‘Like death with a heartbeat’: eventer who came back from the brink speaks out on mental illness

  • A former eventer who described the mental illness he battled for nearly 20 years as “death with a heartbeat” is determined to help prevent others enduring similar experiences.

    Tom Robinson, who won the 1996 national junior championship when he was 17, and was on the gold medal-winning British team at the junior European Championships the same year, writes a blog and has written a book about his experiences.

    Tom told H&H he does not know how he survived the darkest times of his illness, which first reared its head when he was in his early 20s.

    “When I left school, I went into eventing full time,” he said. “I had the yard at home, and my parents’ support – I started getting owners, and everything was great.”

    By the time he was about 23, Tom had had great success at national level, including winning the novice championships at Gatcombe. But his mood started to mirror the highs and lows of equestrian life; from winning national titles one day, to a lame horse the next.

    “It was more than the average person was but I didn’t really identify that until things started to get bad,” he said. “Depression and mental illness weren’t really talked about then; the doctors said I had glandular fever.

    “I was so tired; couldn’t get out of bed, but they did tests and just told me to carry on. I did, thinking if I got to the end of that season I’d be ok but the more I pushed myself, the worse it got; anxiety creeps in because you know you can’t do it.

    “I felt guilt like you wouldn’t believe — there are people starving but I’ve had so many opportunities, how dare I feel like this — which is when you often lose people, at this stage of depression.”

    Tom had a breakdown, and was diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants.

    “Then I went to Le Lion d’Angers and won a bronze medal in the seven-year-old championship,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been near a horse but people were saying to go, it would do me good.

    “I was crying in the lorry, not wanting to talk to anyone, suffering terrible side effects from the pills and terrified of things like forgetting the dressage test.”

    Tom said proving to himself that he could succeed in the depths of depression helped him find his way out of that first episode.

    But over the next few years, although he competed at Badminton and Burghley, kept the ride on his horses and enjoyed success, the episodes of depression returned, again and again. He was given “everything” in terms of drugs, but nothing helped.

    “I’d be living in my bedroom for months at a time; 18 months I’ve done like that,” he said, adding that although he was able to compete between episodes, he found it very hard as he was functioning at a level below his capability; because “your true self is taken away”.

    Tom completed a journalism course in London, bought and sold some horses and did some coaching, but he was afraid to event again because he knew another episode would take it all away from him. From 2011 to 2013, he did manage to get two horses to advanced level, but then the depression descended again.

    “I don’t know how I survived because I was suicidal every waking moment,” he said.

    “When you’re depressed, you hate everything. When I walked on to the yard, I knew I couldn’t be that person; I couldn’t be Tom Robinson the event rider, and couldn’t do it to my full ability so I resented it and hated it.

    “Rational people don’t understand but the illness is so bad, it doesn’t feel survivable.”

    Tom was sectioned and spent three months in a psychiatric hospital. He came out in 2017, and spent 18 months in “hellish” depression.

    “It’s horrific and I don’t want anyone else to go through that,” he said. “I want the Tom of 20 years ago to be able to get the treatment I finally got.”

    In 2019, a friend recommended a private doctor.

    “The doctor took me seriously,” Tom said. “I said to my mum, ‘this man will be enough to save my life because he understands’.

    “It took me a year with him, and a year to get my confidence back, because I’d been completely broken. If I’d been 20 now, it would only have taken weeks but I’ve been so damaged.

    “Every day, I’d be wondering if that was the day the depression would come back, and it’s taken me two years to say I’m in remission, and I’m me again.”

    Tom said his blog, Dying to Stay Alive, is there to help those with mental health issues, but also those other people, so they understand a bit more.

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    “This illness takes everything from you,” he added. “The physical things; you can’t compete or ride, you can’t love anything or yourself, the exhaustion of getting through brain fog from bedroom to bathroom is indescribable, my business is gone. But my passion is starting to come back. I’ve started riding again, and walking, gardening, listening to music. Things I couldn’t access for years have come back.”

    Tom wants to raise awareness in general about the seriousness of mental illness; he has been told in the past not to be self-indulgent, for example, which made things worse.

    “If you talk to the wrong person, you’ve had it,” he said. “People think it’s to do with circumstances, or horses, but it’s not, it’s a serious mental illness. It’s like death with a heartbeat.”

    Tom has not ruled out eventing again, if everything were in place, but he said his outlook is now different.

    “This illness has changed me,” he said. “I’ve lost everything through it; my career, my car, I’m camping in my sister’s spare room. But I don’t care, I’m all about helping other people now.

    “When you’ve been through this, just wanting to live is enough. I’ve spent so much of my life just battling to stay alive, just being ok with life is enough. But I’m not going to let someone else go through this, if I can help it. I can’t have survived this and just walk away.”

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