It is a dream come true to play this game. While at times it is difficult to remember that, I know that it is.

I’ve never taken for granted, the incredible opportunity I have to help pioneer women’s football for the next generation of talent in the AFLW.

The game has already given me more than I could ever give back and I truly am thankful for everything I have experienced to date.

But what has taken time getting used to, is the increasingly high-pressured environment we wake up to every day as AFLW players.

Don’t get me wrong – I love that this game pushes me to become better than I was yesterday and beyond limits I ever thought capable.

But it can absolutely take its toll on you. Physically, but more so mentally.

Everything little thing you do is scrutinised to a tee – by yourself, your coaches and the wider football media.

A couple of years ago, when AFLW became an established league with a national audience, I was coping just fine. Yes, it was physically and mentally challenging, but the excitement of being part of history (or HERstory as I like to call it!) masked over a lot of the anxiety I was feeling at the time.

But as the competition has evolved, the pressure has continued to build, I’ve constantly had to battle against the mental strain that comes with playing in the AFLW.

I had no idea it was going to affect me the way it did last year. Many of my close family and friends, then and now, still struggle to comprehend that I was struggling given my form warranted selection into the All Australian team as the first-choice ruckman.

I honestly had no idea that I was even a chance of becoming an All Australian. It was an incredible honour – it meant so much more to me because I knew how proud my family were when it was announced that I was the 2018 All Australian ruckman.

We often joked about it for years, but never actually imagined that it could happen.

I was on a high for a short while there, but it didn’t take long for the bubble to burst.

After earning All Australian honours, all I could think about during the off-season was what if I don’t perform at the same level as last year? There was so much more expectation this season, how do I avoid such failure?

It began to eat away at me. All I could think about, was that my coaches and teammates were going to think less of me.

Maybe it was always the competitor inside of me that was conspiring against me, but before I knew it my mind began to spiral out of control.

I was swimming in a pool of negative thoughts inside my own head and there was nothing I could do about it.

It was my realisation that as an athlete, you can practice as much as you want on the training field, but if your mental state isn’t where it needs to be, you’re going to be ineffective no matter what. That’s what happened to me.

I went from being named All Australian ruckman, to six weeks later feeling as though I was worst player in the competition.

I had no idea how to deal with anxiety, depression and other challenges that centre around mental health.

What shocked me even more, was I had no idea there were teammates of mine that were going through the exact same thing.

During an off-season player welfare meeting, a small group of us girls opened up to our welfare staff about the struggles we were going through at and away from the football club.

It made me realise I wasn’t alone – that others in my team were also struggling just as much as I was. And for others, it wasn’t even about football. They had other factors in their life they were battling against.

It’s a big reason why this year, I have chosen to be more open and transparent with those same group of girls, so that if any of us are at all feeling the pinch at any part of the season, we have each other to fall back on.

Anxiety and depression is definitely a struggle, but if you share and talk about your feeling to people it can really help lift your spirits.

Seeking professional help was also a necessary step forward for me. I’ve had a semi-regular sessions with a sports psychologist, who has been a catalyst in helping me overcome the thoughts in my head.

Prior to that, at my lowest last year, I did want to walk away from the game because I simply wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

I sat down with Alan McConnell (our coach) and opened up to him that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue playing.

A part of him, couldn’t believe what he was hearing – ‘Erin, just a couple of months ago you were named All Australian ruckman. Are you sure you’re thinking this through?’

As tough as a conversation as it was, it was a conversation I needed to have with Alan. It was genuinely how I felt at the time. It wasn’t easy for him, but he was understanding of where I was at mentally with the game.

Alan said, ‘Look, Erin, if you really are not happy playing footy then I understand if you want to quit because at the end of the day the single most important thing to me is your long-term health and well-being. So as difficult as it is, if you want to quit playing than I won’t stand in your way.’

I was in a big internal conflict with myself and I ended up wrestling with the decision for a couple of days.

None of my teammates knew at the time and I wanted to keep it that way. I didn’t want them influencing my decision – not because I don’t value each of them, because I absolutely do. We have a sisterhood at the Giants, which I feel is the envy of the competition.

But I needed to make this decision on my own and for myself.

Alan and I eventually caught up, and I told him I wanted to keep pushing forward. But that I would need to re-adjust and require more time to work on my mental training, which he was all for.

Even now, as we enter the final stages of the home-and-away season, I’m having to work on my mental health every day.

It’s become my #1 most important focus towards my football, because I know that if it isn’t my #1 priority, who knows how long I will be able to play the game for.

I’m still struggling in the back of my mind, questioning myself after every game whether or not I have let my teammates down, be it through a series of plays or my overall performances. But I am getting better and being less hard on myself.

I continue to fight against the negative thoughts in my head. I debate with myself in the mirror all the time, ‘Is it fair to continue taking a spot away from another deserving teammate when I know they should be playing if I’m not enjoying the sport.’

So you go through those low moments where you just question everything you do and then you go to the high moments where you feel the top of the world… for me, during those lows I just have to keep remembering why I started playing AFL in the first place. And the joys it does often give me and my family.

I am glad I have opened up about some of the stuff I have been dealing with, because when I first spoke about it, I had no idea what the response would be. But have so many teammates, as well as other players across the AFLW, reach out to me to say they were inspired to hear of my struggles, and to remind me that I did have strong support behind me.

Speaking up was the best thing I ever could have done. My childhood idol was Lauren Jackson and she’s opened up about her own struggles with substance addiction and depression and I still remember reading that thinking “Wow – even our sporting heroes do go through tough times, just like us’.

It made me realise the powerful platform we have as athletes to speak up, when we know others might be going through something similar, and that’s why I’m no longer afraid to be a voice for anyone suffering from anxiety.

Anyone seeking counselling or help with mental health issues can contact www.livin.org or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.