changes, and then going into second year and failing again meant I started become overwhelmed with anxiety.
It’s just like quicksand. The more you try and wriggle and get yourself out of it, the more you tell yourself to cop on and look at the positives, the more difficult it becomes. There’s nothing you alone can do about it – the only thing you can do is get help.
If you had a flu, or a toothache, or anything like that you’d go to a doctor or a dentist and you’d get help. But with a mental illness, people shrug it off as being something insignificant. They say it’s not a viable illness but it’s actually so much worse than a lot of them.
People try to cover it up, they bottle it up, they let it manifest into something far bigger than it has to be and that’s where the trouble starts.
Was there a moment of clarity for you that made you realise you needed to get help?
Coming into my Christmas exams in 2012 there was just a huge amount of pressure building. I’d told myself I’d done enough and I went into one exam I’d worked my ass off for. I ended up just having an anxiety attack and failed that exam.
I actually managed to pass the other ones, but there was just overlying feeling of failure. Then from that day it just grew and grew and grew into these anxiety attacks. I would lie awake for the whole night, not even a minute’s sleep, I felt like I was having a heart attack, like I couldn't breathe.
It was just horrific.
I used to hate even meeting my best friends because I couldn’t relax. I didn’t feel like I was being myself, everything just became a struggle. Getting out of bed, anything that involved any kind of effort, at this time I was overcome with depression.
I’d cry at pretty much anything at this point.
I went to my GP and I was sobbing, saying, “I don’t know what the point of life is if I’m going to be miserable for the rest of it,” and he just said, “Kevin. It’s ok – you have depression. Lots of people go through it, it’s just a period in your life.”
The scariest thing for me, and it’s probably the same for everyone who goes through a mental illness, is that they think that that’s it for life. That they’re going to be miserable for the rest of their life.
That’s what I felt. I couldn’t understand what the point of life was if I was going to feel like this for the rest of it.
And now it’s two and a half years on from when I was at my absolute worst, and I feel invincible. I feel like I’m a new person, and I’m not even the person I was before I went through that dark period – I’m a different person from that.
How did you go about getting better?
For me, it was talking. It was getting as much help as I could. My mam was always listening. I talked to my GP a lot, I talked to counsellors in college. For a period I did take medication because I needed that at a point in my life. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I’ve never felt more incredible in my life but it’s a scary thing. What I want is for lads my age, going through something similar, to read this article and realise there’s a way through it.
There’s so much help there but you have to force yourself to actually get help.
Are you watchful for depression to come back again?
When you’re my age and you go through something like this, and you get through it, I feel so much less vulnerable than I ever was in life.
When you hit a low point like that it builds a kind of force around you, as long as you get the right help.
I know there’ll be bad days, but there aren’t going to be weeks or months or years. I’m just so much better, capable and stronger because of what I went through.
What advice would you give to others in a similar situation to what you experienced?
It’s the people who try to cover it up, and hide it, and not face up to their problem that are the ones that are going to struggle with it. Younger lads see it as a sign of weakness and it’s not at all.
I’ve met three lads going through something similar to what I went through. I met them for coffee and it was an exact replica of how I was feeling, their thought processes were the same, and it was such a release for them to get things off their chest.
I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve overthought something, and it’s become a huge situation in your head. Then you say it to your friend and they say, “you’re completely overthinking the situation – look at this, this and this,” and that becomes such a release.