Without Football I wouldn’t Be Here Today

When I was asked to contribute to The Endless Spiral, an intersection of football and mental health, I had no doubt that I wanted to write something about the way that the game has helped me navigate a way through my own struggles. The only question for me was just how much of my life story and physical and mental health battles I wanted to share. Perhaps the biggest challenge for  those with mental illness is admitting to their experiences and sharing their demons with others, for fear of being judged and/or shamed. You also worry that you would be inflicting your own pain on those you love. That emotion is often the drive behind suicidal thoughts – “If I wasn’t here everyone would be happier.” When the black dog enters the room you can feel like a failure for allowing him in. This is particularly a problem for men, who make up approximately 75% of the victims of suicide. As a man I have faced shame and it still lurks in a corner of my mind. Conversations with my partner are relatively easy, but outside of that it’s not something I’ve felt comfortable speaking about to my family or friends. If I’m in the pub with my mates everything always gets a little uncomfortable once any one of us starts talking about feelings. It’s stupid, because none of us minds, but perhaps we have been shaped by society to have a certain instinctive reaction in particular situations, and that is definitely one that causes significant uneasiness. But where do secrets, silence or partial disclosure get us? At best we suffer in silence and at worst we end up six foot under, so I’ve decided to be entirely honest about myself and my life so I can also demonstrate just how powerful a force football can be, on matchdays and beyond.

In the spirit of the subject matter, my 45 years on this Earth have formed a life of two halves. The first two and a half decades were a time of happiness, success and relative privilege. I was a white, middle class lad born with the good fortune to be healthy, intelligent and physically adept. I had a loving family who supported my choices and encouraged me to achieve and I did well at school and later university whilst also playing sport at a high level from a relatively young age. We all experienced some degree of teenage angst, but the most vivid memories of those years were of playing endless games of football in the park after school, at weekends and in the holidays with whoever on my estate was out, and watching Manchester United underperform before finally making the progression from underachievers to serial winners. Everything I wanted in life was falling into place at the same time. I worked hard and played hard and had absolutely no doubts that my life would pan out in exactly the way I had planned it to. Maybe all young people do, but I felt entirely indestructible. I enjoyed challenges and they made me push myself harder and harder. The thrill of success that you’ve really strived and worked hard for is still a drug that I crave to this day. Life was stable, fun and happy.

And then it wasn’t. In my early twenties I took time out from my career path to go travelling for a month with friends. My last day of good health and happiness was spent, three weeks into that trip, in a humid, sticky train carriage on the second leg of a journey from a three day piss up on the Greek island of Corfu to our next destination, Venice. I think about that day a lot, and try to remember how my healthy body felt and what contented happiness without any caveats was like. Both of those things are now distant memories and I don’t believe I can truly understand those two states of being anymore. It feels like another life.

When we arrived in Venice and walked out of the station into the blinding summer sun my eyes burned in a way I’d never experienced before. Over the next couple of days my eyesight deteriorated, my brain slowed, my neck became stiffer and stiffer and my head harder and harder to carry. I felt like I was looking at the world through a pane of glass. I don’t really understand why, but I just ploughed on with the holiday. I’ve always suffered with FOMO (fear of missing out) and probably didn’t want to miss experiences I might never have again. I suspect, as well, I just figured it would go away. I mentioned it to my friends but it barely registered and I didn’t want to moan. Blokes, eh? So we moved on to Vienna and post-Communist Prague where, having been unable to face a night out drinking, I spent an afternoon and evening alone in a dingy bedsit, in a country in which I couldn’t speak a word of the language, with no mobile phone or means of contacting anyone, pretty convinced that my friends may come back to find me dead. That was my breaking point, and after we travelled on to Berlin I gave up, flew home and went to hospital. I was told I had had a particularly nasty virus but that it had cleared my system. Three days later, against the advice of the consultant, I discharged myself, went home to try to get better from whatever damage had been done, and when that didn’t work I just returned to my previous life and ploughed on regardless (see FOMO and an instinct to push through, above).

This wasn’t entirely wise. I’ll skip the subsequent long and traumatic period, but 18 months later I found myself in a bed at my parents’ house, my health, my independence, my career, my sports, my socialising – all of the things that defined who I was and who I wanted to be – gone. For a while I wasn’t much more than a vegetable, with no real working short term memory, barely the energy to lift my head, struggling to see or form a sentence. At one point I couldn’t remember my sister’s name. My doctors said recovery would take time and that it may never be fully achieved. I was in that bed for much of the next five years. At first you can’t think about what has happened to you. Vegetables don’t do reflection. But the mind came back long before the body did and in my case that really wasn’t a good thing. Standing still while your friends live the life that you wanted is tough, but two things kept me sane. One was the knowledge that I was improving, albeit painfully slowly, and without a light at the end of the tunnel there’s very little to hold on to. The other was the idea of allowing myself treats to look forward to. Largely they were football related. Watching television was draining on my brain and there was no internet then, so most of my day was spent with my radio, listening to Radio 5. But two or three days a week I could watch the football. This developed into a Saturday night Chinese takeaway and football. My mates would come round, lie on the bed with me and watch a match. Then, as things improved a little more, every fortnight my dad took me to my local Football League club. He doesn’t even like football, but he was doing his best for me and that’s the most connected to him I’ve ever felt. He’ll never know how important that was to me. Sometimes I’d get there, realise I wasn’t well enough and we’d go straight home, but most of the time I could manage it and it connected me to the rest of the world. It was what ‘normal’ people did. It’s what I would have been doing were I well. Eventually I was strong enough to get up to Old Trafford with my dad, but it was a two day job because travelling home afterwards was too much. That was a big emotional step for me. My first match back we sat in the North Stand behind a guy who spent the entire ninety minutes abusing Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Forlan and proclaiming that they’d ruined United. We won 5-2 against Maccabi Haifa and Veron and Forlan both scored. I laughed a lot, and I don’t think I’d really laughed like that in a very long time.

Image courtesy of The Guardian

Over the course of five years I slowly progressed back towards being a functioning human being. In late 2002 I spent a month on a neurology ward for further testing and some specialised treatment. A month is an awfully long time to spend on a hospital ward, but I met some great people who helped pass the time. One was Steve, a Mancunian United fan in his late forties who I got chatting to because we’d both appear in the patients’ lounge and fight for the TV when football was on. He was in hospital as he was experiencing some serious neurological symptoms and was undergoing testing to find the cause. In my third week a consultant woke Steve up at 3am to tell him that he had an inoperable brain tumour and likely had only a couple of weeks to live, and he spent the remainder of the night sobbing and being comforted by the nurses. I didn’t expect to see him in the lounge again, but two days later, as I sat watching the build up to United’s Champions League match against Juventus in Turin Steve appeared, we nodded at each other and he pulled up a chair and sat down next to me to watch the game. What followed was a really uncomfortable silence, because what the hell do you say? I thought about what I’d do if United scored and decided to hold it in or be very muted in my celebrations. United did score, through Ryan Giggs, and I sat on my hands. To my surprise Steve was up and celebrating as if this were any other game at any other moment in his life. From that point on we chatted away as if the world were exactly the same place for him as it had been a few days before. The next day his girlfriend came to collect him to take him home to die. By the time I was discharged we were told that he had passed at home in his sleep, which was devastating to hear, but it comforted me to some degree knowing that football had given him a couple of hours of pleasure in his final days. I think that was possibly the moment that I realised the emotional power of the game. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are the joy and pain can rarely be entirely extinguished. I’d watched United win the treble from my bed and it felt no less incredible than if I’d been healthy and living my life as a twenty-something year old should.

By my late twenties I was well enough to move out, start to get back into work and even get back to swimming and the gym. I met a girl and we moved around the country, travelled and socialised in a way that had been stolen from me. I found a really good job and was just happy to be putting on a suit in the mornings to go to work. My illness was still there, but I managed it and it’s the closest to happiness I’ve been since getting ill. It was a pretty decent few years. We bought a house and had a baby, which is the point at which I stopped managing my illness, because how can you with a family to look after and bills to pay? My relapse didn’t happen quickly. It crept up on me over maybe three years of slow physical decline and worsening of symptoms. I largely ignored this and persuaded myself it wasn’t happening, but deep down you know, and it’s like knowing you’re going to be in a serious accident and don’t have the capacity to avoid it. We had a second child, and that’s pretty much when my body failed and I was back in a bed.

That was the point at which my mental health collapsed in a way that it had never done previously. I had a total breakdown, severe depression, unable to process being so ill again and suddenly not being able to care for my daughters or be a boyfriend to my partner. There’s a scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hank’s character, traumatised by what he experienced on D-Day and beyond, develops a tremor in his hand. My hands shook for a good eighteen months, 24 hours a day. This time pain was far more of an issue than it had previously been. I developed sensitivities to sound and light and suffered severe neurological pain. I’d had enough, I wanted to die. After months of anguish and fighting to resist the thoughts in my head I decided to move back in with my parents, because I didn’t want my children to see me like that, disabled and broken, and I felt that my guilt over my inability to be what they needed me to be was eating me alive. On the day my sister came to collect me I attempted to hang myself from the upstairs bannister of our house. Fortunately/unfortunately my noose-making matched my other practical skills – it wasn’t great, and the rope was too long. That fuck up gave me the brief moment of reflection, sat on the stairs, I needed to change my mind. So I went back to my parents, where a voluntary stint in a NHS mental health unit was followed by another stint mostly in THAT bed again. In hospital I found lots of normal, good people going through terrible times, just like me, and once again football on tv in the common room became the thing that some of us bonded over. Most of us had given up on life, but could still laugh about the game or chat shit about the teams supported by the others. The non-football lovers didn’t have that and I think their experience was harder for it. There was nothing to raise their spirits or a common link that could bind them together socially. Football, in my experience, makes the social aspect of human existence a far easier code to crack.

I spent another year fighting to stay alive. My company was my radio, Talksport or Fivelive, and I got through a day by focusing everything on the next football match and the knowledge that my children needed a dad – although at the time it didn’t always feel like it. In this period my partner and I decided to separate and it was a massive relief to me. I was no longer tied to her happiness and it allowed me to focus more on my own battle with the darkness and my physical health. Even so, I reached a point that I knew I couldn’t carry on in that physical and emotional pain any more. As a last throw of the dice my doctor changed one of my pain meds and the effect was almost immediate. It acted like a dimmer switch, suppressing my pain from a nine or ten to a five or six. Suddenly I could function, go for a walk, play with my kids. My mental state improved steadily thereafter, although my depression is always there, lapping at my feet every time a period of physical relapse occurs. I’ve been able to work again, have a new partner and two step-daughters, but I’m still in sometimes barely manageable pain. I had a big mental wobble last year, when my health worsened and debilitated me. For the first time in eight years I had suicidal thoughts and needed an awful lot of support from my loved ones and the NHS to pull through it.

Earlier in the year, when football stopped due to COVID, I’d unexpectedly struggled as well. My mental resilience is built on the distraction that football brings, thinking about the matches, the players, talking about it to my friends or on social media, having it to look forward to. Suddenly it was gone and my mind was empty. I experienced a void in my life that I genuinely didn’t know how to fill with something else. Is there anything else that could play that role as effectively? Chronic illness is a heavy burden to carry, particularly when your life is not the one you imagined, and all of us need a crutch. Studies have suggested that the average life expectancy of someone with my health condition is about 55 years old. The reasons for this are multifactorial, but one of the biggest downward drags on that number is suicide, often involving the young. The suffering can be indescribable. Every few months I read of a new death. In my time on Twitter several sufferers I regularly conversed with have taken their own lives. Every time it happens there is an overwhelming feeling of despair, but also of understanding. I know why they did it, in a way that the healthy cannot, and I am thankful that they are no longer suffering. The most recent was a year younger than me and shook me to the core. When you lose your health you grieve for your former life and dreams. It’s a grief that never passes, as you watch as your friends live the life you should be experiencing. The physical symptoms of my illness can be horrific and research has repeatedly showed that sufferers have the lowest quality of life of any notable chronic condition.

Without football I wouldn’t be here. My children would not have a dad and, possibly, may never have existed at all. Despite ongoing depression I have experienced highs that I could not have otherwise imagined. I ride the United rollercoaster every week, but can watch and enjoy pretty much any football, from any country. It cleanses the soul. It’s a passion my family just don’t understand. They have no crutch in tough times and it has made them harder. Last weekend I was caught up in the Football Index scandal, a tale of duplicity and lies which has drained everyday people of thousands of pounds, plunging some into financial crisis. I lost a decent amount of money, but I’d not traded with more than I could afford and had seen the danger signs for the business. I had fun along the way and see it as leisure money I’d have spent anyway. Regardless, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning I was angry and frustrated at the way it had happened and the impact it was having on the lives of others. This could have eaten away at me, but by Sunday evening I was in a state of euphoria. I’d watched Liverpool lose their sixth consecutive home game, to Fulham, and then United put in a remarkable performance to outplay and beat City at the Etihad. That night, and the following few days, life was good, even though in a global sense it was still bad. Football isn’t just entertainment. It enhances and, in some cases, saves lives.

By: Richard Cann @RichRedVoices