Never one to be the quiet or timid type, it would be difficult to find someone who thinks I’m anything other than boisterous and over-confident. Yet behind this male bravado there’s a sensitivity and vulnerability that I have always tried to mask.
Being a rugby player at a high level coincides with an increase in pressure and, for me, a decrease in enjoyment. Always set on the notion of playing professionally, the goal became more of a need than a want; my mind became cautious and apprehensive towards the one thing that had always been fun and carefree. In a sport dominated by strength, power and the ‘show no weakness’ mind-set, I found myself reclusive and isolated. Whilst the idea of brotherhood and comradeship is tossed around freely, when push came to shove it was nowhere to be found.
I felt alone in a team sport. I felt the need to eat, sleep and breathe rugby until it became detrimental to my physical and mental wellbeing. I became so anxious about my goal and dream that I began to over-train, over-eat and never sleep. Then injury struck, and the mental health problems I had chosen to ignore became debilitating.
I isolated myself from the outside world, from my support network, from my family. I had no desire to get out of bed, let alone leave the house. I had fought through mental instability for one sole goal and it was gone in an instant. I felt like my identity was gone in an instant.
Not only did I feel weak physically, but I felt weak mentally. Succumbing to the stigma behind men’s mental health I remained silent, hid my emotions and tried to mask my inner thoughts. Why would anyone care how I felt? I was the big, confident rugby player how could anyone believe I would have a mental health issue? I was stuck in my ways, convinced that I had to maintain people’s existing perceptions of me. I couldn’t allow myself to appear weak. I gradually went back to reality, back to university and back to the people who thought I was the ‘bubbly’ person I had always been.
Then after almost a year of this façade, I’m taking absence from work for mental health reasons, I’m mentally breaking down in front of my girlfriend and I’m feeling alone whilst surrounded by loved ones. I put on a mask and a fake smile, and as a result my mental health worsened. Not only did it worsen, it almost cost me the few people that I had allowed to remain close to me.
Struggling to cope, my girlfriend told me to open up. I refused. She told me that she was there to help. I didn’t believe her. She told me she wouldn’t judge me. I refused to appear ‘weak’. Then in that moment I saw her almost break down and realised that my mental wellbeing was not just affecting me but also the people that I only ever wanted to make happy.
In that moment, I let everything out. I talked about things I have never mentioned to anyone. I released every inner thought, every anxiety, every bad thing I was going through. In that moment, I felt free for the first time in over a year.
To say I no longer struggle would be a lie, but I have realised that some people only want to help. There are people out there that will not judge you – be that a loved one, a counsellor or a friend. I realised that there is a release and a relief in talking about mental health; there is a power in embracing your mental wellbeing.
I want to share my story to let others know that it’s okay to feel weak, anxious or insecure, but to be aware that there is always someone to talk to. And that talking may well be the vice you need to begin moving forward.
Now I always talk about how I’m feeling and any new issues I have. There remains a stigma behind mental health – especially for men – but through an increase in talking about it we can begin to break that stigma. We can begin to get past the preconception of what it means to be a ‘man’, and begin to help each other out. Don’t keep quiet, speak up and speak out.