Everton in the Community’s award-winning mental health programmes have provided life-changing and life-saving support to people across Merseyside since 2007. The Club and its official charity want to increase access to care through The People’s Place, a proposed open-door facility on the Goodison Campus which will deliver a range of mental health programmes and enable signposting to other services.
To mark International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March, we tell the story of Vicky Harrison, whose life has been changed through EitC’s Girls on Side programme.
If you need mental health support or to find out more about The People’s Place project, click here. Donate to Everton in the Community. Text EITC31 £5 to 70070.
Vicky Harrison climbs to her feet and inhales sharply. She gathers up her water bottle, squeezes it tight and urgently quenches her thirst.
Harrison marches four or five strides, wraps each hand around the end of ropes splayed at her feet, and starts the process over again.
The same succession of forbidding exercises, at turns demanding, complex and outright painful, each completed with personal trainer Katie Sayer nearby; urging, encouraging. Demanding.
Harrison’s features are fixed with concentration. She smiles intermittently: sometimes wryly, in anticipation of what is next. But also when she catches herself, here, surmounting obstacles, embracing discomfort and releasing hurt.
“For me to be able to do this, to take on physical challenges… I can do several kilometres on a cross trainer, then do something else in the gym, and then something else… it is mind blowing,” says Harrison.
“I forget sometimes. People will ask me if I want to do something and my first thought is, ‘I can’t’.
“Then I realise, ‘Actually, yeah, I can’.
Vicky Harrison went to Goodison Park with mum Linda to watch Everton play Leicester City on 9 April 2017.
Mum and daughter had a set pre-match routine, not much different from the one they follow before occupying their Main Stand seats today: arrive early and make a beeline for one of Everton in the Community’s [EitC] Goodison Campus homes.
“We always go to The Blue Base, now, and have met some wonderful people there,” says Harrison.
“My anxiety prevents me from going to a pub or anywhere similar, it would be too crowded.
“Even to this day, there are very few places I can go on my own.
“Going into a big supermarket, I can be physically sick with anxiety.
“But I am comfortable going to The Blue Base with my mum and spending time with the amazing people there.”
Vicky and Linda made for The People’s Hub on that humid afternoon nearly two years ago. Harrison and mum parked themselves outside to absorb the early-spring warmth.
The weather is relevant because Harrison was dressed in short sleeves. If she wasn’t, then EitC Volunteer Manager Adam Howard would not have recognised marks indicative of self-harm when he approached Harrison with a view to signing her up to the charity’s People’s Lottery.
The pair never did talk about jackpots and the like. Rather Howard engaged Harrison in conversation about Girls on Side, the EitC programme launched in 2014 to support females across Liverpool living with mental health problems.
It is very common for people suffering poor mental health to rail against concerns for their well-being.
Harrison was tired, though, drained by the cycle in which she’d been trapped since experiencing an abusive childhood. Fed up with weighing 25 stone and dispirited by the constant back pain and medical cabinet jammed with tablets to manage various ailments.
She heard about Girls on Side and wanted to listen.
“Absolutely,” says Harrison. “I emailed Johnnie [Garside, EitC Health and Wellbeing Manager] as soon as I was home from the match.
“We met at the Hub and that was it.”
Harrison finds sanctuary today in a select group of places. She thrives in the cavernous gym where we meet and is comfortable in the company of her doctor. The click of a Goodison turnstile transports Harrison into another world where football is king.
Girls on Side is the thread binding everything together, the support mechanism sustaining Harrison.
“It has honestly changed my life,” she says. “I would not have achieved any of this without them.”
For all the programme’s instant appeal, Harrison had to hurdle an imposing mental barrier to get through the door.
The idea of Girls on Side prompted feelings of hope and fear in equal measure.
“Oh, yeah,” says Harrison, assertive, “I was absolutely terrified.”
Vicky Harrison thrusts her hands inside a pair boxing gloves. She stands square in front of a heavyweight punchbag, hung invitingly from the ceiling, and starts unloading.
The canvas crumples with each connection, straining to recoil before the next blow, every strike meaningful and sounding a dull thud.
“Vicky just keeps going, she will never quit,” says Sayer.
“She has achieved fantastic results in her fitness tests and weight loss and I am so proud of her. What she has achieved is inspirational.”
Harrison shakes her head on hearing she was talked about in such glowing terms.
“It is a bit daunting, it hasn’t really sunk in, to be honest,” she says. “If you have mental health problems, your default mindset is to doubt yourself: ‘Have I really done this?’
“For other people to recognise your progress…”
Harrison pauses, considers how to handle praise.
“You appreciate, ‘That is a fair achievement, what you have managed to do’,” she says.
“But without the support of EitC – and all the wonderful people there – it would not have happened.”
Harrison is engaged in round two now, feet planted, raining shots on the defenceless punchbag.
Distraction arrives in the shape of Graham Stuart and Ian Snodin, the two Everton Ambassadors preparing for an assault on the gym’s exercise bikes and unwittingly stumbling into the middle of some Club filming.
Reassured they are not the subjects of a ruse to capture their fitness drive on camera, the pair’s attention turns to Harrison, a thin film of sweat developing on her Everton jersey as she maintains a furious punching rate.
Their eyes widen as they listen to a synopsis of Harrison’s story, of how she has shed 14 stone and overhauled her life.
Harrison saw these two playing for Everton, admired both.
“I get to go in the gym and watch Ian Snodin and Graham Stuart get a sweat on and think, ‘I’m beating them’,” Harrison would chuckle when she sat to reflect on a transformative two years.
“Little things like that are amazing.”
She shares a word with the pair. Mid-workout, though, Harrison is not for hanging around too long.
In any case, Sayer is inching towards a bulky piece of machinery.
This is a duo on a mission, united after Harrison was “inspired” to nurture an exercise bug developed after joining Girls on Side.
The programme formalised its relationship with Nuffield Health in July 2017, providing participants with access to physical activity – an effective vehicle for tackling a breadth of mental health problems.
“I have met some wonderful girls on the programme,” says Harrison.
“I started going to the Nuffield gym with them once each week. That inspired me to join my own gym and use Katie as my personal trainer.
“And to use physical exercise in a way I never had, to not only lose weight and get fit but to manage my anxiety, urges to self-harm, depression and other mental health issues.
On encountering Harrison, Sayer met an individual “on a big journey… heavily motivated to increase her fitness”.
She saw the giant steps Harrison had taken with Girls on Side and was bowled over. Equally, Sayer was “excited” by the prospect of helping Harrison continue striding forwards.
“It is so satisfying and motivating when someone is so on it,” says Sayer.
“You can see the fire in her eyes and I just want to do anything and everything to keep that going.”
Vicky Harrison would seek refuge from the damaging thoughts swirling round her head any which way.
The owner of a Masters’ degree in politics – “I did okay,” is Harrison’s only concession to that achievement – she “was still functioning” at the height of her difficulties.
Harrison completed her undergraduate studies in 1996.
She combined her postgraduate studies with teaching undergraduates in the Department of International Studies and Political Science at the University of Birmingham.
“But it wasn’t a life, it was horrible,” says Harrison.
“My abusive childhood issues probably led to self-harm as a teenager. I hid what I was doing very well.
“I got to university and was secretly harming myself and using alcohol to convince people I was happy and confident and could get out the front door.
“My weight ballooned and I reached more than 25 stone.
“The whole lifestyle was horrendous.
“I could drink 20 cans of beer in a day to block things out.
“I would regularly self-harm, just to try to block out everything.
“If I was having a bad day, I’d just get a load of beers and a bottle of gin and knock myself out with them.
“I squirted bleach down my throat.
“The physical pain is preferable to things that go on in your head.
“How do you run away from what’s in your head: those thoughts of just wanting to lie there and not move and not get up and clean your teeth?
“Your emotions and feelings are so horrible, so how do you deal with them? You block them out.
“The Girls on Side programme gave me the confidence and support to believe I could do things a different way.
“It has been a Godsend.”
Vicky Harrison strains to resist the force pressing against the soles of her feet.
She comfortably navigated her first set of leg exercises, prompting Sayer to remove a weight from the machine.
This, explains Harrison’s personal trainer, will actually make it tougher going for her friend.
All over, people are immersed in their regimes, some undertaking exercises as unfathomable to untrained eyes as the gym’s playlist is indecipherable to untrained ears.
Snodin and Stuart are both pedalling furiously, eyes down, ignoring the sweeping rain-lashed window offering views of darkened sand and a choppy sea.
Harrison ploughs on, barely pausing for breath, driven by thoughts of her Girls on Side allies.
“We have a WhatsApp chat page, where we have a laugh and, yes, a moan,” she says.
“It is another form of support, it might be someone saying, ‘Come on, you can get through today, we are thinking of you, you are fine, you are going to be okay, we all love you’.
“And the support you give back encourages you to think, ‘No, I can’t let these girls down, they are going through hard times, too. We need to be there for each other’.”
Everton runs deep in Harrison’s family.
Mum Linda, says Vicky, “has always been a massive Blue”.
Grandad Gordon Sturgeon would travel by tram from the docks to Spellow Lane before paying in to watch Everton.
Sturgeon said, ‘I do,’ on his wedding day on August 30 1947 and promptly rushed to Goodison to join 59,664 others – including his similarly devout brothers – to watch Everton play Blackpool, new wife Dolly and their guests waiting patiently for the groom’s return.
Harrison instinctively reaches for an Everton analogy to explain the restorative powers of Girls on Side.
“If battle is about to commence,” says Harrison, “and you ask me if I want Duncan Ferguson or the girls from Girls on Side with me, I’ll have the girls every time.
“The strength and support they provide is incredible.”
Harrison discovered as much when she suppressed her fear to walk through the Girls on Side door and into a new existence. Not one devoid of a daily fight. But one where the good days significantly outweigh the bad, where challenges are stared down and overcome.
“You feel so welcome,” says Harrison.
“Everyone is managing different issues but they are always there. Laughing, crying sometimes.
“We’ve done so many things together.
“We had Christmas dinner with the veterans [from EitC’s Knowsley Veterans’ Hub]. We’ve had social events, we even went pumpkin picking which was one of my favourites.
“Girls on Side allows you to be with girls who understand.
“Professionals are very skilled. But these girls know how it feels.
“There is no judgement or looking down on you.
“It is just support and encouragement, which means so much.”
Harrison has worked her limbs until they are filled with lactic acid.
She moves briskly to a series of stomach exercises.
“I push Vicky to her limits in all the sessions,” says Sayer.
“I never tell her what’s coming, so she has nothing to dread.”
Southport is home to 260 personal trainers, Sayer discloses. If she sets the standards, the town’s folk are in very good hands.
“You are helping someone let off steam,” she says.
“If Vicky is anxious, I will accommodate for that. She loves her punching and boxing, so we get her on the pads and help her feel free and settled.”
Harrison has been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder and suffered hypomania.
“I have been on medications for blood pressure, cholesterol, gout, blood sugars,” she says. “There is no need for any of it now. I no longer have back pain.”
As for Harrison’s wall of pernicious thoughts and beliefs, she is punching her way through it.
“I still struggle with thoughts of wanting to self-harm,” says Harrison.
“I have to try to break that cycle.
“When those thoughts enter your head, you think, ‘What do I do, what do I do?’
“That is how I discovered boxing with Katie. I was very, very anxious and we had a bit of a punch and it really helped release my anger and frustration.
“And it is very, very tiring.
“It is a great alternative to self-harm.
“The shame of self-harming and the way it makes you feel about yourself is horrible, so if I can encourage people to try to find different ways to release those same feelings, then I will.”
Emboldened by reciprocating the support of her Girls on Side confidants, Harrison talks regularly to participants in an addiction support group, counselling particularly on the danger of using alcohol as an emotional crutch.
“It promises to make you happy, relaxed and confident, and to help you sleep,” she says.
“And it does none of those things. It has the opposite effect in every case.”
When she addresses the group, Harrison has her boxing gloves close to hand. They are a permanent companion, tucked snugly in her gym bag, a symbol of enormous progress and renewed hope.
“From the age of 13 or 14, I would always have something in my pocket or bag, latterly my car, I could use to harm myself,” says Harrison.
“It had been in the back of my mind [to break her ritual] – and I just pulled the car over one day and thought, ‘I don’t need them’. I put them down a drain on the road.
“I have boxing gloves. They are far more fun and come with me everywhere.
“It works. Five or 10 minutes on those pads releases everything psychologically for the day.”
Harrison, in Sayer’s words, “has really excelled… and there is plenty more to come”.
This is an individual who got no closer to exercise than a game of table football not all that long ago and is now inclined to stick around for another hour, maybe two, following her relentless one-on-one gym sessions.
Right now, she ignores the complaints from her fatigued abdominal muscles and paces 10 yards or so to a cross-training machine, where Sayer will oversee a short warm-down.
“Vicky’s fitness,” says Sayer, “is through the roof”.
Vicky Harrison sinks into a comfortable chair. She has walked along a wide corridor leading away from the hustle and bustle of the gym’s reception, where it is easy to distinguish those harbouring a post-workout glow from the more concentrated souls mentally preparing for their morning effort.
Navigating her exercise routine upstairs, reveals Harrison, has presented issues on occasion.
“I have had panic attacks but the guys here, Katie and some of the others, helped me through them,” she says.
“Anyone who has had panic attacks knows how horrible they are, you feel your chest is going to crush in, you can’t breathe, you are going to be sick.
“But if that happens, I get through it and leave on my own terms, not when some chemicals in my brain tell me I panicked.
“That breeds confidence, because you think, ‘I can get through this’.”
Harrison is still digesting news Sayer wants her to spend midsummer night in Leeds tackling the forbidding Total Warrior event, which demands its competitors cover 12 undulating kilometres littered with obstacles which go under names such as Warrior Crawl, Death Valley and The Alps.
Harrison is sold on the prospect.
“She will smash it,” says Sayer. You believe her.
Harrison thinks a second to recall how she felt when stepping off the gym’s cross trainer 30 minutes ago.
“After the workout… you are shattered initially,” says Harrison. “But an hour or so later you have far more energy.
“I am not the most naturally gifted.
“But I will give it a go now and the confidence you draw from that is huge.
“Honestly, getting involved with Girls on Side has changed my life.
“I walk out of here 10 feet tall, because I have done this. No one else has done it, there has been no surgery.”
Harrison allows the thought to wash over her. A smile engulfs her face.
“I have done this.”