Gary Ferry on one of his many walks.
Today is my birthday, which means that I am one of the few, so far, to have spent two birthdays in lockdown.
Your 40th birthday is always supposed to be a special one, a memorable one, where you celebrate in a way you wouldn’t celebrate any others – just to prove to yourself that you’re still quite young, when the truth of the matter is that your best days are probably behind you.
This time last year I had taken a week’s holidays in honour of my big day, and I had plans, big plans – but they were wiped out by something none of us has never experienced before, and I’m not talking about a warm day in Derry or a job offer with WWE.
Covid-19 had arrived a few days earlier and we were all living with the fear of the unknown. We weren’t allowed to visit our friends or family, we were only allowed a certain distance from our own houses and we were advised to start wearing masks.
It was scary stuff at the time.
So instead of going for a day away, planning a two-hour massage, or even going to the cinema (all good options), I was sat on the sofa playing FIFA 20.
I was in the middle of winning the Champions League, and breaking Barcelona hearts yet again, when my phone rang. The long and short of that call was this – I was put on furlough for ‘six weeks’.
This was devastating to me as, mingled with the fear of the virus, everything was collapsing around me – It was easy to catastrophise in that moment, and I did suffer for a few hours, thinking my job was gone – what a 40th birthday present.
As a sports reporter, I knew I was up against it. How could I do my job when there was no sport to cover? Yet for it to all happen so quickly took me by surprise and I was shocked and hurt by the sudden change in my circumstances, professionally and personally.
Something I have learned over recent years however is that it’s all about mindset. We only give power to our thoughts depending on how we react in any given situation. It is natural to be upset, and afraid, but if we can bounce back quickly, we are all the better for it.
If we can stop those irrational thoughts in their tracks and look at situations more realistically, we have a better chance of coping with bad news. It is difficult, but a healthy habit to get into.
Talking to a friend, a partner, a family member – anyone really, about how you feel can help massively, even if your instinct is to hide away and let those thoughts carry you away. Talking is what I did, and with supportive words from a few good friends,
I faced the situation head on.
Those six weeks, which ultimately turned into three months, were some of the best weeks I have had in years.
It is easy to forget how to live these days. If we’re not rushing to leave the wains at school, we’re rushing to work, worrying about bills and running errands of all sorts – we tick all the boxes of how we’re all supposed to spend our daily lives.
Having three months off with no deadlines, no pressure, no work-related stress was alien to me, so I did something I hadn’t done regularly in years.
Remember the weather in the first lockdown? It was perfect. So I took a book off my neglected bookshelf, and I walked the back roads around Sheriff’s Mountain. Every time I told someone I was out walking/reading they thought I was mad and that I was a cert to be plowed down by a passing car if I wasn’t careful.
That didn’t stop me – I took my sweet time about it, and I read as I walked and I walked as I read. I spent hours on those roads, getting fresh air that I hadn’t experienced in years, and catching up to something I have loved all my life in reading. I would find a nice spot and sit in the sun and read and then I would walk some more.
The Covid circumstances aside, it was perfection. And I’ll tell you another thing. When Covid hit I was in agony with my leg and hip, so much so that it was a real struggle to get up off the sofa or walk up a set of stairs. It had only been getting worse.
Within a few weeks of walking every day – and I’m not talking ridiculous miles here – the pain had gone completely and I was like a new man. I may have looked like a hobo with a multi-coloured beard, but I was feeling better, physically and mentally, than I had in literally years.
I remember saying it then and I’ll repeat it now – it felt like my life was on hold, and I was all the better for it.
I know people will empathise with that. I had been putting too much focus in the wrong areas and I was suffering because of it. My priorities were all wrong.
We’ve all heard of self-care, but do we understand what it means? For me it was walking, reading and fresh air, something that I could have realistically done every day. I had just forgotten how to do it, or more accurately, that I needed to do it.
I felt like Morgan Freeman at the end of the Shawshank Redemption – walking those Maine roads as he fulfilled his promise to his friend Andy – I felt the freedom that only a free man could feel. And I was free – for the time being.
If I wasn’t walking with my book, I was walking with my wains, and it I wasn’t doing either of those things, I was walking with friends, social distancing of course.
I knew I would get the call to return to work, and I knew I would be devastated when I did. That came in June and I was back at it – but I was back at it with a new attitude- even if it took me a while to get fully back at it – I can still have pride in my work and do a good job without making it the be all and end all.
If Covid has taught us anything, it is the importance of ourselves, of our family, and of friends we’ve lost and friends we still have. Those are really the only things that matter.
I started this piece aiming to reflect on the difficulties of a sports reporter working in a world with no sport. That has been hard – but it has also been rewarding. So many local teams have gone above and beyond to help out in the community, and their creativity in keeping themselves fit and active over the past year has been inspiring.
That team spirit has never wavered despite the lack of competition, and there have been so many examples of the importance and the power of sport in our lives.
Sport itself is self-care. Training is self-care. Being with team mates is self-care. Covid has tried to take that and so much more away from us, but, as we see a small light at the end of a long tunnel, we know that it has only strengthened us.
For me, that strength came simply from rediscovering something which I had lost.
For you it could be music, running, painting or swimming.
Whatever it is, when this finally comes to an end, please make room for it. Please remember what it is about life that you actually enjoy. It’s not a race to get the bills paid or the wains to bed so you can relax for a few hours.
It’s about making time for yourself, doing what’s right for your mind and your body and enjoying ourselves while we’re still young.
I’m back at work a while now, but I am still making time for walking – it really clears the head and blows the cobwebs of a day aside.
I’m now 41, but as long as I can walk those roads and read my book (now I need glasses), I’ll be doing myself a massive favour.
Take care of yourself, every day. No one else is going to do it for you.
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