Typically, when Paul Wood and I would cross the M62, we would be gearing up to knock the fuck out of each other. I’ve faced this fella many times over 2012 and 2013. Some of these encounters have taken place at Old Trafford and Wembley Stadium. We’ve gone to battle on some of the biggest occasions we have both ever known; with deafening noise from the crowds and body-tingling twists where games are turned on their head.
Today we find a middle ground at Birch services. Not to tackle or try to knock each other on their backsides, but to talk. To talk with a purpose and to make a difference. Just by being in Paul’s presence, I could sense a real passion for what we were going to talk about. He stands about six foot four and is built like a bull with varying tattoos covering a vast canvas of body. A guy with this many tattoos has a story, that’s what I’ve learnt. But a lot of the time, the story is hiding in plain sight. The images make up a collage which is hard to depict. Paul’s story, told with holding nothing back, is imperative. It’s essential to make the dints in that barrier of talking about depression, go substantially deeper.
I released my article, The Dark Side of Sport, last month, which delves into the troubles I have experienced over the last few years. In response to that, a lot of people got in touch with me, all positive, with a message from Paul standing out in particular. It was the sort of note that made me happy that I’d stuck to my guns and written the piece. He sent me his number and we were on the phone for just shy of an hour that same night.
Paul is a ‘proper’ Lancashire lad, the kind where the accent draws out “looking” and “booking” to “looookin’” and “booookin’”. He’s a very likable guy and you get the feeling that he would do anything for anyone, especially after he shifted his thinking in the last few years. Despite being a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Leigh Centurions, Paul and me were more interested in a book which had shaped the way he looked at the world; The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, illuminated in large font on his cracked iPhone screen. After fifteen years without, he now has control over his feelings, he explains. He seems aware and bright-eyed, experienced but not tired, alert to everything he needs to do and needs to be. He seems to have a clear focus after treading deep water for most of his career, although his teammates had no idea.
“You have to be a little bit sick or weird to play this game I think.
I wanted to get a picture of what Paul was like as a young lad. I prompted him to come up with a typical perception of what people would have thought of him.
“He’s a fucking idiot,” was his simple reply. It seems a harsh perception but he was quick to elaborate.
“When I think back now, I was never normal. I could always get involved in something but never finish it off. I would always get bored and move on. I had quite a low self-esteem. I was a massive people pleaser. If someone asked for me to put my hand in the fire, I would just do it.”
He chalks such a mentality as part of his drive to prove people wrong by taking up rugby league professionally. “My high school teacher told me I was good at it. Unlike other things, I managed to stick with it and signed with Warrington when I was sixteen. I needed to prove all these people wrong who thought I was a waste of time. But then I may have gone too far with it, it gave me a massive ego. Once I made it, I thought I was the bees’ knees”. He pauses, lost in thought, before continuing… “I had a million hobbies but rugby was the only thing which I could fully focus on. The thought crossed my mind about what I was going to do when I was older but rugby was the only thing which I could grab hold of.”
Rugby league offered the only area of singular dedication available to Paul. He was also faced with a career-threatening injury, the pressure mounted mentally. It’s something that for sportsmen, we agree could prove problematic down the line of retirement, voluntarily or forced.
“I’m yet to meet a player who gets an injury and doesn’t feel down. People can think you enjoy sitting on a physio bed, and yes, it’s easier but you don’t enjoy it. The fitness elements of rugby league push your body to breaking point. Sometimes you do it when your body is already broken. Your arse is hanging out”. A pause… “But in a sick way, you miss it. When you’re injured, you actually miss doing that, and psychologically, it affects you.”
He expands on this, by drawing attention to his post-playing fitness regime. “I’ve recently taken up boxing and people don’t understand it. I miss pushing my body and as daft as it sounds, I miss getting hit. You have to be a bit special and a bit weird to play this game – if you’re not, who would want to physically and mentally punish themselves week on week, then prepare to do it all over again? When you are taken away from that, you do miss it.”
This completely encapsulates my thinking. In rugby league you are constantly getting hit and you’re manufactured to deal with it. When that problem isn’t there, do you stumble across others to fill a void? I told Paul about how I get into a game. Strangely, if I get a whack on the head, that wouldn’t put me off. It would in fact do the opposite and it would ensure that I’m switched on, nothing worse could happen, so it would be game on.
“You can get hit with the hardest shot but until you come off the pitch you don’t feel it. You’ve got a buzz; you’ve got an ultimate high of playing in front of twenty-thousand people. There’s nothing better than lying in bed after feeling physically sore and struggling to get up the next morning, but knowing everything you did was worth it for that win. You have to be weird to enjoy that feeing. Normal people would just say ‘Fuck, I’m not doing that again’ ”.
“I’ve always thought that my head was like a washing machine, just going round and round.
In some cases of depression, you try to put a finger on a reason for why it might show its head, when there need not be one at all. When I ask, Paul tells me that there never was a reason; it was just a part of who he was.
“I would act on emotion. If I was angry, I would act on that. Then that action would spiral and make things worse because of one decision. I might put myself in to my overdraft one minute and then think I’m going to lose everything. I might think that I’m going to sell my car or my house. I need to look at the facts and solutions, look at the options. I used to approach things as if it was always going to be the end of the world.”
Looking back, Paul observes that his thought processes over jumped to extreme alternatives in the most mundane of situations. “I lived with a constant panic attack for fifteen years, which I thankfully don’t have anymore. But it jeopardises decisions. If I’m thinking about leaving a building, the first option is always jumping through the window or then looking at going through an alarmed fire exit, as opposed to simply going through the door.” He chuckles a little, and it relaxes him. “I’ve always thought that my head was like a washing machine, just going round and round on a spin cycle.”
Me and Paul faced each other in the 2012 Grand Final where we managed to beat Warrington. I came off with an acromio-clavicular shoulder dislocation; Paul stayed on after rupturing his testicle. Days after that game, it still boggled my mind how he had done that. I thought I was soft for not playing on and staying out there after this guy had done so. It just goes to show how unaware people can be of what goes on inside the minds of others.
“It stopped me. I had a brainwave, and realised… What the fuck are you doing?
“The breaking point, for me, was where I lost my bollock. I didn’t get down because of that, because I was already depressed. In the build up to it, I was seeing my doctor every day, taking all the medication available. No one in training knew, but I could hardly run because I was so drugged up. I felt fucking horrible. And then I lost my bollock in the Grand Final, I consequently made some very fucking bad choices, and it came to the point where I was killing myself, almost literally”. The slight glance around and hunched over lowering of decibel occurred before Paul continued… “I’d got bottles of vodka lying around and I was looking for tablets, and by some miracle, there were no painkillers in the house. It stopped me. I had a brainwave, and realised… ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I had two beautiful kids and here I was destroying myself.”
Paul doesn’t take any medication now. He was diagnosed with depression at twenty-one but initially refused treatment, only complying when he became suicidal. His story helps to illustrate the extreme lows of depression even in the highest of moments. Speaking of a victory against Huddersfield in a Challenge Cup semi-final, he notes how, instead of sharing in the elation of the team, he felt paradoxically lethargic and desolate in the wake. He speaks of the reality candidly, as something that doesn’t cater for external factors and perceived ideas, and challenges the norms of how you should feel.
“My thought process goes like this. I could be sat here talking to you, and would already be thinking of a worst case scenario, predicting and projecting emotions onto the conversation, and it builds up a wall of negativity around me. All this tension builds up, and you suddenly realise that there was no reason to fear it. And you realise that you’ve wasted a whole day.”
He shifts a little before continuing. “I was taking every anti-depressant going, just taking them thinking they were the answers to all my solutions; they’re not, the answer is slowly changing your thoughts. You’ve got to work at it and it’s a lifelong thing. For the last two years, I’ve been feeling really good, but I know there are thought processes embedded in my brain from the last thirty-three years that are still a bit fucked up.”
“It goes from a snowball to an avalanche; it’s like emotional torture.
“It’s about how these emotions influence your decisions. It goes from a snowball to an avalanche; it’s like emotional torture. It’s about the choices in life – you can make things worse or you can make them better. It’s about catching the emotions and being able to turn them around. When I don’t want to do stuff, it’s being able to admit to myself that I’m acting selfish, and to be able to force myself to do it, because it’s actually good for me. It’s not all about me, and I force myself to realise that it’s about other people as much as me. The key is to stay in the light. It’s productive thinking, focusing on the wife and the kids. You’ve got to take a step back and think about it.”
The main issue which we both agree on for people who wish to speak out is the perceived idea that no one else thinks that way. If there are people which you can identify with in similar situations, that helps to open up.
“Depression doesn’t look at you and say ‘Well, he’s doing ok, he’s got a house and a bit of money, I’ll leave him to it and I’ll go hit that guy who’s on a park bench instead.’- This is what people need to realise.
“People don’t think that rugby players should get depressed, they don’t think darts players should, they don’t think footballers will get depressed. The basic thinking is that they get paid for what they love doing. They see an idealistic situation of a bit of money, they might see two cars on the drive of a four bed detached house. They could see a nice family. They will ask the question, “what’s he got to be depressed about?” He pauses again to take stock of his words. “It simply doesn’t work like that. Depression doesn’t look at you and say ‘Well, he’s doing OK, he’s got a house and a bit of money, I’ll leave him to it and I’ll go hit that guy who’s on a park bench instead.’- This is what people need to realise. I think that there needs to be a support network where people suffering can identify similarities with each other. There’s more chance of releasing your problems to someone who is in a similar position and has had the same troubles in the past.”
One thing which Paul said really struck with me. I’ve been guilty of dwelling on negative things which can happen. Whether that’s coming to terms with missing a season through injury or a personal happening that can whack you in the face in life. He said “If I stay in the moment, it sometimes runs away from me.” The fact that Paul feels better now than he has for fifteen years, seems to resonate with the idea of him being more aware of how he feels and how he can control it. How he can control the moment before it spirals and runs away from him.
It certainly wasn’t a normal interview. I don’t think I know what that is yet. But we just chatted. Everything which we spoke about, covered everything which I wanted to ask Paul. The sheer laid back feel to it and how Paul wasn’t guarded about speaking about anything was refreshing. He’s happy and in a good place. He’s happy to speak about where he has been but also how important ‘the power of now’ is. It’s a very common term which is banded about, but taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture is an important thing.
I’m excited to see where Paul goes with his new outlook. He’s had a semi-pro fight already with two more on the horizon. He seems to be getting stronger the older he gets and is painting a very ideal picture for a player just having crossed the rapid transition of playing to retirement. Here’s to where he can go from here. To borrow a quote from the man himself; “If you have one foot in yesterday and one on tomorrow, you’re in a prime position to shit on today”.