It’s the 90th minute of a crucial FA Cup tie, and as the seconds die away plucky Lincoln break. Adam Marriott sizes up the full-back and opts to release a pass rather than attack the player. From nowhere Nathan Arnold sprints through, drawing on reserves of energy that shouldn’t even be there.
In front of just over 9000 people he wrong foots the keeper and leaves him on the deck as he twists away and slides past. Facing an empty goal set in front of 1000 Ipswich fan, he slots the ball home to give City a 1-0 win. Brave? Indeed, but it paled in comparison to last night.
Last night Nathan Arnold stood in front of around 60 people in a room at Sincil Bank and laid bare his soul, his suffering and his path towards recovery in the hope that it may help others. When you read ‘An evening with Nathan Arnold’, you might have thought he’d roll on for a cameo after others had presented the work, but nothing was farther from the truth. It was Nathan from the start, sharing who he was, what he has experienced and how he was dealing with it.
That in itself was brave, far more so than taking a chance on a Matt Rhead flick-on against Gateshead. Nathan spoke of wanting to help people, wanting to use his status as a well-known footballer to do good. Scoring goals from the first minute to the last isn’t enough, he wants to share his experiences and make the world a better place, whether it is for the 60 people who attended the anxiety event, or the many more that simply couldn’t face it. Usually when a footballer wants to help they go to a school or a college, pose for a few photos and sign a few autographs. That is great, those players are a credit to the club, but this is a whole new level.
An event of this kind is a strange affair at first. Lots of normal people, the sort you see in the street every day, congregated in the VIP suite. Those who knew other people latched on to each other, finding strength in having someone there they knew. Others came alone, frozen by the fear of putting themselves out there but doing it nonetheless. That’s incredibly brave, and I’m sure Nathan would tell you it takes far more strength of character than chasing a pass in the last minute, no matter how sublime the goal is.
Nathan’s partner Jennifer was the first person I saw on entering the room, and I’m not going to lie I was shitting myself. I’ve walked into the VIP suite a hundred times, I’ve been there for matches and events, I had my Poacher interview in that room almost two decades ago, and yet I never went in as nervous as I did last night. I’d never met Jennifer but she welcome me as if we were old friends, she had spotted I was visibly worried about what was to come. ‘Get a cup of tea and relax’ was her message. Nothing has that effect better than a brew.
I’m not going to talk about who was there, it wouldn’t be fair, but I saw faces I recognised but never attributed to suffering anxiety or depression. Why would I? Anxiety is perhaps the most hidden of all illness, hidden away at home behind a mask of confidence. Some of the people I saw in the room I identify as strong and confident people, but that is clearly a misconception. Many will have thought the same looking at me. One posted on Facebook later ‘It (last night) taught me to never judge a book by its cover’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Nathan took control of the evening from the off, delicately balancing his own trauma and struggle with inspirational quotes and videos. He presented in an honest and genuine style, just a normal guy who wanted to use his troubles to help others. He wasn’t a professional health worker looking to implant a method of treatment, he wasn’t a professional footballer being rolled out for his name and status alone. He’s a bloke, a normal bloke with a family and kids who opened himself up to a room of strangers in order to help them.
There was a focus on NLP, Neuro-linguistic programming, which is something I have a little understanding about. He wasn’t looking to dissect people’s problems or force an ideal on anybody, but he demonstrated some of the tools that he has used to start his journey forward. If you’re already aware of these he briefly covered things such as anchoring and learning patterns, impressing upon the room that the world isn’t necessarily as you see it.
One thing that really stuck with me, and hopefully will serve as a taster for the general content of the evening, was a short video before the break. It was a guy doing a motivational piece to camera in what looked like an abandoned motel full of graffiti. The bit that resonated with me went like this:
“Why are you down when bills come in? Why do you see that as a negative? You have the money to pay your bills, and you have a house which generates those bills. Don’t be angry about the bills, be happy you have the things required to get them in the first place.”
That’s not ad verbatim, it is my recollection, but that stuck with me throughout the break. I’m glad something took my mind away from the segment immediately after the break.
Nathan had been very clear that if I didn’t want to speak, there was no pressure, but no matter how scared I felt, I couldn’t let him or the room down. He had not only put himself out there by admitting his anxiety in public, but also developed and presented a whole course designed to help other people. All I had to do was speak for five or ten minutes about my anxiety, and how it has affected my life.
I got up and made my way to the front and it seemed as if it would be a breeze, but then I turned and saw 60 people looking back at me, 60 people looking for something they could take away from the evening to make their lives better. I could stand there and talk about Lincoln City for hours, but talk about me? Talk about the things I hide away from people? Wow. That was my first thought, and my first word.
It wasn’t easy, as always I hopefully used a bit of humour to mask the insane fear oozing from every pore. I was honest, perhaps too much so in some cases, but I wanted people in the room to know they weren’t alone. I wanted Nathan to have another voice to strengthen his message, and I wanted the younger people to know they must not let this dictate the next ten or fifteen years of their lives. I wanted redemption for the way I’d behaved from 2001-11, for the people I’d hurt because of my own inability to face up to the things I experienced. Hopefully, that came through loud and clear.
I told a story from last week which I will recall now. I had a party at my house, and I decided as I’m not working at present I wanted a brash haircut, a mohawk. I’d grown my hair to a length consistent with a good mohawk, and not one of these hipster things either, I wanted a proper Rancid / UK Subs punk haircut. I gathered up my coins and made my way to Louth to tell the hairdresser what I wanted.
Halfway through I clearly was not getting a mohawk, and I politely repeated my request, adding my impression of a mohawk was pretty much ‘shaved all over except for an inch in the middle’. The hairdresser nodded and proceeded to give me a short back and sides with quarter of an inch all over on top, the same style I’d had my hair in since 2011.
Did I mention the issue and refuse to pay? Did I take umbrage with her and voice my displeasure? Did I demand a mohawk? Nope, I paid her. In fact, I tipped her three quid too. Why? Because I suffer from anxiety and the very last thing a sufferer will ever do is enter into confrontation with a stranger.
I sat back down after my speech full of pride because I’d done it, and fear because I didn’t know how it would be taken. I shouldn’t worry though, the other people in the room knew exactly how I felt because they have the same issue. At least I could get to the hairdresser, some people can’t get out of the house.
As things drew to a close it was revealed this wasn’t the end of it, not at all. Everyone in the room was asked how they’d like to progress, how they wanted to continue the journey they started out on when they stepped through the door. Some will take a one to one session, others will be involved in small group sessions. Across the room I could almost hear sighs of relief that once the curtain came up and the lights came on, they weren’t being left alone again. You see, Nathan cares, Jennifer cares, Jim Brierly cares and I care.
People milled around for twenty minutes or so afterwards, and I found it humbling people wanted to chat to me about what I’d said. Without revealing who I spoke to, some identified with my ‘mohawk’ story, others remembered me as Poacher and (obviously) never knew I’d experienced some of the things I had. The thing I noted was how much of a struggle it was for some of those people just to come up and speak. Some had to draw a deep breath first, visibly it wasn’t easy just to approach someone they hadn’t met before. You think scoring a 90th minute winner in front of 9000 is brave? Try suffering with anxiety and approaching someone you don’t know to tell them you identified with what they said, then you’ll know what brave is.
I found it remarkable how many men had come along, two lads were best friends but neither knew of the others struggle until they arrived at the ground. One guy told me how he could see himself in me, sat in the barber’s chair agonising over getting a haircut he didn’t want but too afraid to say anything for fear of becoming embarrassed, anxious or causing a scene. I remember walking out of the shop that day wondering why I had to be so bloody passive, why I was so alone in fearing speaking up, but I’m not. Last night showed I’m not, and if you’re sat there reading this now wondering if it’s just you, it isn’t.
If you’re wondering whether anyone else struggles to leave the house for fear of something bad happening, they do. If you struggle to be in public spaces, if you cast an eye over those around you worried about what they think or how they see you, you’re not alone. If you get a knot in your stomach at the thought of being in a busy restaurant, a knot so intense it makes you feel physical pain, you’re not on your own. Nathan has had some of these symptoms, I’ve had some of these symptoms and they’re only made worse by keeping them to yourself.
As we left Nathan and I hugged, he was proud of what I’d done and I felt honoured and humbled to be helping a man whom I admired so much. Last night I didn’t see Nathan Arnold the footballer though, after about five minutes that image went. I didn’t see the guy who pounces on loose balls to create goals, rifles in 20 yard thunderbolts or pops up in the last-minute to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. No, last night as we left I hugged Nathan, a softly-spoken and humble man who has suffered grief and anxiety, a man who is learning how to deal with that and a man who has a profile he can use to try to help other people. Now that, that is real bravery.