Sitting here on World Mental Health Day, and more specifically Mental Health Week in Western Australia, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the amount of people coming forward and sharing their heartfelt stories with the world. Being honest, showing raw emotion, and putting themselves out there to be judged - something they have struggled with in the past.
So I wanted to share my reflections in the hope it will strongly resonate with someone and change their way of thinking. I’m the founder of A Stitch in Time; and our programs are focused on mentoring, building resilience, and the importance of positive mental wellbeing. We want to contribute to changing the mental health landscape in Western Australia for the better and it’s why I wrote this piece
I lay out how I see things, and how I choose to encourage others to talk. I'm glad that I paid attention during English class when we learned about the power of a good analogy… one of the rare times I paid attention in class!
It's one thing for me to paint a picture of my story and use it as inspiration or encouragement for people, but I would be remiss if I didn't follow it up with some further insights into my story and how exactly I got to this place.
It wasn't easy.
It still isn't easy.
Don’t get me wrong I LOVE playing for the Perth Wildcats, and I mean LOVE. I grew up idolising the likes of Andrew Vlahov, Scott Fisher, Ricky Grace & James Crawford, the list goes on. I wear the Number Four because of Eric Watterson. I remember buying nose bleed seats and trying to sit court side during the Perth Entertainment Centre days, so when I was chosen as a Development Player in 2010 it was one of the more proud moments in my life. To be honest, whilst I worked immensely hard at my craft and wanted to give myself an opportunity to succeed and gaining a roster spot the next year, just being in the squad was enough for me. I loved being a part of the group, loved the comradery, loved the brotherhood, loved the banter, I just loved being a part of it. It’s amazing what success can do to an individual, you start to thirst for it, and it becomes a part of you. You begin to sacrifice your livelihood in the hopes of securing something that you yearn for. No longer being satisfied with just being around the guys, your life becomes consumed by earning a roster spot and that’s exactly what happens to me in 2011.
Everyone loves an underdog story, a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. That was me, a product from Western Australia, and an under-sized power forward who had already exceeded expectations. Rob Beveridge saw the dog in me, he rewarded that hard work…so what comes with unexpected success. I start to receive plaudits for my efforts, I was now receiving coverage in the media, my name was featured in social media timelines and I could do no wrong, I was the guy with a story that everyone wanted to see achieve.
So why am I sharing my story? What does this have to do with Mental Health? Because I'm proud of my story. I'm proud of what I've been through. I'm proud of the lessons I've learned through the pain. There isn't a single part of me that's ashamed of the fact that I've struggled at times, and that I’m definitely not perfect.
This pride has taken much work, treatment, healing and recovery to develop but it's real. I believe this is attainable for anyone struggling in silence with a mental illness.
We all hurt, we all struggle, we all suffer, so why should someone with a mental illness be shamed into a silent closet because they are "weak" or need to "toughen up"?
And that’s exactly what happened to me. I was the local boy living his dream who was receiving praise for his efforts. I was no longer a Development Player, I was a starter in a team that made multiple Grand Finals, I was selected to an Australian Boomer Camp for the Yu Yi Games (albeit, very very late notice, but I didn’t care). I became consumed by all the hype; I bought into what everyone was saying, at that time there was no negativity behind my play.
The 23rd of October, 2015 will always stick with me
With 40 seconds remaining I missed two consecutive free throws to put the team up by 3 points against the Townsville Crocodiles, a team that was sitting on the bottom of the ladder at the time. With less than 20 seconds remaining, I made a monumental mistake as I made an erroneous rotation and allowed Leon Henry to sink a wide-open three. Consequently we lost the game and I felt as if I was the sole cause of the loss, two huge mistakes in the final minute definitely didn’t help that.
That’s where my world came to a crashing halt; it had been building up for some time. I became captivated on what was said about me on social media, I spent countless hours scouring platforms to read what was being said and written about me. It was only a few years back, but I felt like I had the pride of Western Australia resting on my back. Being the lone representative from the State, there was tremendous support and I felt invincible, but as your role grows, so does your profile. You are no longer protected from criticism, and whilst I enjoyed the admiration from our fans, I was ill prepared for the feedback I was now receiving from them as well. I was now seeing peers from my State Basketball League openly criticise me and even people I regarded as friends voice their opinions in a hurtful manner.
I want to make it clear; I only have myself to blame. As much as I loved seeing the approval of fans, you had to be prepared knowing there would be others who weren’t as pleased. I had been told countless times to not buy into the hype, not worry what others thought about me, that ‘armchair critics’ love nothing more than to affect you, but I wasn’t strong enough to listen, that is my own fault. Reflecting upon this, I think this stems from my background, I had such poor self-respect in my adolescent years and even as I grew older I really struggled with my identity.
After that loss to Townsville, I lay in bed as my wife slept, searching social media for comments about me, it completely overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t sleep. When I woke up the next day I headed off to the airport as we had a game the next day against Illawarra Hawks. It’s those moments of discomfort that can truly humble you and change your mindset. I got to the airport and each member of the team made sure I was doing ok. Coach Trevor Gleeson, just gave me a subtle touch on my shoulder and remarked ‘that we have another opportunity tomorrow’. It’s why I loved playing for the Wildcats, the brotherhood, the comradery. Whilst seemingly insignificant, it was the touch of confidence I needed at that time.
There is a bold coarseness you receive from supporters & non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely — because I’ve tried — somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear. It was at that moment, I knew I had to make a significant change in my life. There is no denying I enjoy spending time on social media, it’s a way for me to share my story, give a glimpse into my life, I enjoy communicating via these platforms, whether it’s banter or everyday conversations. I’ve met some incredible people and opposition fans through these platforms but I’ve had to make some meaningful changes which doesn’t sacrifice my wellbeing.
This negative side of social media I talk about is experienced beyond my teammates and the basketball society. It spreads across all sports – and unfortunately not just at an elite professional level. Cyber bullying can be seen at all levels of sport by countless individuals who don’t realise the negative affect it has on individuals lives and mental wellbeing – purely because they are lucky enough to have never experienced the harsh words and constant demand of ‘perfection’ in their own day to day lives/occupations.
Many sportspeople, and this was exactly me, live by this ‘if and then’ model of happiness. They’ll say ‘if I get picked in this team, then I’ll feel happy’ or ‘if we win a championship, then I’ll feel happy’. That’s an incredibly dangerous model to live by and opens you up to criticism. You can avoid the newspaper, but as I said before, you can’t escape social media.
So how do I manage all of this?
Humbly and meticulously?
I manage my health, physical and mental, the way I manage my basketball game. The key to being a basketball player isn't just one thing. It's not just a great shot, a strong mind, a fit body, or strong ball handling skills. It's all of these things and more.
The key to my mental health isn't just one thing. It's a combination of many factors that all play an important part in keeping me healthy. Contrary to popular belief, strong mental health isn't just "toughening up", "smiling more", or "staying positive". Let's give the brain a little more credit; it's far more complex than something to solely run on clichés and ignorance.
Imagine a bike wheel. Now imagine the many spokes to that wheel, spokes that keep that wheel rolling on the line. That is the key to my health, the spokes of the wheel.
There isn't too much emphasis on one spoke over another, and if one spoke is a little bent or shaky, the other spokes are there to pick up the slack and keep things rolling smoothly. The spokes to my wheel are as such: mindfulness, therapy, diet, sleep, physical fitness, vulnerability, and above all community.
When things aren't going well, I can take stock of the last few weeks and see just what areas have been lacking. This is the same way I manage my basketball game.
When I've been playing poorly, I can look at the statistics and be honest with myself about what areas need practice. Maybe it's the shooting, maybe it's the rebounding, maybe it's the rest (or lack thereof), maybe it's the preparation, or maybe it's just the self imposed pressure to perform. I could go on and on, but I think you catch my drift.
Being able to look back and honestly evaluate things has helped me so much in the last five years.
Being able to look at things more rationally and systematically is my key. I wouldn't have that luxury if it weren't for my support community of family and close friends. I can have these raw conversations with them and they help me realise that the sky isn't falling, that things will get better, and that my story is far from over. So when things seems to be ‘falling apart’ around me, I become strengthened and encouraged by the people I have in my corner.
For me knowing I had my team mates, my coaches and significant others supporting me was immense in my mental health. I also implemented actions which drastically improved my head space. I began to practice gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. These three things are completed daily and create a big difference in my life. It brings perspective and it’s exactly what I needed.
So why this story? A year after that event against Townsville I spoke to a group of athletes that were walking the same path I once was.
The response from those athletes gave purpose to my pain and my struggle. In that hour I realised that my story isn't rare, it's far more common than anyone can comprehend. In that hour I realised that as long as I had a voice and a platform as a professional athlete, I will speak proudly and confidently about my struggles.
I liken it to sitting around a table with your closest friends and reminiscing over why and how we have the scars on our body. "This was the time I slipped off the dock and cut my leg", "this was from a surfing wipeout", "and this is when I got drunk and tripped over a curb". We can sit and laugh and cry at what we have been through and the marks we have to show for it.
In my case, I don't have many scars to show for what I've been through. The scars I have are hidden to the world, but people still know about them. My closest friends can sit at that same table with me and hear me talk about them and relate, because they've been there too. Maybe not as severe, but they've been there. They can sit with me, laugh and cry about the things I've been through and never judge or think I'm weak.
I talk because I believe that scars are scars, whether we can see them or not. I believe that we can relate to each other far more than we realise. I believe that we can create a culture where all pain and struggle is acceptable dialogue. I believe that it's okay to hurt, and it's more than okay to talk about it.
So that's why I talk and believe you should too. Our organisation A Stitch in Time has placed importance on the physical and mental wellbeing of young athletes; and will be working with a number of sporting bodies/associations to implement a framework that places an emphasis on the welfare of a person. This is extremely exciting for me, to see current and former professional athletes influence the athletes of the future, and help them gain knowledge and insight into what we have struggled through. And for that, that is why I share my story, because people will listen, people will care and people will talk.
Feature Image Credit: Perth Wildcats