Issues of mental health are a hot topic currently, and that’s great news. “Time to Change” tells us that 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems in a year. Just think about that. Wherever you are reading this, at work, on a bus, at home – wherever other people are, 25% will experience this challenge. That’s a truly daunting thought. Furthermore, 9 out of 10 will experience stigma and 75% of young people fear the reaction of friends to talking about their feelings. That’s where my experience kicks in and the reason why I am determined to share my story. Thankfully, stars of the world of sport and screen are increasingly sharing their experiences to provide inspiration to others. I was recently brought to tears listening to Marcus Trescothick’s story on the radio and the heart wrenching television documentary by Stephen Fry. However, their stories, whilst poignant and powerful, relate to a life in the public eye. My own is far more humble and mainstream and I hope that makes it easy to relate to.
My childhood was pretty much as good as anyone could wish for. A loving family, devoted to me and my upbringing. My parents were happily married as they still are today. I am an only child so I guess you could say I was spoiled – but to no great extent as we were very much “working class.” Looking back though, I do recall what I now refer to as “idealism.” Some would describe it as being a perfectionist, but I don’t. A perfectionist works constantly to make something better. Instead I remember I would throw something away instead, searching for the “right” answer. I’ve also been very much an all or nothing kind of person. If I go to an event, I buy t shirts, programmes and fully buy in. Or conversely I opt out totally. In my first year at University I never went out once. Not once. Simply because I got in through clearing and made the decision I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. That was the issue, balance didn’t appear.
I had a vision in my head of exactly how my life would be. I had a go at professional rugby league and didn’t progress, even though I still played Community Rugby League. I got into coaching. Working at Halifax and then Widnes, things were going very well – much according to my plan. I also completed a PGCE and began a PE teaching career. Again this went well with promotion and teaching awards. As many will recognise, I was the “jock” in the school, lively, outgoing, always got a story to tell, popular and perceived by some to be a bit “cocky,” maybe “a bit full of himself.” Something which is common in people active in sport. It was the perfect smoke screen for the truth.
Personally things weren’t so good. Relationships came and went. Often looking back, I realise I threw away some good opportunities. That “idealism” kicking in, always thinking there was something better. I lived alone and spent a huge amount of time on my own, overthinking and wishing things were different. However, once back in school or at the rugby club, it was same old Tony – lively and carefree.
By 2007, the downward spiral had set in. I’d had a son by now and I didn’t live with him. His mum was and still is wonderful, but it wasn’t as I’d planned. Not at all. The constant clamour to find this perfect life left a trail of bad decisions and hurt.
In the summer of 2010 I was completely living two lives. My public and professional face and the unhappy, disappointed self-loathing face – far away from the eyes of anyone who knew me. Most of all far from the eyes of those who loved me. I was aggressive and argumentative, but at no point did I think I was ill. I remember being told by my mum, “I love you but sometimes I really don’t like you.” I look back now and realise what she was saying, but at the time I dismissed the comment. I was so angry my plan for the “ideal” life wasn’t working out for me.
By autumn, I had been left by my ex partner. Another person fed up of my erratic behaviour. This hurt. The rejection and disappointment of further setbacks became a tipping point. It wasn’t the reason, but it was the final straw. The first thing to go was concentration. I simply couldn’t. I could talk about nothing except the break up. My attention to my career disappeared. I stopped going to training at the rugby club and couldn’t be bothered going to see my friends and family. For work colleagues I was a nightmare and I was so difficult to be around. The next thing to fall apart was sleep. Insomnia was horrific. I would sit awake until 4am and then give up and go to have breakfast at 5am in Manchester before school. People noticed my appearance and tired look.
I needed to sleep but the only way I could do it was to have a drink. I’ve never taken drugs ever – not even in my university days – it was never an attraction. I’ve never even been a big drinker, but I started to drink simply to sleep. This meant whilst I did sleep I was in work hungover, and probably even worse than merely being exhausted. My teaching was appalling and this brought some attention from the school management.
One Friday afternoon, I simply broke down in tears. I was taken to the deputy heads office. I poured out lots of reasons why I was in a state, all focused on the break-up, which was only a tiny part of the issue. It was three days to the school Christmas holidays so it was decided I should go home to family and start the holidays early. I promised I would and went home – not to my parents as I had promised, but to my house, and promptly sat with a bottle of wine. I was simply too ashamed to admit the way I was to my mum and dad – I didn’t want to let them down.
Then came a ridiculous bit of decision making. I didn’t want my colleagues to think I was in a mess, so I’ll go to the Christmas do! Awful decision. I drank and drank and rambled incoherently to anyone who would listen about how my life was rubbish. To their credit they listened, but it must have been a fairly pitiful sight. I was bundled into a taxi to go back to my hotel room in Manchester. It was there I decided I’d had enough. I e-mailed a ridiculous apology to a certain few, then attempted something no one should ever do.
I’d hit the bottom and wanted to be gone forever – far away from disappointment and embarrassment.
Thankfully, I was part of a team. This team wasn’t a sport team, but it was my PE Dept colleagues. They were worried and came back to the hotel and got into my room. Heaven knows the outcome if they hadn’t. It was a turning point. I still owe everything to those people.
From this point people found out. Mum was called, I was given medical support and placed on strong medication. That Christmas was a total blur and I have little recollection. It had reached a point where there was only one way things could go and it was the first time in years this happened. There was one reason for this…
People who loved me knew and as a result people provided support and the assistance I needed.
It was a long road. I was off work for 6 months. I took strong medication and had psychotherapy. Something I am sad about is the level of support from the NHS wasn’t great. Occupational Health had a few sessions but it wasn’t enough. I sought private psychotherapy from a practitioner in Manchester. It was enormously expensive and drew on a lot of help from Dad as I simply couldn’t afford it. I needed this and it saddens me this isn’t more widely accessible. It was back to basics. Eat right, exercise, keep clean, and don’t drink. Then once I’d done that for a day, I ticked it off the calendar and did it again the following day. Over 2 and a half years I also weaned myself off my medication. It’s a routine I follow now and even though I do have a drink now, it’s rarely a lot. I was never an alcoholic, I used drink as a medicine for sleep. Even now, I tick off a day on the calendar – I’ve truly developed lifelong habits now, all geared towards ensuring I manage my mental state.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have lows, and unusually erratic highs. I was never diagnosed as bi polar, but my emotions do wave up and down. I am a worrier naturally, so I strive for the philosophy of nothing is too good and nothing is too bad either. I talk a lot too, to friends, family and loved ones about how I feel. I’ll never be free of mental health issues, but I’ve learned to manage them. I love the cartoon of the “Black Dog” and how it can ruin your life but you can train it and live with it. If you’ve not seen it, do look it up.
Looking back I remember wanting not to live anymore. Though if I had ended it all, there is so much I would have missed. I didn’t know that I would have a chance at the job I’m doing now which I really love. I didn’t know I’d eventually have positive and fulfilling relationships and stronger family bonds than ever before. Darkness takes that away, but just because you can’t see it yet, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I’m here due to love and determination from a special few people that looked after me when I needed them. They know who they are and maybe it would have all been avoided if I’d spoken sooner? It’s absolutely essential to me to share this tale, to be willing to talk and to devote time and effort to mental health causes. It’s not your fault, something can be done and it’s never as bad as it seems.
I’m not proud of my story, but I’m not ashamed of it either. It simply is what it is. If one solitary person achieves a better outcome from their own lives by listening to mine. Then I’m happy with my efforts.
Talk and share. It’s the best thing you could ever do.