Shannon Lynn: Scotland goalkeeper on mental health issues & partner’s death

Shannon Lynn was an unused member of Scotland’s World Cup squad in France last summer

The tattoos on the backs of Shannon Lynn’s arms read ‘oh yellow. everyday’.

The first part is a lyric from a song written by the Scotland goalkeeper’s sister. “What do I do when my mind is possessed with grey? I just want my bright side to radiate; oh yellow.”

“It’s about living your life to the fullest for every moment you can, and seeing something bright in every day that makes you happy or makes you smile,” the 34-year-old explains.

For Lynn these are not just words to live by but also a connection to Sarah, her girlfriend who died suddenly in 2008, just a year after the pair met.

Lynn remembers in vivid detail the night of 28 July that year. The night she last spoke to the “love of her life” who was taken from her, friends and family at just 22.

A weekend trip from university in Indiana, America, to her parents’ home near Toronto, Canada, escalated into a nightmare. What initially seemed to be flu rapidly became more serious and panic set in. An ambulance was called and – with both parents out of town – Lynn had to field questions from paramedics on the way to hospital.

Sarah, it turned out, had contracted meningococcal meningitis, the less common but more severe form of the infection. She was put into a coma and never woke up.

“The last thing I see is her having a seizure, the doctors cutting off her jeans, and then the door shutting in front of me,” Lynn recalls. “That’s the last time I saw her moving. I was standing there like ‘what the hell?'”

“It was 2am and her parents were probably only half an hour away from arriving. The doctor took me into a quiet room and said ‘Sarah’s really, really sick and if she does survive there’s a 99% chance she’ll be a vegetable.’

“I just broke down. Then, when her parents arrived, I had to tell them. And the whole time I thought it was my fault: ‘I should’ve known, we should’ve brought her sooner.’ I still struggle to this day thinking I could have done more.”

‘I was in turmoil with depression’

When doctors turned off Sarah’s life-support machine they allowed 15 minutes for a response. When nothing came, she was pronounced dead. Lynn was there at the end.

“She was the love of my life, and I will always love Sarah,” she says. “It took me a very long time to fall in love again, but in 2014 I finally did. I met Sandra. She has been my biggest supporter, my rock, my everything.”

Grief for a lost loved one can engulf anyone. But for Lynn, the struggle was compounded by the fact she was already battling mental health issues and an eating disorder, bulimia.

An obsession with being skinny, fragile self-confidence and despair forced her down a dark path. She returned to the apartment in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which she and Sarah had only just moved into. They had not even fully unpacked.

“I did not go into the bedroom ever. I slept on the couch and I drank vodka,” she says. “Somehow I was coaching, I was running and I was throwing up, and I was drinking more vodka and, somehow, I was going about like a robot.

“I was in total turmoil with depression. I didn’t know what to do.”

The chance meeting that changed her life

In the depths of despair, Lynn went to a trial to try to earn a professional football contract in America, and by chance met former Scotland defender Rhonda Jones.

Born and brought up in Canada with Scottish parents, she bonded with Jones, who suggested she go to Scotland. A year later, she did after being told Hibernian needed a goalkeeper for three months.

Despite a fresh start, though, her personal turmoil did not abate.

Lynn would get the bus from Glasgow – where she lived with her uncle – and meet team-mates at Harthill service station to travel to training. She would lie about the reason for a self-inflicted bruise, train, then return home. The football was a fleeting relief. She could not socialise without alcohol due to anxiety.

“When I was by myself I would curl in a ball and cry,” Lynn says. “I think if you spoke to a lot of people besides those who have seen me in turmoil, they would not know that I have been struggling with mental illness for a lot of my life.

“I connect with people, I’m quite sociable. So it even confuses me because I am really mean to myself. So I don’t need other people to see that. I’m not faking when I am happy or glad, or when I meet people and when I have a good conversation, but I’m just really, really not nice to myself.”

‘Football has saved my life’

Lynn was part of the Scotland squad that played in the 2019 World Cup in France

Throughout her struggles, football and family have been Lynn’s support. Playing the game she loves was not a cure in itself, but gave her focus and enjoyment in her darkest times.

Within two years of making the move in 2009, she had made her debut for Scotland in a 2-0 win against England at the 2011 Cyprus Cup. Fast-forward to 2019 and she was part of the squad that qualified for the World Cup in France.

“Throughout my entire journey and entire story it’s football that has always continued to save my life,” she says. “That is such a cliched thing but it’s totally, incredibly true.

“It’s what always got me to go out of my comfort zone. I moved to Scotland when I absolutely did not want to. No-one made me, but I wanted to play football.”

‘It’s taken me a while to face my fears’

Now 34 and having played and lived in Sweden for the last six years, Lynn is teetotal and more at ease than she has been in many years. But there have been setbacks along the way. The journey has not yet been completed.

“I’m an incredible worrier,” she says. “I live with OCD and anxiety, so there are so many pieces of the puzzle I’ve been working on. In the last five months I’ve done more work on myself than I ever have in my entire life. You have to start to try to like yourself and then believe you actually do.”

So what is her advice to others going through a difficult time?

“Look at yourself in the mirror and say something nice to yourself,” she says. “Say something like ‘it’s going to be a good day’ or give yourself credit. Don’t be ashamed to be honest about how you are really feeling.

“I have had continuous daily struggles with me for most of my life. I have always been very insecure and scared to be myself. It has taken me a very long time to get to this stage of being able to face all of my fears. But now I finally am.”

If you are affected by the issues in this article, help and support is available at BBC Action Line

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