On the evening of Sunday 9th of September, the BBC website carried a story about Wales International and Cardiff City forward Craig Bellamy speaking candidly and openly about the tragic death of his friend and team mate Gary Speed. “He was the best mate I ever had” said Bellamy, speaking to the Daily Mirror “It affected everything, including my marriage” Bellamy continued “All I know is I’m here and she’s there. All I know is my best mate’s gone. I can’t lie, I’m struggling”
Bellamy’s words are touching, brave and surprising. It’s a brave move for him to come out and talk about the tragic death of Speed. But in a sport dominated by macho personalities and, with the greatest of respects, coming from a man who has the reputation of being such a bellicose character on the pitch, it’s both wonderful and inspiring to hear him speak so fondly and openly.
It is no exaggeration to say that Speed’s death shocked the football world to its core. As minute long applauses played out at grounds across the country, rival supporters put their differences to one side and football showed its humane side; a side of the game which sadly all too often gets forgotten.
Bellamy’s comments were timed well. The following day was Suicide Awareness Day. It still is Suicide Awareness Day as I write this. Long after the newspapers have been closed, and the final computer has been logged off we hear nothing about how the family and friends of the deceased move on with their lives. Recently, Gary’s father, Roger, has been quoted as saying that the family have still not come to terms with his son’s death. To get a true measure of what Gary Speed meant to the football world, and a very touching and personal point of view, may I suggest that you read the Daisy Cutter’s tribute to Gary Speed?
English football has done a fantastic job in almost eradicating racism since the advent of the Premier League in 1992. Although we still have the odd, isolated incident, we are light years ahead of the Italians and some eastern European nations.
However, football at times can be an exceptionally backward institution. Homophobia, sadly, is still an issue in the game, and with ninety two professional clubs in England, each one with an average 25 man squad, statistically there must be some homosexual players in England. It is exceptionally sad that these players, should they exist, don’t have the courage or the freedom to be who they are.
The only openly gay player in the history of the English game is, of course, Justin Fashanu. As with many footballing deaths, there is a stigma around why it happened. Fashanu did not take his own life due to abuse from the terraces (he was playing in the United States at the time) but as a result of being wrongly accused of sexual assault. Following Fashanu’s death the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence against him.
Since Gary Speed’s death, we have heard a lot about mental illness in football. Former Hull City captain Dean Windass told of how close he came to taking his own life once he finished playing. Lee Hendrie, the former Aston Villa midfielder has attempted to take his own life on a number of occasions having sadly never lived up to the Wonderkid tag bestowed upon him when he first broke through at Villa Park. Ex England international Stan Collymore was widely derided by sections of opposition support when he announced his struggles with depression a number of years ago.
Sadly, the problem is not restricted just to football, but to society. The stigma around mental illness and depression exists as people have a fear of things in which they do not understand.
The facts are alarming. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives, and suicide is the biggest killer of males between the ages of 18 and 35 in the United Kingdom. It’s not so much that there is a fear of mental illness in this country. It’s because there is so little conclusive information surrounding the subject. When we hear stories of mental illness in football, the common reaction from the terrace is “He’s on ninety grand a week, what could he possibly have to be depressed about?” And worse “Pull your socks up, son and get on with it”
Mental illness, not only in football, but with the high pressured and very public nature of the job, is something that the governing bodies and the clubs need to take very seriously. Especially as footballers fit exactly into the 18-35 male age range of which suicide is the highest killer.
Depression and mental illness can ruin lives, destroy families and cause so much pain simply because those suffering feel like they have nowhere to turn.
I know. I’ve been there.
I first became aware of my problems in May of 2011. Looking back, they had been there at least since July 2010. It started off with a nervous anxiety. A nervous anxiety which never seemed to go away. I’d broken up with the mother of my three year old child, and was ravaged not only with feelings of guilt that I had let my offspring down – made just another statistic of a broken home – but also how we were going to survive on our own with one income in a recession. I work in an industry which was deeply affected by it.
The ‘Ninety Grand a Week’ argument with footballers comes into play here. “Well, he can just buy himself a new Bentley, can’t he?” It doesn’t work like that. A new Bentley for a Premier League star was a pint of Heineken for me. It started off having a glass of beer once I’d put my child to bed. But on holiday with my parents that July I found myself taking the child to the pub for lunch to sneak in a few pints to see me through the afternoon.
If you have anything at a certain time every day, be it a cup of tea, a Kit Kat or a cigarette your body eventually starts to crave it. This was where my relationship with lager came from. Never wine, whiskey or vodka. Always lager. Halfway through a glass I’d be thinking about the next one. I was putting on weight. This was the least of my concerns. The hangovers were preventing me from getting anything done the following day. I returned home to lose yet another job.
It took three months for me to find another job. A whopping tax credits payment seeing me through this time. As I started my first day at my new job I awoke with one of my favourite songs stuck in my head.
“I woke up, and I wished that I was dead. There’s an aching in my head” I heard. I stood in the shower feeling sick to stomach with nerves. I put it down to first day nerves. I was in that job until July of 2011. That nervousness never left over the course of that employment.
I made mistakes. I tried to make a career change to provide a more stable future for me and my child. I didn’t understand the job. I didn’t ask for help when it was needed and made a hash out of everything I tried to undertake. One by one, my colleagues turned on me. The nervous anxiety slowly becoming, I can see now, a fear, a dread and a depression.
I kept telling myself I was ok. A friend worked in my local pub and each night I was not on parental duty, I was in there and I would stay until it closed. I started a new relationship with one of the girls who worked in there. I’d drink for six hours a night and my tab would total £13. Some evenings, my pint would be awaiting me upon my arrival. I shudder to think the amount of times I turned up to work not hungover, but still pissed. I’m amazed I lasted as long as I did.
Lager was my escape. It made me feel indestructible. Brave decisions regarding my future were made, but never seen through. I told myself it was better than spending another night alone in front of the Playstation. There was an older guy in there who used to tell me stories of his European away trips with Liverpool. I was looking at getting back into writing as a career and his stories were good fodder for which to start. Or so I told myself. To this day I have never written anything involving a supporter travelling to Europe to watch Liverpool.
I moved house. There was always an imaginary goal on the horizon where I told myself “Once that’s done, things will start to improve”. It never did.
I became exceptionally self-centred. I fell in love with a girl. I really, really fell in love with her. I put her before everything. Including my child. I didn’t speak to my parents, with whom I was so close, for months. And even then it was only when I needed something. I was too scared to tell them I was falling apart and too afraid to let them down. I haven’t spoken to my sister properly in years. Do I regret that? Yes. But I’ve acted so awfully toward her, I don’t know where to start to rebuild things.
And then there were the lies. It started off with “How are you?” “Yeah, I’m fine” before going and hiding in the toilet reading the football news online. I’d exaggerate things, make up stories so that people would want to talk to me in pubs, just to feel wanted. Just for a moment. Twitter helped. On Twitter you can be anyone you like.
They got worse, culminating in hiding a huge pile of debt from everybody that I cared about. A stupid thing in which I have since learned was very easily solvable.
One Monday morning I awoke physically shaking. I couldn’t even string a sentence together. “Go see a doctor” she said. “I’m fine” I replied. Fine. That word again. So non-descriptive. A ready made get out clause for any situation. Eventually, I relented. I was put on anti-anxiety drugs. One a day for the rest of time. Or so it seemed. They gave me some Valium. “Take this when you need it”, they said. I got the prescription and by the time I was back in the office I was f***ed on Valium. It was like being drunk.
Around this time. My eyesight started deteriorating and I needed to wear glasses. I was in a position where I was so self-conscious. Even choosing a pair of glasses to wear felt like the biggest deal I had ever known. I expected a slight ribbing from my friends. But the people at work acted like a collective devil incarnate.
One afternoon. I had a panic attack so severe I was rushed to the local A&E. The trail of destruction I left so severe no one ever saw it fit to mention.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having a full blown nervous breakdown.
She moved in. Perhaps too soon. And before we knew we had been evicted. It wasn’t our fault. The landlord renovated the entire house – roof, bathroom and kitchen – without telling us. No notice given. We had a child living with us. It only added to the stress. I was losing control. To try and regain some control, I sued him.
We had to move and we found the house we had always dreamed of. The house that one day we would raise our own children in. We couldn’t afford it. Work dried up. The debt got bigger, and each month was a struggle to meet the rent.
On January 28th this year I had a panic attack on the way to work. I thought I knew how to subside them. I blacked out after getting on the tube and to this day have no idea how I awoke outside the next station surrounded by Paramedics taking my blood pressure. I never returned to that job, my contract terminated five days later.
I didn’t work again for four months. I signed on. The only sensible thing I did. I drank sixty cans of lager in one week. I’d have panic attacks in the night. I’d have panic attacks when I woke up. One evening I was having dinner with my girlfriend. We sat there, discussing her day. The next thing I knew I was on the bathroom floor with Paramedics.
“I’ll stop drinking” I said. I lasted three weeks. I gave up on searching for a job. All that bothered me was being her perfect man. Not bothered about being the perfect father, or having a respectable career. Just being everything she had ever dreamed of. That was all that mattered. We’d be alright.
The lowest ebb came one sunny Sunday morning. My child was happily sat downstairs watching cartoons and a huge argument erupted between my girlfriend and I over who was going to the laundrette. It was ridiculous. I got so angry, I spat in her face. I was hungover. I was craving lager. I wanted us to spend time together. I spat in her face. I can’t even begin to explain how ashamed I am about this. I’ll carry that moment with me to my grave.
She came back. We tried again. “Last chance” she said. “Last Chance” I agreed. I was determined to make it right this time. We’d been arguing for months. I was terrified of losing her. As I waited for her to come home, I wrote a note to everyone that needed one.
It got worse. My days consisted of the school run, sitting around, the school run. Give the child dinner. Bedtime story. Drink.
And then it happened. The debt got too much. I was facing another legal battle. I didn’t have a job.
We went out with some friends. We were hammered. I told her that day was the best day I ever had with her. I meant it. I was drunk. Beyond belief. And I was on a cocktail of anti-depressants. I came off them at one point. For her. I went back on them. I hadn’t told her. Another lie.
We got home. I gave her the note. And then it happened. I tried to hang myself. The next thing I remember I was on the floor, my head hurting like I had never have known. Lying on the floor looking at a policeman. I’d tried to hang myself.
I was taken to hospital. I spent ten days in a psychiatric ward. When I came home, my child was back with mum. My girlfriend gone. Forever.
Following another round of anti-depressants, which I am pleased to say I came off today, counselling, debt management programmes, a new job and a new house I’m finally getting myself together, and most importantly, I am sober and my relationship with my child is better than it ever was. When we’re together, it’s the two of us against the world. But I don’t need to go into that, this isn’t about me.
The one thing that has surprised me since I came out of hospital is the amount of people who have had similar experiences to me. People who seemed so together on the outside, struggling not to fall apart on the inside. When I came out, and was in this house by myself. I did nothing but cry for a week.
I’m nothing special. I’m just another bloke who enjoys spending time with his family and watching the match at the weekend. Gradually, the guilt is starting to subside. And like I said, I’m starting to rebuild.
All of the above really happened, and feel awful for what I lost. How I made the life of so many people hell for so long, how I nearly left a five year old without a father. I’m grateful for everything that I have gained. And outside of my family, who’s support has been unequivocal, there are a number of people who have gone beyond the call of duty for me. I will be eternally grateful to them for that.
The brave confessions of Dean Windass, Stan Collymore, Lee Hendrie and Craig Bellamy have done wonders for bringing mental health problems to the forefront of the British media. In addition to that, the work of Clarke Carlisle has been commendable, and should be applauded. For me, professional footballers have more media power than politicians in this country.
Football has many issues to tackle. Trying to convince people I was ok was hard enough. I shudder to think how somebody who plays in front of a global audience of millions each week would deal with the problems that I had. These problems do need to be taken on head on, not only in football, but in everyday life. It affects us all.
I do not wish for this article to be looked at as an act of self indulgence but hopefully to try and explain to people the pressures of suffering from a mental illness. I am happy to answer any questions and comments in the comments section below under an alias and am happy for my contact details to be passed on via the Daisy Cutter’s submissions email address if anybody wants to talk more in depth about the issues mentioned above.
On a final note. The Samaritans and Mind were exceptionally helpful to me throughout my troubles. And if anybody reading this is experiencing similar difficulties to me, please get in touch with them.
With thanks to everybody at The Daisy Cutter.