Editor’s Note: “The Secret Footballer” is a current player who has chosen to write about his life in the English game. His book “I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting The Lid On The Beautiful Game” is published by Guardian Books on August 23. Read more about him at www.thesecretfootballer.com
"The Secret Footballer" tells CNN about his battle with depression
In the house he grew up in, professional football viewed as "almost a cop out"
"The Secret Footballer" takes the drug Citalopram to help with his illness
He remains convinced there must be more to life than playing football
CNN asked “The Secret Footballer” to write a column about his experience of depression in football.
“They f*** you up, your mum and dad”. According to the English poet, Philip Larkin, they do, anyway. The quote sticks in my head not least because, strangely, it was something that my dad used to say to me when I was about 13 years old before slapping a copy of the poet’s 1974 book, “High Windows”, in my hand.
At the time, it was difficult to know what to think. On the one hand, it was an extremely steep learning curve, way beyond anything that I was capable of digesting; but on the other hand, it sowed a seed in my mind that has only just begun to germinate - that with the right influences and the right teachers, a person has the ability to do and say what they please.
If they’re lucky (or not), they may even find an audience, if what you seek is fame and attention. I never wanted to be famous.
But things in our house were never quite how they first appeared. When I was still of Disney age, I remember being sat down to watch “Alice in Wonderland”. It was a surreal experience, of course it was.
The story makes no f***ing sense and features a succession of nightmarish characters that could quite easily pass for somebody’s version of hell. Then, one day, my father told me to watch it again: “Right, now listen to this song and tell me what you think Alice in Wonderland means”.
The song was “White Rabbit”, by Jefferson Airplane, and I happen to be listening to it as I type this. The song seemed to finish with a thousand doors all swinging open in unison as the band’s female singer, Grace Slick, belted out the line “Feed your head, feed your head”. And that’s when I understood.
“Feed your head, feed your head”, it was an acid trip. Everybody works that out eventually, of course, but when you work it out at the age of 12, things are never quite the same again.
When it is obvious that all you want to do as a kid is play football, these interruptions are as curious as they are eccentric, but my outlook on life really began to change out of all recognition when I became a footballer. Up until that point, I had been in search of some perspective to life, a meaning, if you like, and I felt that it wasn’t far away.
I still continued to look for these little insights into life while having to live a very sterile existence as a footballer. You can be the most successful footballer who ever graced the pitch but you’re never any closer to finding a meaning than somebody who has only played a handful of pub games. It doesn’t matter how many medals you win.
The level of attention that a top-flight footballer gives over to mundane things such as practice, hydration, rest and nutrition is both extremely important if you are to maintain any success in the game and yet, at the same time, incredibly frustrating because it accounts for a lot of time that could be spent stimulating the mind.
After a while, the things that made me a great footballer hampered my life progress and I came to resent every one of them and, in turn, it led me down a very dark path.
It is a feeling that I still have to this day, albeit the edge has been taken off by the medication I now take. I’m sorry if you think that I sound ungrateful but the fact of the matter is that, in the house I lived in as a kid, playing football for a living (or a means to an end) is regarded as a less-than-worthwhile contribution to the human race. Almost a cop out, in fact.
And I can understand that because I have only ever found football to provide me with any great joy in the immediate aftermath of winning a game. When you win a game of football, it is a unique feeling.
Winning says “I’m better than you and the lads that I play with are also better than you”. It’s a playground mentality, deep rooted in us, that comes racing to the surface in the wake of a success.
But losing a football match is a terrible feeling and, worse, being responsible for that loss with a mistake feels as if the whole world is pointing at you and laughing while taking pot shots at your stomach.
Afterwards, you arrive home with your thoughts and that’s where a player suffering from depression is extremely vulnerable. I know because I went through it for nine-tenths of my career. Everything about football, other than winning, feels like a grind. To me at least.
I can recall being comprehensively beaten by Arsenal. That was when a little piece of my life fell apart. Up to that moment, I had felt quite comfortable as a footballer in the Premier League; I never looked out of my depth and, if anything, I performed very well.
I watched the DVD of that match over and over again, trying to work out how the Arsenal players were doing what they did. It was like Brian Wilson listening to “Sgt. Pepper” on a loop. “How do they do this?” I asked myself. “How can I do it?” Once the game becomes complicated in your head, there is no way back.
I became even more withdrawn to the point where I’d come in from training and sit on my own staring at the wall. The TV wasn’t on and the curtains were usually drawn.
I can’t even remember if I had any thoughts about life, it was just an emptiness, a hopeless void that was only punctuated at certain points of the day by playing a game that I had come to hate. For me, that is the “spiral” effect that you sometimes hear sufferers of depression talk about.
Around the training ground, I became extremely volatile and would find myself in conflict with a different person nearly every day. It was all I could do to get through it. I just wanted to go home and stare at the wall again – the wall never answered back, you see.
At its worst, I drove to the training ground, took one look around at the familiarity and turned around. My brain had started to associate everything with unhappiness.
The silver BMW belonging to our striker, which was the first car I saw in the morning, now filled me with dread; the groundsman who used to grunt “Good morning” to me while having his morning fag became a figure of repetitive torture.
And then I’d walk through the changing room doors only to be confronted by the usual banter regarding my shoes or jeans or the fact that I was late.
The safety guard that prevented me from engaging in any violence in the split second after I walked through the door was to walk straight through to the boot room and stay there for a couple of seconds before walking back in with my boots. Those few seconds were very important. They saved a lot of people from a lot of punches, me included.
In any football club, there are one or two players who live and breathe football. They have to be first even in the warm-up and, for me, they became my barometer whenever I came into training.
The more these two pissed me off for no reason, the more susceptible I felt I was to blowing up. I hate warming up; it is without doubt one of the most tedious things in a footballer’s career, particularly when it is the same warm-up day in and day out.
One day, I think I must have cracked; either that or I had a moment of clarity without realizing it. “I don’t want to do this any more,” I thought to myself. “This must be one of the most pointless things that any person can do with their life”.
And with that, I walked out of the training ground and went home. I surfaced from my bedroom three days later. The crazy thing is that, when I went back to training, nobody said a word. Not the players, not the coaches and not the manager.
Years later, after becoming all but a recluse, my club doctor invited me into his office to talk about my moods. He took one look at me and asked: “How is your mental health?” That’s when I knew that he’d busted me.
I confided in him everything that had happened to me in the last 20 years, which didn’t take as long as I’d thought because I hadn’t done anything worth doing, I didn’t go out and I didn’t talk to anyone.
The levels that I’d sunk to are all too obvious if I look back at the first few months of my treatment. Below is an extract of a conversation that my club doctor was kind enough to pass on to me for this article. We think that this is probably about three months into my treatment.
Doctor: “Don’t worry, you’re not different to anyone else”
Me: “No, doc, you’re wrong, I am different. I used to ‘get it’ but now I’ve lost it”
Doctor: “What did you ‘get’?”
Me: “Everything, doc. I was close to understanding everything and now it’s gone”
Doctor: “Do you mean football or something else?”
Me: “Something else”
Doctor: “Do you know what that is?”
Me: “Not any more”
Doctor: “OK, I think we should take your Citalopram dosage up from 20mg to 40mg, just for a few weeks to see how we get on. I’d also like you to see a CBT therapist as quickly as we can.
Do you have anyone local that can escort you home today?” (Doctors only ever ask that when they have a genuine concern that you will throw yourself under a train that day).
For what felt like a split second after I upped my medication, I thought I was home. I immediately felt that I might be able to get back to what I was doing before football.
Alas, this turned out to be nothing more than a Proust-like brush with a remembrance of things past. The side effect of Citalopram is a terrible jaw ache brought about by non-stop grinding of the molars.
My brain had tricked me in to temporarily thinking that this was a good thing while attempting to cross reference my memory bank to make sure. In the event, it wasn’t a good thing.
The ingredient in Citalopram that causes this weird side effect is a variation of MDMA, which – as all you budding chemists will know – is the main ingredient in ecstasy. The next time you go to a nightclub and see hundreds of packets of “Chewits” behind the bar, you’ll know the reason.
I remain convinced that there is something more to life but, despite receiving the treatment that I clearly needed, the answer has never felt so far away. Whatever that was, I am certain that I was on to it before this game got in the way. For me, football has seriously f***ed me up. Or it could be that Larkin was right …
“They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
My son is seven years old. He already knows the truth about Alice in Wonderland and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and he is far more advanced than I was at his age.
But when he asks me about football and what really happens in this game of ours, I remain fiercely protective of him. It’s for his own good, he’s simply too young to understand.