Feeling trapped by social stereotypes, Gavan Hennigan turned to drugs and alcohol.
Gavan Hennigan is a world-class athlete.
He's a 35-year-old ultra-marathoner who recently set an international record as the fastest person to row solo across the Atlantic in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. To put this in perspective, more people have been to space than have rowed the Atlantic.
In short, Hennigan is unstoppable.
But 14 years ago, things weren’t looking so bright.
Hennigan's childhood was rough. His father was an alcoholic. It made him a deeply angry person from a young age.
He found his solace in sport and nature. He grew up a few hundred meters from Ireland's Galway Bay and was an avid swimmer. He says his earliest memories involve time spent outdoors.
As a teen, Hennigan says he knew he was gay. But the uncertainty of what that meant for his future — and his harbored anger and the abandonment he felt because of his father — led him to find comfort in drinking around age 16. Later, he turned to other drugs and substances, including heroin.
Six years into his drug addiction, Hennigan found himself living in a squat in London. Trash bags were taped over the window to keep out the light and fresh air. He was completely disconnected from nature, the very thing that had always brought him comfort.
He moved back to Ireland and, at 21, began a rehab program. It was at this program that Hennigan decided to come out. Unfortunately, the brave moment was met with a homophobic response.
“The guy who I was sharing a room with specifically left rehab because he was sharing a room with a gay guy,” Hennigan recalls.
Hennigan attempted suicide after the six-week rehab program.
“I felt cornered. I felt like, ‘This seems like the only option to get out of the way I feel right now.’ A lot of it was the sexuality thing. You don’t just figure that out overnight,” he says.
The recovery process was not an easy one. Gavan found himself dealing not only with his addictions, but with the difficulty of being gay in Ireland through the '90s and early 2000s. His complicated feelings about his own sexuality made his recovery a series of fits and starts.
Hennigan began to surf on the west coast of Ireland. He credits much of his recovery to reconnecting with nature.
He also started competing in ultra-marathons, trekking across Siberia, scaling mountains, and eventually rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
“A lot of people comment that I’ve replaced one addiction with another, but I don’t see it that way at all," he says. "I see addiction as very damaging. I feel like I’ve tapped into some crazy energy within myself. It’s more about passion and trying to see the world and trying to experience as much as I can.”
Even though Hennigan's hashtag as he rowed across the Atlantic was #souloGav, he credits recovery to opening up to others.
Looking back, he saw that he was internalizing all of his negative thoughts and emotions, which allowed them to gain power and to seem larger than life.
“No matter how bad you think it is, talking about it to somebody takes the power out of it,” he says. Gavan clarifies that speaking his innermost thoughts is still not an easy task and that voice of doubt is still there, but it's much quieter than before.
“It's the absolute hardest thing. I’ll go out on the Atlantic Ocean in 30-foot waves, I’ll run 500 [kilometers] in the Arctic, but when I have to sit down with somebody and talk about my feelings — that’s 100 times scarier.”
Hennigan says he didn’t feel like he fit into any one societal stereotype — not of a gay man or of an ultra-athlete. But that's exactly why he wants to share his story.
He hopes that in talking about his life, young people who may be struggling with the similar identity or addiction issues can see that being a gay man or a recovering addict doesn’t mean you're just one thing.
“I want to share my story so other younger guys who feel like ‘There isn’t a guy like me out there' — there is.”