Rory Girvan was depressed and anxious ... then he lifted a weight off his shoulders
A few years ago Rory Girvan was overweight, drinking too much and in despair. Now, to mark Men's Health Week, the Belfast gym owner reveals how getting fit transformed his life.
At first glance, champion weight lifter Rory Girvan appears to have it all ... he owns and runs his own Belfast city centre gym, Hench, which has produced a string of world class sports men and women, he is a successful athlete in his own right and has a devoted girlfriend.
But Rory (30) has fought a lifelong battle with depression, during which time his weight ballooned to 17 stone, he hit the bottle and would often lie in bed for days wondering if he would ever be happy or enjoy life again.
Now, though, he is the male mental health ambassador for charity Northern Ireland Mental Health Association and is backing their call during Men's Health Week, to encourage men to think about their mental health in a bid to improve it.
Rory, who was a competitive sprinter during his school years and has a degree in sport and exercise science, says: "Physical well-being and mental health are inextricably linked."
And, through his city centre gym Hench, which has produced both male and female champion weightlifters, he wants to channel all his knowledge and expertise along with his own personal experience, into helping men take care of their well-being - and giving them the tools to help them achieve this.
Rory narrowly missed taking the top title in the World Powerlifting Championships in November 2013, where he broke every record in his category, and is now the second best Irish lifter of all time. "I missed out coming first by 10 kilos," he says.
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A bigger challenge, however, has been understanding how to deal with crippling depression which first manifested itself when he was at grammar school.
Growing up he was always known as "the strong guy" due to his commitment to physical fitness and strength training - he played football and was an accomplished sprinter representing his school in competitions.
It was during his A-level year that Rory first experienced feelings he couldn't explain. "I had major problems with mood and concentration, and it was starting to affect my A-level studies," he says. "For the first time in my life I had problems with my attendance at school. There is a lot of pressure on you when you go to a grammar school, especially in Northern Ireland. I felt if I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer I wouldn't have fulfilled my potential."
He admits to brushing off the mood swings, putting it down to adolescent growing pains. "I told myself it was normal for a teenager and I should deal with it myself," he says.
But the confusing feelings persisted until Rory was in his early 20s, by which time he was studying biomedical science at Liverpool University.
"It wasn't until a few years later that it clicked what was happening," he says. "I was aware of depression and anxiety, but even then it seemed abstract to me because we all have issues that we need to work through, but I was barely functioning. I went to my own birthday party and the people there had no idea that I wasn't enjoying myself. I was also unsure about my future career - I just couldn't see myself running round in a white coat."
So, he decided to change direction, and began a degree in sport and exercise science in Edinburgh.
Even with a change of scene and away from the "toxic" environment he found himself in at Liverpool, a frightening incident made him feel as though he had reached crisis point. "I found myself in a street in Edinburgh having a panic attack. I didn't even know what was happening to me, I didn't know what a panic attack was then. I had to call my mum and dad on the phone. It was one of the worst times in my life. I had put on four stone and had stopped exercising and strength training."
The irony was that he had moved to Edinburgh to start afresh, but Rory says university life exacerbated his problems. "I had always trained since I was 15, but the environment at university was not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I was drinking too much and not looking after myself in Liverpool, so I went to Edinburgh to get away from certain influences and was working hard at my education as well as doing three jobs to support myself."
It took until his final year in university before Rory decided to see a doctor about the way he was feeling. "I probably should have done this five years earlier. I wasn't sure depression was a real condition, and like most men I was being hard on myself. I thought it was up to me to sort it out. I felt if I worked hard, pursued my career and ticked all those boxes in my life this would go away. I got to the stage where I was lying in bed for days when I was at my worst."
Even after completing his degree, he still lacked confidence, but took a sales and marketing job on his return to Belfast. "The job was sold to me as a high flying career but really it was just being a dogsbody, making telephone calls sitting in an office from 9-5. I was first into the office and last out at night - I was the martyr. I was working so hard in my first job doing 40-60 hours a week that I took shingles - my immune system was so impaired. It was the worst thing I could have done for my mental health. During this time I started running marathons because I wasn't enjoying work at all. It got to the stage that running after work was the only thing I looked forward to because that was the time when I was mindful (aware of what was going on around me)."
But things weren't improving for Rory who still felt low and simply wasn't enjoying his life or coping with his depression.
He starting drinking at the weekend due to his unhappiness at work. Again, he had another frightening episode when he burst into tears as he was driving on the motorway to a meeting.
The turning point came when he was fired from his job, after he had taken some time off to try and get better. "I was called into a glass walled office and fired in front of all my friends I had worked with. My bosses felt I had been using the D word "depression" to have time off work. I was going to take the decision to a tribunal, but I simply didn't have the capacity left to go through with it. I was at rock bottom. I had done everything right - got my education and worked hard at my career, now this was happening to me."
Rory knew he had important choices to make.
"When I was 18 I used to train my cousin who has Down's Syndrome at the local leisure centre. I had always informally coached my friends and family with their fitness and I wanted to do something with my degree in sport and exercise science," he says.
"I was sacked in January and by May 2012, I had opened Hench and by September I was the NI Heavy Lifting Champion. I expanded the gym in 2013, and at that time I was still trying to figure out how to help myself.
"At the start I didn't realise what a huge challenge it would be. It has been the hardest thing I've ever done but the most rewarding and restorative."
Now, Rory feels he is in the right place, both for himself and the people who come to Hench. "We have the most successful strength athletes coming out of this gym, including 10 national champions," he says.
He's an advocate of getting the right help, having had Cogniture Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
"I think CBT is one of the best things I have ever done. It gives you such an advantage both in life and in business," he says.
"It enables you to reprogramme your mind and get a realistic take on what is actually happening. I experienced its transformative powers when I went to another birthday party - and I enjoyed myself."
His message to those who may be suffering with their mental health is this: "There is an opportunity to make changes, you don't have to be the person you have been pigeon-holed as. There is a real relationship between physical strength and mental strength. Strong people make others feel strong. Physical training feels like part of my identity and I engage with it on so many different levels, that is why I want to pass it on to others."
While he is a champion weight lifter, Rory has no qualms about talking publicly about his depression, adding: "There is a strength in being vulnerable."
While he is reaching out to men, the College Street gym is anything but a macho haven.
"Some 50% of our members are women. They are great and it is so satisfying for me to see it when they succeed," he says.
Equally, he enjoys seeing anyone at Hench finding inner strength from physical prowess.
"When everything clicks with one of the members here, and they realise the connection between physical and mental well-being, I see them become comfortable in their own skin, the way they express themselves and take on challenges which are out of their comfort zone," he says.
Rory recommends a holistic approach to maximising well-being, including good nutrition and fitness. He also practices mindfulness and sticks to daily rituals such as meditation to maintain a healthy balance.
"We learn to eat bad food and have bad posture, our minds are always thinking about the next box to tick. We need to learn to appreciate the moment and what is around us, that is why meditation is beneficial. Children do this all the time when they are day-dreaming," he says.
He believes true physical fitness is not achieved without good mental health.
"I have trained hard before and I had abs, but I wasn't really strong. With strength training, you are not strong at all unless you are mentally strong. I encourage people to focus on how training makes them feel rather than the outer results and looking good. If you train hard you will look good anyway. The human body was designed as a machine for good nutrition, strength and mindfulness."
Rory is looking forward to the future with optimism and has a girlfriend, Ciara Bailey (26), from Dundalk, whom he describes as "the best thing that has ever happened to me". They met three years ago through mutual friends while holidaying in Ibiza, and have been inseparable ever since.
"I am happy now, and I can be happy in the future," he says.
He does expect relapses, but feels he will cope.
"The amount of personal growth I have experienced is a consequence of depression, then getting well," he adds.
Famous names who have fought depression
- Former UTV presenter, now lecturer, Lynda Bryans (52), first suffered depression more than 20 years ago following the birth of her first son
- Frankie Bridge (26) of The Saturdays admitted to her struggle with depression in 2012, saying: "I felt that I was worthless, that I was ugly"
- Former England cricket captain Freddie Flintoff (37) says he had to cut out drinking to help with his depression. His admission came while on the Australian version of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
- He said: "I suffer with depression and it (drinking alcohol) doesn't help at all. I just hit rock bottom afterwards. So you're far better without it"
- The actor Owen Wilson (46) is known for his laid-back and fun-loving attitude, but in 2007 it was revealed that he had attempted suicide at his California home. Some friends were shocked, but others said that Wilson, who was 38 at the time, had "battled his share of demons"