Bristol & England Rugby player and GiveBack athlete Sasha Acheson is no stranger to the limelight having played at both premiership club and country level. Sasha opened up about her injury in her first post. Read about the impact her life-changing injury had and how she got her confidence back.

Sasha A edit

My first major turning point was when I started a friendship with someone who is now incredibly close to me, and who confided that they had depression and anxiety. I was astounded that they were saying this, because they’re an absolutely incredible person in every respect, and I just couldn’t comprehend how they could suffer with that. The more they opened up, the more it made me think… I have that too. Speaking to them on a daily basis absolutely changed my life. They knew me away from rugby, they had no idea who I was as a person before, and we were speaking because of who I am, not who I used to be or who I was trying to be.

I gained confidence in taking my governing body, the RFU, up on the offer of help. I went through the process of talking to my sports doctor, and then getting referred to speak to someone. I was still reluctant to use the ‘D’ or ‘A’ word though.

Huge progress was made in training as a weight began to lift from my shoulders - having someone I could speak to almost in secret, who was out of the sporting loop and qualified to help me was of enormous benefit. The biggest struggle that I faced was that I had to be honest and let my guard down. I spoke to the psychologist and she made me realise how connected life is: how if you bury something, one thing affects the other. She also made me do a questionnaire, which I started to answer with bravado.... and then I had to go back and be honest about my feelings. The result from the questionnaire was that I was suffering from Depression and Anxiety as a direct result of a knee injury… I was absolutely mortified.

I asked lots of questions. It became apparent that depression is what made me want to stay away from the world, not caring about what anyone thought, but anxiety is the juxtaposed opposite – it makes you feel like you have a train going crazy fast in your head, you’re pretty paranoid of what other people think, and a combination of the two was pretty horrendous.

I had four sides to me: Sasha that everyone would see; Sasha at work; Sasha that was trying to train and rehab from injury, and the Sasha that was at home.

Talking helped. I talked more and more, and the more I combined the four different versions of myself, the better my life became.

So much has changed and happened, but there were three factors that were utterly liberating:

  1. Talking and speaking out- being honest with people I trusted. Being patient and trusting the process.
  2. Educating myself.
  3. Seeing results- being able to look back at a wall chart with a clean run of months of ‘productive’ days.

Even though I was making improvements I still felt like I had this secret, and with some peers I’d keep a front because I felt ashamed - I didn’t want anyone to see me as anything but strong. Having educated myself on depression and anxiety, I was so, so surprised to read about the following people:

  • Winston Churchill had depression- it was famously known as ‘The Black Dog’. If Winston Churchill hadn’t experienced the dark places his mind went to, he never would have had the insight to defeat the Nazis.
  • Edward Munch: He wouldn’t have been able to paint the famous painting “The Scream”.
  • Freud: another who wouldn’t have created his amazing works
  • Emily Dickenson: who wouldn’t have been able to write her famous poems
  • Abraham Lincoln – he had depression but was one of the most incredible Presidents of all time
  • If that wasn’t enough, even the ‘strong independent woman’ Beyoncé had depression years ago!

The penny absolutely dropped. Without those incredibly famous people going through what they did, they may not have achieved greatness. They achieved it because of their experiences mentally, not ‘despite them.

I realised I was not the only athlete who had been through this during injury. Opening up to some teammates, and having teammates approach me with their situations, it transpired there were occasions when they also needed help. I was astounded that they too could feel so low. It made me feel so much better knowing this was a normal way to feel, coupled with how much admiration and respect I have for them and the bravery they have to speak out.

Sasha Change of direction May 2016Going through depression and anxiety made me look deep into my being and what I wanted. When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. I accepted my situation, I made my choices based on my situation, and my priorities, and I regret absolutely nothing.

Since seeking help, I have not had a nightmare in about seven months. I’ve achieved things that wouldn’t have been possible had I not been injured, like being an athlete for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and starting my business Breaking Boundaries, with The Prince’s Trust. I have been supported by the RFU with the most phenomenal physiotherapist (who helped me beyond a knee injury, giving me focus and ruthless honesty in goal setting), a strength and conditioning coach – who I trust with getting me back onto a rugby pitch, nutritionist and the rest of the team, who on a rollercoaster journey have invested in me, and as a result, I absolutely refuse to let down.

Whether they know or not, my friends, teammates, family, and the medical team have been absolutely incredible in supporting me in this journey – and I owe them so much thanks. I have learnt patience, the value of support and random text messages. I do not have depression or anxiety anymore. I am back running now, and I am returning to rugby, and I am now in better condition than I was before. I strongly implore anyone who’s going through anything to talk about it. It’s absolutely not a weakness, it’s not something to be ashamed of, and the ‘taboo’ around it will only be abolished if we speak out. Statistics from the charity Mind state that one in four people will experience some form of mental illness EACH YEAR.

It does not define you, it’s not a tag to be carried around, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something you should fear, or stand back from. It’s not contagious, like a common cold. It is however, like a cold, something you go through, get through, and can get better from. No one ever said or felt burdened or ashamed or wanted sympathy from being sick– this is absolutely no different and should be treated in exactly the same way. If others get embarrassed, or awkward because of the subject – that’s absolutely their problem and you, as a result should not be subject to silence – there are people who can and will help.

Like any other illness, mental illnesses does not discriminate. I have learnt that because of all my experiences, not ‘despite’ them. I now know myself better than I ever did before, and for it all, no matter what happens, I am stronger, more resilient, enjoying the process and looking forward to pulling on my boots and wearing whatever shirt I earn next.