In rugby we hear a lot about bravery; a fullback bravely sacrificing his body in front of a marauding monster of a number 8, a player bravely contesting a kick that's sure to end with a heavy impact on the turf, a captain bravely shunning three points in favour of a match winning seven. This week however, we saw one of rugby's true acts of bravery.
Many will know Phil Steele as Scrum V's pitch side correspondent. A man of sharp wit and penchant for word play. He is one of rugby’s good guys – of which there are many if you ask me – one of the funny guys and one of the knowledgeable guys. When some reporters make you cringe as they push microphones into the damaged faces of rugby’s elite, Steeley can make you smile. His huge personality, worldly wise manner and empathy towards players makes him the one of the best pitch side reporters since Grav sadly departed us.
However, there is another side to the former Newport fullback that was revealed in an interview with fantastic Welsh rugby writer Simon Thomas this week. In the release of his new book, it came as a shock that Steele talked about his three decade long struggle with depression. Maybe it shouldn’t; Comedy and depression have made for strange bedfellows since long before Les Dawson’s mother-in-law was a little girl. A tortured soul and a sense of humour, it seems, go hand-in-hand.
What is more shocking – and refreshing – is to hear somebody like Steeley talk so openly and honestly about this. Though barriers are coming down surrounding this issue, it is still often tucked away, ignore and treated as a dirty little secret. The stigmas continue to reduce around depression, but they are still huge and especially in men. In 2014 the suicide rates in men in the UK was over three times higher than in women, at a staggering rate of 16.8 per 100,000. A part of this is because of the perception of what "real men" should do and how they should act. Many people have no outlet or feel an embarrassment in sharing the issue.
So now, I will also follow Steeley’s lead and share my own experiences.
I myself have struggled with depression throughout my life. Sometimes there have been obvious triggers that have caused it, other times it has just descended like the inescapable fog does on the Brecon Beacons. Sometimes it manifests itself as anger, sometimes as self-loathing, sometimes it is fear – though it isn’t always clear what the fear is of – and sometimes it is a crippling sense of apathy that makes any task seem like Richard Park’s next challenge. My old boss once asked me to explain to them how I feel, I couldn’t find the words to describe correctly. That was 5 years ago, but I’m not sure I could find the words now.
It took me a long time to admit I had a problem and I was suffering. Many people close to me don’t even realise now, but those closest bore the brunt. Even after my acknowledgment I struggled to talk about it… I still do now. For a long time a couldn’t use the ‘D’ word; I was feeling "off", "down", "not with it", I was never comfortable saying I was depressed.
Like Steele, I tried to used rugby as my outlet. I played, I coached, I set up this blog. This blog was merely a way to focus my mind, a distraction away from my problems and a way to train my brain back into untangling the thoughts in my head. At my best and at my worst, I have neglected this blog; thrown it away like crutch I no longer needed. Now I rarely blog and when I do it’s because I want to rather than need to.
I know plenty of people won’t care about this post, and that’s fine – I’m not someone you know, someone you love, someone you watch on TV and feel an affiliation to. However, this post will help me. Not now as I feel the sickness rising in my stomach or the nerves cause prickles of heat to wash over my skin. Not as my hand shakes and quivers over the keys. Not later when I inevitably hover over the "Publish" button for far too long. Not when I await the first response to the post.
But when it’s there for everyone to see, when it’s off my chest and the black dog is off my back, when the first retweet or like or positive comment comes in. Then, when I receive the first negative comment, I will know I have change and I have grown; I won’t retreat into my shell or delete the post, but smile and move on with my day, with my life. The depression hasn’t gone away, I’m not sure it ever can, but I can deal with it much better now.
Even more than helping me, I hope that somebody will read this – even just one person – and realises that they aren’t alone, that is normal. That it will make it all worthwhile.
Thank you Steeley, for your honesty.
Manic Street Preachers – Black Dog on My Shoulder