To say it’s been a difficult couple of months would be an understatement…
Those of you who are already somewhat familiar with my story will know that I have suffered with depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder for as long as I can remember. It’s fair to say I’ve had a rocky relationship with my mental health over the years and for so long, I had expended so much energy in hiding my pain from everyone else around me. I was driven by the fear of being viewed as ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ and was terrified that nobody would understand what I was going through.
With much support from my wife and friends, I took the step of publicly sharing of my struggles a few years ago. It was such a relief to see just how much support I received from within the rugby community and further afield. It showed me that so many people have their own experiences with mental health challenges and I was anything but alone.
I’ve since gone on to participate in numerous television, radio and press interviews, in which I described in graphic detail how obsessive compulsive disorder had driven me to the point of suicide. In doing so, I vowed that I would never suffer in silence again.
As late as last October, I headlined Time to Change Wales’ campaign for World Mental Health Day and I spoke as someone who didn’t recognise his former self. I wanted to offer a message of positivity and portray someone who had turned his life around. I spoke about my darkest moments in the past tense.
Unfortunately, I was not telling the truth…
Behind this mask of optimism, I was fighting a daily battle against the increasingly appealing prospect of committing suicide.
Privately, I wasn’t coping well with some events in my personal life and I had fallen into the deepest depression I’d ever experienced in my life. I felt like such a fraud and I felt ashamed to have gone so far backwards after making so much progress. Having known what it felt like to feel happiness for a period of time, falling down again hurt so much more this time around.
I tried to persevere for as long as I could, but after nearly eighteen months of endless mental torture, I just couldn’t carry on.
Within days, I was admitted to the Priory Hospital in Bristol as an inpatient and I took a very public leave of absence from my role as Chief Executive Officer of Pontypool RFC with immediate effect. I had nothing left in the tank and work had become impossible to manage.
I knew what would be in store for me for the next couple of weeks. This would be my second spell in ‘rehab’ after I spent a month there in 2017 to receive treatment predominantly for obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition which had completely consumed every fibre of my being since early childhood.
It’s a sobering experience walking through the door of the hospital knowing you are voluntarily waving goodbye to your freedom and liberty for the foreseeable future. For me, both times I was admitted to rehab – it felt like my ‘hitting rock bottom’ moment.
On arrival, you are taken to your room and this immediately puts the gravity of your situation into stark perspective. Believe me, it’s certainly not the celebrity-spa resort the press like to portray it as.
Everywhere you look, there are constant reminders that the rooms are designed to prevent you from harming yourself. The windows are covered in black mesh, the bathroom door is little more than a padded modesty panel that offers just enough privacy and even the taps operate on a timer to limit the amount of water dispensed at any given time. You are well supported by excellent staff, but it’s still incredibly overwhelming.
Whilst you’re processing your surroundings, you begin an induction process with the nursing staff. All of your belongings are checked – item by item – and anything that is remotely deemed a risk to your safety is taken away from you until you begin to make progress. Whether that be your razor, phone charger, shoe laces, toothbrush, or even things you wouldn’t ordinarily think of – like the drawstrings from your shorts or hoodie – it all goes away and no chances are taken.
My wife accompanied me both times when I was admitted to hospital and I’ll never forget the feeling of utter dismay I felt as she watched me having to part with the most innocuous of personal possessions. She has always supported me and has been incredibly caring at my lowest moments, but it doesn’t make you feel good as a husband to see the person you love most see you in such a vulnerable state.
Following the induction, you are left for a few moments of privacy to say your goodbyes. My wife gave me a big bear-hug and told me how much she loved me. I could feel her crying into my chest and I felt a huge sense of duty to show strength and re-assure her that I was going to be okay – but deep down, I didn’t truly believe a word I was saying and I’m not sure she did either.
As she left the ward, I just sat on the edge of my bed, alone. I must have sat there for five minutes, just staring at the floor, feeling utterly deflated and defeated. I didn’t move, I didn’t say a word. At that very moment, I didn’t want to be here anymore. I wanted everything to end.
The first few days in rehab are incredibly hard. You are checked by the nursing staff every fifteen minutes, 24 hours a day – with no exceptions. You are escorted everywhere you go, whether that be to eat meals, go outside for fresh air, receive medication and attend therapy sessions. You are never alone, which is a good thing of course, but when all you’ve done is isolate yourself from others to hide your pain for so long – it’s quite an adjustment.
In the weeks and months before I was admitted to rehab, I would take any opportunity possible to be alone. I was so incredibly depressed and anxious that I just couldn’t face people or my everyday responsibilities.
Pontypool RFC is my passion and I love my job, but I began to find myself hoping that our games would be called off due to a waterlogged pitch. For games where my wish wasn’t granted, I would drive alone in my car, turn up minutes before kick-off and would watch games away from the crowd. As soon as the game finished, I’d be engineering a reason to get in my car and return home to isolation. I wouldn’t like to count the amount of times I was late for meetings or didn’t turn up at all, because I simply couldn’t face getting out of bed.
To put this into perspective, we were sitting top of the WRU National Championship table and were on course to be promoted to the Premiership division. We were in the midst of a 63-game winning streak and experiencing the most incredible success, but I was just empty – completely emotionally and physically empty.
Whilst everyone around me revelled in the experience, all I wanted to do was go home, hide away and cry myself to sleep. Every time someone shook my hand and told me what a great job I was doing in taking the club forward, it just bounced off me. Though I’d thank them for their kindness, what I really wanted to say was; “if only you knew how bad a job I’m doing – both personally and professionally, I’m the ultimate fraud”.
When I fell into a deep depression a few years ago, Pontypool RFC was my outlet. It took away all my pain, it gave me a focus. That little bit of relief it provided afforded me enough hope to carry me through another day, another week. Were it not for the club back then, I wouldn’t be here today.
But this time, it wasn’t helping. If anything, it was making things worse. I literally felt like I was suffocating within myself. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I had fallen into a massive hole and the only way I could cope was to be away from everyone and everything. Acting happy when all you want to do is cry is tiring. I just couldn’t pretend I wasn’t struggling a day longer.
This is why it’s so vital that as you begin to struggle, you try and take steps to not suffer in silence. Whether it be a friend, family member, counsellor or anybody else you feel will empathise with your situation – by speaking to someone, you are taking the most important first step towards recovery.
What I quickly began to realise in rehab was just how much depression and anxiety encourages you to isolate yourself. The longer you are away from the people you love, the less hope you have for the future. The more you avoid involving yourself in your favourite pastimes and positive outlets, the less appetite you have to live through another day. Before long, all you have to pass the time are your own dark thoughts and that is a dangerous place to be. I was in that place for too long.
With every passing day in rehab, I began to work through my problems with the nursing and therapy staff at the hospital. The more sessions I attended, the more my confidence grew. Before long, I was speaking to my fellow patients and we established common ground. We could empathise with each other and encourage one another. Knowing you’re not alone is a special moment, for it gives you hope that your problems are not so individual and unique that they can’t be addressed with the support of others. I’d completely lost sight of that fact.
After spending two weeks in hospital and making positive progress, I was discharged as an inpatient on a Friday afternoon and was set to complete my treatment as a day-patient in the weeks ahead. Although there was work to be done and I was nowhere near being back to my best, I was looking forward to going home for the weekend and I was beginning feel some relief from the pain.
Unfortunately, upon walking in through my front door, I was alerted to the fact that the Welsh Rugby Union had cancelled the 2019-2020 season and with that, the club had lost the opportunity to realise its dream of gaining promotion to the Premiership. The fallout from this was significant and I took the decision to bury my treatment and return to work immediately. Within minutes, all the stress and anxiety I’d worked to reduce came flooding back to me and I was back to square one.
In a flash, I’d abandoned any empathy I’d worked to established for myself. I felt guilty for having let people down at the club by taking time away and I was keen to make up for lost time. I wanted to show leadership and demonstrate that I was still up to the job of navigating the club through a crisis.
In reality, it was clear that I was still struggling and it was far too early for me to think that I could just resume my life as normal. This would become abundantly clear in the days ahead.
The following Monday, I was sat at my desk, burying myself in work. This was proving difficult as I’d been experiencing strong headaches and abdominal pain for several days. It’s quite normal to feel this way after weeks of intense therapy, so I thought nothing of it and dismissed the symptoms. However, things soon deteriorated, very rapidly.
I was suddenly hit by a wave of intense nausea. Before I could process what was happening, I lost my sight and hearing and I began to sweat and shake uncontrollably. A few seconds later, I collapsed on the floor.
Fortunately, my wife discovered me a couple of minutes later and dialled 999. At this point, my lips had turned blue and my heart was beating out of my chest – my ‘resting’ heart-rate had jumped to 165bpm. I knew immediately that this was not a panic attack and something was seriously wrong.
I was rushed to hospital by ambulance, where it was discovered that I had suffered significant internal bleeding and had fallen into hypovolemic shock. The root cause was a stomach ulcer that had been brought on by all the stress I’d been experiencing for so many months.
I remember laying in my hospital bed, just feeling absolutely broken. I was hooked up to drips and monitors, my resting heart rate (I again use that term very loosely) remained above 130bpm for almost four hours and I couldn’t even stand up without collapsing again. All I could do was lay there and contemplate how I ended up in such a bad place. You never think this will happen to you at such a young age and it shook me to my core.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that checking-in to rehab was my ‘hitting rock bottom’ moment, but in all honesty, this was when I knew that I’d truly ‘hit rock bottom’.
I knew deep down that my this was my body’s way of telling me that this level of stress was simply unsustainable. I phoned my wife to update her, but I just broke down in tears.
After three days in hospital, I was discharged and returned home to begin my recovery. In essence, I was starting from ground zero and I knew in that moment that things needed to change in a big way moving forward.
It’s taken a long time, but two months later, I can honestly say that I’m beginning to feel well again. I have used the current government lockdown to devote almost all of my time to replenishing my mental and physical well-being. There’s still work to be done before I can consider myself as being in recovery, but I’m more determined than ever before to become the best version of myself I can possibly be.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that this is a lifelong process. The more I began to struggle again, the more I lost compassion for myself. I considered it a personal failure to suffer any form of relapse, even though I would never feel that way if someone confided in me that they were experiencing similar difficulties. Without even realising, I had re-adopted my former mindset of shame, guilt and humiliation. Now, I realise that this is not only unrealistic, but entirely unfair.
I’m now looking forward to continuing my recovery in the weeks and months ahead with optimism. In all truth, starting this blog and sharing this journey is part of my therapy. In doing so, I hope that the more I talk, the more I will start to accept myself for who I am once again. I’ve been chasing the concept of ‘happiness’ for over thirty years and I’m desperate to at least discover a sense of contentment in my life.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and I hope you have found this of some use.
Until next time, take care.