As part of my job at Pinterest, I am lucky enough to co-lead a powerful community group called Pinside Out. Through this work, I am connected with amazing people around the world who are also interested in sharing their personal experiences around mental health. One of those fantastic people is Dublin-based Conor Sharkey. Conor, thank you so much for sharing your light with all of us. ❤️
BEVOYA: Conor, I am so excited that I got to meet you through our shared workplace of Pinterest. Can you tell me a little bit about how you landed there (I heard a rugby club was involved) and what you do now?
CONOR: Sure! I work as an Account Manager on the EMEA Sales Team in the Pinterest Dublin office, so I help new advertisers get up and running on the platform. I get to work with many and varied clients, as well as a ton of smart and suspiciously nice people! Before that I worked as the digital media manager for Leinster Rugby, a rugby club in Dublin that represents the province of Leinster in Ireland (the 12 county army!). I got to cut my teeth there and work across professional and amateur rugby – there were some amazing days I will honestly remember for the rest of my life.
BEVOYA: I’d love to know a little about your mental health journey. What are some of your earliest memories that you now realize are connected to mental health?
CONOR: I have a very vivid memory of walking home from Gaelic football training from a field at the back of my house and counting steps in multiples of five. One step equaled five because five toes on each foot. Makes sense, right? Counting, not stepping on cracks. Reach a certain number before I moved onto another part of the path. Looking back now I know that was a small, insidious part of my own brain developing the OCD I was eventually diagnosed with when I was 24. I haven’t totally weaned myself off this. But I’m very aware of it and know how these small compulsions can snowball into something much worse.
BEVOYA: What are your biggest “mental health moments” — can you tell us about a couple of your own personal turning points?
CONOR: The turning point came for me shortly before my 24th birthday. I was out with some friends but I was annoyed with myself. Hating myself. Just consumed by horrible thoughts. How worthless I was. What a terrible person I was. I remember locking myself in a toilet cubicle and bursting into tears. I couldn’t contain it. I went home and completely unloaded all of this emotion onto my parents and they were amazing. They just listened and wanted to help. I’m very lucky to have them. From there, we started to do something about it. I went to see my GP. He referred me to a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me with OCD. It was great to actually have someone tell you what the hell this was. So many things from my earlier years suddenly made sense. How I would be consumed by terrible, obsessive thoughts; I’ve died so many times in my head and given so many eulogies it’s almost funny, I’ve imagined the people I care about most suffering horrible fates. These obsessive thoughts turned into a self-hatred. That self-hatred developed into a mental and physical self-harm I didn’t at the time consider self-harm. In hindsight, punching walls and hitting myself was not exactly healthy behaviour. But I was hiding all of this from people. It just got to the point where everything boiled over and I couldn’t hide it from anyone else or myself.
I went on medication for 12 months after this and it was a game changer. I got better. I got a proper job. But really I just replaced my previous obsessive behaviours with a new one: work. This allowed the monster in my head to resurface and hide in plain sight. It was only years later when all of this boiled over again, and I was once again crying in my parents’ arms, that I resolved to take a different approach. I reached out to a therapist and just spoke. She was amazing. We dug into everything. The awareness of this that I never fully developed grew. To be honest, I never properly accepted that I had a mental health problem. I saw a psychiatrist, took some drugs, and the problem was solved! But it wasn’t. Not really. Now I fully appreciate what I’m dealing with. I never wanted to indulge in what I thought was tantamount to self pity. When really it was self preservation. That bad part of my brain trying to save itself while sacrificing me. No chance. I still have bad days, or bad weeks. My mood fluctuates. But knowing where that all comes from and tackling it head on – particularly with the help of my incredible wife – makes such a difference.
BEVOYA: What do you wish more people knew about OCD?
CONOR: That it’s not a byword for ‘liking things to be a certain way’. It’s not a personality trait. OCD affects my daily life, it’s never not there. It’s not the same as liking to alphabetise a book shelf.
BEVOYA: When you share your own story, who are you hoping to reach?
CONOR: Anyone else that even remotely feels like I do. I used to hate seeing famous people speak publicly about their mental health issues. I thought it was all very convenient and great for their profile. It was only when I engaged my brain and realised that I had the same issues that I realised how much comfort I take in hearing about people similar to me. Nothing makes me feel better. I used to think everyone was like me to varying degrees. Then I realised that was very much not the case But then from hearing other people’s stories, and talking more, you realise you’re not completely alone in this. I also hope it reaches people who still stigmatise people with mental health problems – ‘it’s all a load of made up rubbish, get on with it!’. How nice it must be to be you! I think the discussion scares a lot of people. Irish people in particular are not great at talking about this stuff – hence alcohol being at the centre of almost everything we do. But that’s steadily changing. We’ll get there.
BEVOYA: You are amazing, Conor. Thank you!