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Our Therapy-Mental Health & Football

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I don’t know where to start with this, really. I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to start. That’s what my experience of depression was like. I knew what I wanted but was clueless on how to get there. I didn’t feel as if I could get there, or would get there. Ever. I wanted to feel happy, be my normal self again, but I didn’t think it was possible. It was going to be like that forever. Or, I could put a stop to it all. Be calm, be peaceful. Forever. Never have to feel anything again. I’d never be happy, but I’d never have to feel the bottomless, never-ending, cold, harsh, lonely, empty, unforgiving pain that I felt. A reasonable compromise I thought. This solution is appealing to so many with depression. When you’ve been there yourself you understand why. Tragically, many opt to take it. They see it as the only way out. Their only escape. All the shit they have to go through disappears, but so do they. I didn’t opt for this solution. I don’t know why. Something stopped me. I came close, though. I was planning it in my head, thinking of ways to go. How I could do it, causing the least trauma for everyone else. I was on the edge.

The doctor diagnosed me with what is called ‘reactionary depression’, where events happen in your life which send you in a deep, downward spiral, all the way to the bottom. A few things happened to me in the Spring, which I’m not going to go into, and down I went. This was the lowest point in my life. I wanted everything to stop. I wanted life to stop. I thought about it, every day, deeply and seriously. But I didn’t do it. I was scared. I was scared that it would go wrong, I wouldn’t be successful and I would end up seriously injuring myself. But I was still on the edge. If something else bad had happened, I don’t think I would be here. Others have said the same. I can’t say how glad I am that nothing else happened. I can’t say how glad I am that I was scared. It kept me alive. Things improved, slowly. Eventually, I wasn’t having suicidal thoughts anymore, but life was still shit. I still couldn’t take my mind of everything. Nothing distracted me, apart from one thing. Football. It kept me in check, gave me the release I needed and helped me on my road back to being me. 

I fucking love football. It’s my life. It’s everything. Without it I feel I would have nothing. No interests, no social life, no mates, nothing to do. I honestly don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t like football. There’s just so much of it and you can’t get enough of it. It’s everywhere. I watch football, I play football, I think football, I read football, I everything football. The best bit about it is the conversation never stops. Every day there’s something new to talk about. Something that grips the interest of people worldwide, be it an absolute screamer, a crazy scoreline, a stunning photograph, or a shite opinion. There’s always something to talk about. It’s a whole world of its own. Another reality. A world that continues the same no matter what happens outside of it in the other, everything else world. That’s what I needed. I needed to be transported to some other world where the outside world has little or no effect on you or anything else. Where nothing from the outside world can touch you or hurt you. It made me feel safe, made me feel like I belonged somewhere and I belonged to something. I remember going to the first game after my downward spiral began and it made me feel better. My life was turning to shit and I needed to get out. I needed a release and somewhere to forget. Football was that. I remember feeling safe. I was home. I didn’t know where I belonged in the rest of my life, but I knew for sure that I belonged there. 30,000 people in the stadium, only a very small handful I know personally, but they’re all my family and one way or another, they’ll make sure I’m okay.

What gives you the release is the investment we feel in the game. We go to the game and all our energy, passion and emotion is spent on those 90 minutes. You invest absolutely everything into it. You become so concentrated and so focussed on the game that nothing else matters. You can’t take your mind off it. You don’t have time to think of anything else apart from what is unfolding on pitch in front of you. I don’t know how all of this happens, but it just does. It’s almost as if we get hypnotized by what we’re seeing. Effectively, football is just a mass mind control. Getting thousands of people in one space all solely focussed on what is happening before their eyes. I needed to be in this hypnotic trance to get release, because everything comes out at football. All your emotions are set free. All the stuff that’s built up for you mentally in the outside world is released and emptied. The clearest example of the moment this happens is when the ball hits the back of the net. It’s a beautiful thing. Who would’ve ever thought that a leather sphere being slammed into some netting would send thousands of people, men and women, adults and children, into an uncontrollable state, letting absolutely everything out by shouting, screaming, hugging, jumping, waving limbs about anywhere, without the tiniest bit of control or being at all conscious of what they are doing. It just happens. It’s the human race in its most natural form. The most natural, unfabricated reaction that is triggered in a split second. There’s nothing like it. Nothing can match the ecstasy felt when your team scores a goal. It’s not even easy to describe. It’s just such a pure feeling. It’s those moments that give us our release, where we are free to let out all our emotions. Everything good and bad that’s been stored in our heads is just set free. We forget everything and live for that exact moment. You could have the worst week of your life but when your team scores, it’s the best fucking feeling in the world. It helps us get everything out. We are cleansed. It’s our therapy, our drug.

This is an experience felt by hundreds of thousands across the country, millions across the world, every weekend.  It brings us together. Our shared experiences give us something in common with a stranger we’ve never met. On a train journey back from seeing Saints win 2-0 at Brighton earlier this season, I had the fortune to be sat next to a Charlton Athletic fan, on his way back home from The Valley. We talked as if we’d known each other for years. We didn’t even know each other 20 minutes prior. He said about how football was his release. How when he goes to football, it chucks all the shit collected up over the week out of the window. It helps him be free. It keeps him in check, as it does me, as it does thousands up and down the country. He forgets everything that’s happened to him in the week before. It holds no bearing on how he feels at the football. It’s his therapy, as it is mine. 

The whole build up to the match distracted me as well. I would end up structuring my weeks around football. Try and get through the early week where nothing happens, then everything starts to go into motion as the weekend draws nearer. Press conferences, team news, match previews, inevitable debate about who should start, predictions, making plans for matchday, and so on. As things started happening, the days got easier. Then suddenly, it’s time. Wake up on Saturday morning knowing that today I would be alright. Putting on my shirt in the morning made me feel protected. It’s football day and football will protect me. It gave me a shield. Saturdays were always fine. They were the best day of the week by far (and still are and always will be). Monday through to Friday would rank at a solid 1-4/10 (4/10 would be a good day). Saturday would be at least an 8. Thank fuck for Saturdays. 

The social aspect of football is one I can’t hide from. It’s such an easy conversation piece. Anyone who knows football can talk to anyone who knows football. 99% of my friends like football. That’s how we became friends. We bonded over football. I didn’t know who that Charlton fan was and I still don’t. He was only in my life for half an hour but we talked as if we’d always known each other. The shared experiences of how football makes us feel and how we need football to hold us together made us feel close in that moment. Football gives us a belonging, a family. It’s brought me to know some amazing people, some of whom I’ve never met, some whom live on the other side of the world. I don’t know these people but I understand them and they understand me. They gave me somewhere to be when I needed somewhere to belong. I had another family, in this other world which I could escape to. I could talk to people about the game, that goal, that sending off, that substitution. Talking about those things made me feel normal. They made me feel like I was welcome somewhere. I mattered to some people because I was talking to them. In the outside world, I felt so alone and felt that no one could reach me even if I was talking to them. Not even my friends or my family could help me. But in football, I had a place and people that could. This isn’t to say that my friends and family didn’t help me, because they did, a tremendous amount. I feel very fortunate to be part of such a loving family and have such a close-knit friendship group where you can be open with how you really are. But because they were all part of the external world where everything was bad, they couldn’t fully reach me. I needed this alternate world, where these things and these people were in some way separated from the rest of my life. It gave me my escape. It helped me to stay connected with people when it would’ve been so easy to completely drop off.

It’s so good to see that mental health is becoming more embedded into football. A place where it once would have been stigmatised is now becoming a safe space for people. Mental health affects us all and you will almost certainly know someone who has struggled with theirs, whether they have made it public or not. That’s where the problem with mental health is. Because you can’t see it, like a physical illness or injury, you have no idea who it is affecting or whether it is getting any better or worse. It’s important to talk about it because the more people do, the more people will feel comfortable with talking about their own and will be able to get help. It’s great to see charities like Mind and CALM becoming involved with football and putting their name out there as a place where people can get help. The ways they help people are also growing, to make people feel as comfortable with talking as possible. If reading this helps just one person just that little bit, then that’s amazing. As much as football gives us our escape, everyone has to go back to the other world, where everything is. To see football building a bridge between those two worlds, trying to help people with their struggles in the other world, is beautiful.

Mind charity have their logo on the back of every EFL shirt

Earlier on in the season, Ipswich fans unveiled a banner at Accrington in support of Stanley forward, Billy Kee, who is being treated for depression, anxiety and bulimia. Kee has been open with his struggles and it’s great to see so much support for a footballer who is struggling. These guys are our heroes and our idols, but they’re human too and they have struggles of their own. It’s easy to place them on a pedestal and think they’re immune because they have the best job in the world, but they’re not. This shows that it can affect us all. It can happen to anyone. I never imagined it would happen to me, but it did. You never know who is struggling because it is so easy to hide, so check up on your family and friends. They might be looking for someone to confide in. You could be this person. It takes real courage to step out and ask the question, but if no one does it, no one will get help. 

Ipswich at Accrington

Football has been kind to me. It’s given me a getaway, a release, something to look forward to, something to hold on to. Another world where I can forget the rest of life. Another family full of people I know, don’t know and will only see once. They’re all family because we’re all connected and we all bond over this one thing. I never saw a therapist. I was told by the doctor, my parents and my friends that I should, but I never had the courage. Football was my therapy. It was where I could let everything out and let everything go. It’s the same for many others. It keeps us going. It keeps us alive. When someone tells you that football is just a game, you can tell them it is much, much more than that. It’s our therapy. It’s our life.

Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk

CALM – https://www.thecalmzone.net

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