STARTING THE CONVERSATION
My dream when I was a kid was to play in the National Rugby League competition. I was a massive Newcastle Knights fan. I even had a photograph of the great Paul Harrigan on my bedside table. Many people will know that I did fulfil that dream of mine but what many people don't know is that I was battling with mental illness. I now have a new dream and that starts with sharing my story.
I grew up in Dapto, a small country town on the south coast. I was brought up in an environment where domestic violence was present. My mum, two brothers, sister and I all were prone to physical and emotional abuse. Mental illness runs through my family. My early years did have an impact but didn’t affect me until I was in my older years. As a kid you don’t know any different. You don’t know what other households are like. You tend to be a product of your environment and as a young kid at school I’d fight a lot, I was a very angry boy. I would push the closest people away; I couldn’t hold a steady relationship. Men in particular hide their sadness with anger.
It was rugby league that was the common denominator in my life which gave me a purpose. It felt like I could achieve something, a place where people had my back. It gave me a sense of belonging, somewhere to fit in. It wasn’t until I was 16 when I made the Illawarra Steelers that I had a dream to play in the NRL. My focus became footy even with all the trouble going on back home. I look back and it’s what got me through those years. I found school extremely tough and really wanted to get out early. I did however stick it out and finished which I’m proud of.
As soon as I finished High School I got into an NRL first grade squad where I made my debut in 2007 which was a dream come true. I couldn’t help but think of everything I’ve gone through, the sacrifices, dedication, hard work and the obstacles. I remembered getting through periods where I was going to quit and give it away, moments where my moods were so high and so low, leaving me withdrawn and disengaged. I didn’t think much of it as I was just so happy to be playing in the NRL. I found every single day testing myself both physically and mentally against 30 blokes. A lot of those days I had to wear that mask where I’d pretend everything was all good. I had to pretend that everything was alright. I had no understanding of mental health and what it really was. I just sucked it up and went along with it. You don’t feel the need to talk about it in a professional environment as it could be seen as a weakness and people may treat you differently.
When you’re retired you can take the time to reflect on your career. During my reflection I found the 2010 season to be the turning point of my life. I was playing the best footy of my career, I started nearly every game. In the warm up against the Canberra Raiders I ruptured my Achilles tendon; it snapped right up my leg. I was looking at a good 12 to 18-month rehab. During this time, I watched my teammates go on to win a grand final. I know now that I was a part of it all but I didn’t play or contribute to that game which really hurt me.
My surgery and the events from my past culminated with missing the Grand Final and it hit me like a ton of bricks; it smashed me! It put me into a deep depression and I got into some risk taking behaviour. I was on pain killers for a 6 to 8-month period where I abused them and became addicted. I was taking them to not just deal with the physical pain but also the emotional. It was my coping strategy at the time as I had no education, understanding, tools and resilience. It was the escape from reality. I didn’t know how to and didn’t want to deal with it. It got to a point where I almost took my own life.
It wasn’t until coach at the time, Wayne Bennett, came up to ask me those two simple questions, are you ok and is there anything I can do to help you? It opened everything up for me. Shit, someone cares, someone can see that I’m struggling. When you struggle you’ve got your blinkers on and you’re focused on only your struggle. You try and convince yourself that there’s nothing going on. It made me open my eyes and realise that yes maybe I am struggling and I do need some help. Coincidentally The Black Dog Institute came in to training the next day and ran a mental health presentation. During the presentation a few people shared their stories and it felt like each of them were speaking directly to me. A few teammates mentioned after the session “that would’ve hit home to you”. I tried to brush them off quickly. That night I went and did the online test they left us and it came back that I may be struggling mentally or might need some professional help. I spent two weeks trying to deny it but it was always in the back of my head. That’s when I said to myself I’ve got to go and get help.
The car trip up to The Black Dog Institute in Randwick was bloody shit scary. I was shaking and my anxiety was through the roof. I knew I was going to deal with things that I’ve never dealt with before and didn’t know how I was going to go and what the outcome was going to be. I spent the day partaking in a few different tests which involved speaking with psychologists and physiologists. At the end of the day I was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar. Most people would think it’s negative being diagnosed with mental illness, for myself it was a relief, a weight lifted off my shoulders. This explained everything that had occurred in my life already, relationships, the grand final impact and many other experiences I’d been through. It gave me the understanding that I can learn and manage my illness.
I don’t like to say people suffer from mental Illness, I’d prefer to say they experience mental Illness. Your thoughts become your words and your words become your actions. There was a 3-year period where I was placed on medication, mood stabiliser and anti-psychotics. I needed to level myself out so I could get in a head space which allowed me to make the right decisions for myself. I sat with my phycologist and learnt about coping strategies and developing support networks which was outstanding. I went to both TAFE and University to study mental health, community services and social work. I wanted to learn more and more. I wanted not just to help myself but other people.
I went back in to the first grade environment in 2011. I wanted to let people know about my illness so I came out publicly with all the details including the struggles I went through. I didn’t want anyone else to think that it was weak to ask for help or talk about your mental Illness. It takes a stronger person to ask for help than to sit there and suffer in silence.
In 2015 at the Auckland 9’s I got hit in a tackle from the side, I was told by two different surgeons that I’d never play again. My career was then over at 28 years old just before the prime age of a prop. I thought the rollercoaster was going to start again and wondered whether I’d find myself in that dark space. I was going to be taking painkillers, would I become addicted again? I didn’t. I drew upon those coping strategies, support networks that I’d put in place and got through.
I now work in the community as an ambassador with the Dragons. I work as a mental illness facilitator for the NRL and I’ve also launched the Mental Health Movement. When I was struggling I felt alone. I had no education. If I felt like that, I can guarantee other people feel like that. I’m looking at breaking down the barriers by sharing my story. I launched the Mental Health Movement in April this year focusing on ‘community, industry, school and corporate’. Telling my story keeps me honest and acknowledges my past. The more times you’re in an uncomfortable situation, the more comfortable you’re going to become. It’s not just going to be a tick the box organisation. We live in a world where everything is on our phones. I want to be able to give someone that has been diagnosed real time conversation not being told they can’t see a psychologist in 6 weeks’ time.
We have come a long way since I got diagnosed in 2010. The NRL are doing good things, the clubs are doing good things. They are creating the environments where the players can talk about mental illness and providing them support through counselling and psychologists. The Rugby League environment has a lot of stigma around it, a sign of weakness you may call it. We are only still at the stage of awareness, we need to take that next step and push education. If someone walks in with crutches everyone is happy to ask the how, what, when and why and sign their cast however when someone wants to talk about depression, anxiety or mood disorder no one knows what to say and doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s not accepted at the moment.
I was made State of Mind ambassador for the NRL which educates grass root clubs and empowers senior players and coaches; further trying to break down the stigma. This helps link them with helpful resources. It’s been really successful and has been great to be a part of. I’m very proud to be named ambassador. The NRL provided me with so many positives in my life and a career to be able to give back and the impact you can have on young kids is phenomenal. It fuelled and motivated me to start the Mental Health Movement. I also volunteer as a Beyond Blue Ambassador, sharing my personal story to increase awareness and reduce stigma of mental health conditions.
I now feel very comfortable in holding tough conversations with my family. I’ve got a really good relationship with my younger brother who is in the defence force. He is a good support network for myself. I’ve become a support network for my mum which has helped normalise it a bit more for her. She now has someone to speak to that understands and doesn’t judge. My wife has been a massive support network for me and I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for her. I couldn’t imagine some of the days where she has had to deal with my ups and downs. When you’re struggling you just want to push everyone away. How can you explain something to someone when you don’t understand it yourself? You do have the comfort knowing they are still there. Not everyone is going to have Wayne Bennett ask them 'are you ok?' However, everyone can be that Wayne Bennett; you can ask those questions. Start the conversation. Let’s start the conversation.