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Jonny Wilkinson – the physical and mental battle of a sporting hero
Jonny Wilkinson recently spoke out about his mental health problems and here he talks bravely to Time to Change, England's biggest mental health anti-stigma campaign run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, about his battle...
Since the beginning of my sporting career I have experienced highs and lows but after riding a wave of success in my rugby career, my world came crashing down when I was hit by multiple injuries, which left me unable to compete in the game that is my entire life.
It all came to a head in 2005, when after choosing to ignore the growing pain in my groin, I found out that I had retorn everything that had been repaired in my first groin operation five years ago. On top of that I had torn a big part of my adductor muscle and needed another hernia repair operation plus a tenotomy, which involved cutting the adductor cleanly so that it can reheal perfectly. After the operation I started training again but as soon as I tried any sideways or unpredictable movements, I could feel the groin starting to tear slightly and would have to wait for it to heal before I could train again. And so the cycle began and I found this desperately frustrating.
Suddenly I then found myself fit enough to kick again but I was so desperate to get it right, so driven by the annoyance and fear of not getting it perfect, that the anger I felt inside began to express itself physically. I didn’t know what it was, but my frustration was so intense that I started shouting at the walls, screaming obscenities. I also punished myself for my mistakes too. When my left foot let me down, I stamped down hard on it. At one stage, I was so livid that, before I knew it, I was sinking my teeth into my hand, trying to bite through the skin between my thumb and index finger. It immediately started to bruise and the pain was intense.
I had experienced frustration like this before. I remember one time after training going up to the nearby Slaley Hall Hotel to use their pool. Usually I use the pool to relax physically. This time, I made sure that no one else was around, lowered myself into the water until I was completely submerged, and then I let out a scream of total frustration. I came up for air and then submerged myself again and screamed again. No words, just pure desperation. I carried on screaming as long and as loud as I could and I didn’t stop until I was hoarse. I simply could not find any other way of dealing with this non-stop barrage of thoughts and negativity.
Eventually, I got to a point where I felt I couldn’t escape. There was simply no way I could concentrate enough to even read a book. My mind was totally preoccupied with anything it could find that was negative and destructive; and it caused me to feel panic and my heart to beat quicker. My obsessiveness had vacated rugby completely and started to drive my thoughts downwards, tossing endless dark, nasty images through my head.
I’d been working closely with the Newcastle doctor, Graeme Wilkes, on my physical injuries and this one occasion I went and visited him again but this time I let it all go. I didn’t talk to him about my groin, I told him about my head. Graeme is a fantastic guy, a very good doctor and the right person to be saying this to. He said what I realised I needed to hear, that I have an illness. It’s like any other injury but this one is in my head rather than in my leg or my arm or anywhere else. He was very, very good to me. He explained that my illness was controlling everything else and working on the groin injury was far secondary to sorting out my head. There was no point in my groin getting better if I didn’t sort out my head anyway, because that issue was much more severe.
Merely to know that I have an illness that is not abnormal was like a first weight off my shoulders. I was initially referred to a specialist, but the connection wasn’t quite right. I needed to feel completely comfortable to deal with this. Not long afterwards, I was at a dinner in London and in the midst of the evening I found myself in deep conversation with another player, whom I have known for a long time. I was acutely aware of what was happening to me and was on the brink of sharing my story with people, putting little feelers out in conversation. When I mentioned that I was struggling a bit to this player, the door swung open. He then went on to tell me he had massive problems too. He told me his story and I latched on to every detail. I feel great respect for him, to know that he has dealt with this for so much longer than I have. So I told him my story, and he gave me the telephone number of an American therapist. He tells me that this guy is a great guy, funny but engaging. For me, he said, it really worked so just try it. And that’s how I started.
Jonny Wilkinson talks openly about his mental health problems in his new autobiography, ‘Jonny, My Autobiography. The book is available to buy from all good book stores.