One Decade On: My Story

The morning of Friday 18th March 2011 isn’t one that I remember all that well.

I imagine it consisted of me being sent out for a meeting in the morning, then being asked to paint barrels straight after. That was the sort of thing my former boss used to do, get me in a suit then utterly degrade me immediately after. The number of times I had to put coveralls on my best suit can’t be counted on one hand. I know I’d been down to Witham St Hughes, and on my way back, I sat and had lunch in Doddington Hall car park.

From there, my recollections of that day are clear and concise, and for exactly ten years they have been a source of shame, of fear and motivation. Friday 18th March 2011 was the day I had what I still feel embarrassed to call my breakdown.

It’s never easy to see what goes on behind someone’s mask – Credit – LCFC

It seems almost fated that the Foundation put this article out yesterday, talking about men’s mental health. Ten years might be a long time in real terms, but in the way we view and accept mental health issues, it is a lifetime. I knew I was on the brink that afternoon in Doddington Hall car park, all I needed was the nudge that finally pushed me over the edge. Hell, I think looking back I’d done well not to go before that. My mortgage took up 75% of my monthly wage, I spent entire weekends staring at my PlayStation drinking Spar own-brand orange dilute, and I was being hounded out of a job I never wanted, was bloody awful at and couldn’t live without.

My book Suited and Booted, which I’ll shamelessly plug here, talks about the circumstances leading up to this event, starting as far back as 1998 when I first had any real issues. I can trace my journey from that time, looking at various points where help might have stopped me going completely. Sadly, even as recently as 2011, help was poor, talking shameful. In the years before, late 2007 onwards, I became a shadow of the man I am now, pushing friends away and desperately seeking approval and validation on all the wrong places. I had a lot of good friends back then, friends I never spoke to about my issues and friends that I still text occasionally, but who it is safe to say feel lost for good.

The intricate details I shall spare you, and I, but eventually it was my role as club mascot Poacher crossing into my real life which caused me the problems. Everything I held dear, my love for the football club and my home and job, were threatened by a malignant individual and a boss hell-bent and getting rid of me. Even after my breakdown, literally a day after, I was forced to drive to the yard where we did business and wait for two hours to hand him a sicknote. All the time he told the digger drivers and tarmac workers who I was and why I was there. I was tanked up on prescribed drugs to calm my nerves, told not to drive, and I was still humiliated in front of a group of people. Worst of all, my closest friend was right there, being trained, and because I’d remained silent, he did and said nothing either.

Nobody knew. My boss had an idea but he used it as a weapon, but nobody close to me knew what I’d gone through. I didn’t live alone, but I was alone. My life, once promising, had crumbled before me. I was meant to be the first of my family to go to university, but it never happened and when my friends all went, so did my self-esteem. I spent years trying to get it back, but in the wrong places, and eventually I collapsed, tired, exhausted and so full of self-pity it ate me up. I broke and I never thought I could be mended.

Meanwhile, back in Lincolnshire, my life fell apart – Credit Graham Burrell

Ten years on, here I am, happier than ever before. All my regrets, I would live through again, just to get to where I am right now, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I broke, but I could be fixed, but there was no guarantee of that, not at the time. That awful weekend, the weekend we lost 2-1 at Stevenage after taking a 1-0 lead, remains a defining moment because I got help. I saw a doctor on the Monday, he finally got me to sleep with tablets, stuck me on what I termed as ‘happy pills’ to take away the perceived stigma, and I even had a bit of counselling.

Do you know what got me through it though, what helped me get back on track? One website, called Blipfoto. It is a bit like Instagram, only the photos on there have to be taken on the day you publish them, and you do one a day. I charted my collapse on there, put my focus almost entirely in telling my story to strangers. I found no solace in admitting to people I loved, or respected, how I felt, but I did find deep strength in talking to those I did not know. I remember names like Bernard, Louise from Edinburgh, Lani from Denver, Rob from Copenhagen, all of whom got me through. One of those names is now my sister-in-law (although I’m not married, but you get the gist), whilst another is the most important person in my life.

I talked about my life, from throwing my education away on a petty squabble with a teacher, through losing my family to break-up and the army, and on to masking it all through my twenties by staying silent, getting twatted and pretending it was fine. It wasn’t fine, but I understood that through talking to people I didn’t know. This wasn’t Twitter or Facebook, there was no judgement and I wasn’t laying my life out for everyone to see.

That’s how I got help, by talking. I binned counselling off, because the experiences of others in the same boat was far more beneficial than anything someone paid £50 an hour to look sympathetic could provide. I needed to identify with the person I spoke to. I needed to know they weren’t just paid to help, they weren’t there through duty, they were there because they were the same as me, or they had been.

It’s why I finished my ‘mascot book’ as I called it. I always wanted to tell some funny mascot stories, but I realised that my experience could help others, and it has. As recently as last week, a good year-and-a-half after my book came out, I had a message from someone who told me that my words helped them understand some aspects of their life.

The players did a video yesterday urging you to talk, and I concur. Talk, but do it in a way that cannot be damaging too. Had social media been as prevalent and widely used back in 2011, and I’d poured my heart out on Twitter, I fear I could have done more damage than good. I looked for validation, I looked for approval but Twitter doesn’t bring that. It brings 280 characters of feel-good, but not always substance. It’s like a shot of adrenalin, a one-night dose of recreational drugs, followed by the comedown. No, look for help in a way that doesn’t leave you open and exposed, because for most feeling anxiety, depression and stress, exposure is the absolute worst thing you can feel.

Finally feeling comfortable with myself

I came through. Sure, I had a few issues in late 2016, but they were very much stress and anxiety-related. I had dealt with the ‘me’ problems, the issues I had later were a result of the scars my boss in 2011 left on me (not physically I hasten to add). In 2011, the issues that had spoiled my life, and affected plenty of others for a good 15 years finally began to be resolved. I’m living proof of whoever you are, whatever you feel, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I didn’t know that ten years ago, to the day. As I sat in what I recall as being warm sunshine., eating a sorry looking cheese sandwich, I didn’t know I was about to get booted over a ledge I’d been balancing on for so long. It hurt when I hit the bottom, but after I bounced, I never looked down again. You can feel that way too. Mental health isn’t a problem that has to dog you for your whole life. You can get better from a cold, you can recover from Covid and believe me, you can beat mental health issues too.

If you need to talk to anyone, please do reach out and get the support you need. Everyone battles their issues differently, there is no ‘one step’ guide to mental health, because like physical health, your problems can be caused by anything and symptoms are wide-ranging. However, all physical health problems get solved by a visit to the doctor in the first instance, and believe me, all mental health issues get solved by talking in the first instance. Where your journey takes you from there will depend on you, your issues and what works, but the starting point is the same. Talk.