By Chris Wright
There was a point in my life, several years ago now thankfully, when I couldn’t escape the recurring thought that I just didn’t want to exist any more. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours a week and I was firmly entrenched in the bowels of a nihilistic substance abuse problem, ‘trench’ being the poignant syllable. I couldn’t see over the top.
I’d like to make it clear that I wasn’t suicidal and gave absolutely no thought to taking my own life at any point, but my attitude to existence became very laissez-faire. Holed up in bed behind permanently drawn curtains, mourning a loss of innocence with whiskey on my cornflakes, enough ‘paraphernalia’ to sedate a Brontosaurus and bowel movements like thin gruel.
The strange thing was, barring certain unavoidable tell-tale physical give-aways, it wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone on the outside looking in. I still managed to touch base with friends regularly and even turn out for football matches once or twice a week without letting on. It was, for want of a less hackneyed cliché, a very private hell. One that I refused to fully acknowledge for a long, long time.
I didn’t consider myself mentally ill or unstable in any way, and when I look back on that period in my life now I still don’t – despite some very erratic behaviour and how it may look once the ins and outs are committed to paper.
I was only depressed in so far as a fair few of my ‘symptoms’ could be checked off on an NHS Direct pamphlet, but I wasn’t some howling ECT candidate. It’s not like the movies. There’s no instant onset of wild unkempt hair, vomit-stained jogging bottoms, permanent five-day stubble and bulging purple bags under the eyes to hammer home the fact. I actually managed to shower and shave on a semi-regular basis. More regularly, in fact, than I’ve managed since I started freelancing from home a couple of years ago!
You may be wondering what my mawkish memoirs have to do with football, so here comes the tenuous tie-in. We’ve seen several recent counts of suicide and attempted suicide by figures associated with the game; Robert Enke, Babak Rafati, Gary Speed – each one blamed almost instantaneously, whether rightly or wrongly, on a case of deep-rooted depression that has been allowed to simmer and spore due to the footballing sphere’s inherent lack of sympathy and compassion toward such illnesses.
In stark contrast, if the continuing outpouring of grief and condolences following Gary Speed’s awful, untimely death yesterday is anything to go by, it’s surely a mark of the support and love he could and – you’d hope – would have received had he confided in his teammates, associates and many friends within the game. People – supposedly cold, unfeeling, overtly macho footballers, loved the man, that much is now obvious. Robbie Savage cried on national television for Christ’s sake.
Yes, football is a boy’s club – a creche at times – but we’re talking about human beings here, not heartless monsters. The image of players slapping each other’s backsides and fermenting and solidifying their gang mentality by picking out and preying on the runt’s mental weaknesses is outdated if it were ever the norm at all – at least in my (admittedly limited) experience.
To label such terrible, tragic incidents as “football’s fault” when a footballer past or present is involved is knee-jerk and sorely wide of the mark. Depression isn’t occupation specific, it’s insular, personal and largely private. The point being that, until a move is made on the sufferer’s part to address the situation, many times such afflictions can go completely undetected until, sadly, it’s far too late. You can only put a ‘brave face’ on something that is crippling you from the inside out for so long.
The supposed lack of support from ‘the dressing room’ is theoretically paralleled in other walks of life where Alpha male bullshit is king. Now is as good-a-time as any to reinforce the point that we should stop treating football as a separate entity when it comes to mental health, because illness itself doesn’t recognise such facile distinctions.
I guarantee that it’ll be a more impressive show of innate strength, especially in the current climate, to go public with your personal tempest than it would to leave friction burns across some poor bugger’s arse cheeks with the flick of a wet towel. I guarantee it.
If you are suffering in silence you must know that, while it requires an immense amount of personal bravery to make the first step, there are remote, unbiased, warm, sympathetic, non-judgemental and experienced people you can talk to – Samiratans, Mind, SANE and Rethink to name but four.