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'It's dark, but there's light at the end of the tunnel' - Sarah Taylor

Retired England star joins forces with Sussex Cricket to help those suffering mental health issues

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
At its worst, Sarah Taylor's anxiety left her unable to get out of bed, struggling to breathe and "panicking constantly". It effectively ended her illustrious cricket career after 226 appearances for England.
At its best, Taylor's anxiety is highly manageable. She makes sure she is getting enough sleep, she prepares thoroughly for looming challenges to avoid any last-minute rushing about that inevitably sparks panic, and she talks about it.
Initially, speaking up was the first step in a long path to reaching a place where Taylor, regarded as one of the greatest wicketkeepers in the game - male or female - feels much better. Now she talks to help others.
"When I look back at it, I felt quite alone," Taylor says. "I didn't realise what I was going through, the severity, I just knew that this was how I felt, and no one was helping me, it was just how I was feeling.
"I think if I was more aware, and I knew what I was going through and actually knew that other people were going through the same thing, I probably would have been a little bit better off, picked up some of their ideas of how they're dealing with certain situations, because I did feel very alone."
Taylor wants other people who are struggling with mental health issues to know they are not alone. So when Sussex, the county she represented for 15 years before her retirement in 2019, decided to launch the Sussex Cricket Mental Health & Wellbeing Hub, she wanted passionately to be involved.
"People that go through those experiences, I would love for them to know it's dark, but there's light at the end of the tunnel"
Sarah Taylor
The free online platform features thousands of short videos where people from all walks of life - including Taylor - talk about their own experiences of dealing with a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, addiction, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder along with other health and wellbeing topics.
It is an initiative borne out of a desire to help the community deal with issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak. Office of National Statistics data from June 2020 revealed that nearly one in five adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the coronavirus pandemic, nearly double pre-pandemic levels.
Taylor's message to those who are struggling is simple.
"Share," she says. "You have to. It seems quite basic to just say, 'just talk about it'. And sometimes the hardest thing is exactly that.
"I know that I felt best in the team once I'd admitted it, that there was something wrong, and that I was open about what I was feeling. It's just it's nice to know you're not alone, that was the big thing for me."
The power of shared experience is the underlying principle of the hub, and while Taylor's calm on-field demeanour, lightning reflexes and stunning natural talent hid a torrent of inner turmoil for a long time, she is now "an open book". The story she shares is frightening, heartbreaking and inspiring.
"I just finished playing in 2016, I took a break, and I couldn't get out of bed," she tells ESPNcricinfo. "I was anxious about everything, going downstairs, going to the shop, opening the window. I needed to stay in my own space.
"I was just panicking constantly throughout the day, in my own way, I couldn't get my breathing right. It was tough, it was tiring, it was exhausting. You're not sleeping, you've got insomnia, that was at my worst. And I was probably like that for about three or four months.
"It was a really tough time and I was just struggling with the concept that I wasn't a cricketer anymore, but I knew I needed help and who was I?
"It was a very, kind of, mush brain moment that I think people need to know about and you know, it's okay, that was fine and I got through it and I'm back full circle, I'm completely fine.
"People that go through those experiences, I would love for them to know that, you know, it is dark, but there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Taylor credits former Sussex and England team-mate Georgia Elwiss with asking the question that made Taylor herself question what was happening to her.
"During an England tour, [she] came to my room and said: 'Is everything all right? You've been in your room, you've had room service, like for two weeks, what's going on?'," Taylor recalls.
From there, it was only a matter of time before Taylor would reach a point where she felt she had to ask for help.
"I was getting ready to go and play a cricket match for Sussex and I couldn't do it, I couldn't get in the car, I couldn't put my bag in the car, I couldn't do anything." Taylor says. "That was the moment where I reached out to the physio at England and said, 'there's something wrong here, I think I need help'.
"It was an amazing response from her to say, 'brilliant, that's what we needed, let's go'. Because you can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped. And you have to wait for them to get there to realise that it's their decision, they want to get help, so they'll respond to it better. That was it for me. I basically made the call and England were amazing."
Taylor also recalls that it was Mark Robinson, the England Women's coach at the time, who first used the word "anxiety" in relation to how she was feeling. From there, the team had information sessions on the subject and learned how to look out for her and each other. And Taylor learned she was not alone as her team-mates began opening up about their own mental health battles.
After taking that initial break from cricket in 2016, Taylor returned the following year, helping England to victory at the World Cup. But as she found her anxiety spilling into her cricket once more, she decided to retire in 2019 at the age of 30.
These days she works as a sports and life coach at Bede's School in Eastbourne, albeit on furlough now after the pandemic forced schools to close.
These days Taylor finds talking easy.
"Now you can talk to me about it because I don't think it's strange," she says. "It's me, this is who I am, so you don't need to think that it's strange and that's how I think it should be."
The Sussex Cricket Mental Health & Wellbeing Hub can be found here.

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo