- Stephen's teen years were ruined by alcohol and gambling, but he always loved Liverpool FC
- After a breakdown in his 30s he started therapy which was hard work, but life-changing
- He has written a book for other men like him to understand their mental health struggles
I’m touching 40 and have been a fanatical OOT (out of town) Liverpool fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my first hazy memories, at the age of about six, are of my shiny Crown Paints shirts. I was never a striker (a barrel shape, even then). But with ‘Rush’ on my back, I strutted around my nan’s back-garden like a king.
The crossover between my football obsession and mental illness became apparent (looking back) in my mid-teens, along with the arrival of two life-changing interests – alcohol and ladies.
As my problems with bullying (both sides), female rejection (being dumped or publicly humiliated) and self-esteem worsened, I started drinking heavily. During the nineties, alcohol numbed the pain of increasing mental problems but emotionally I spiralled out of control…as did my gambling. I dropped out of university (I gambled all my student loan and course fees), lost friends, alienated my family and got into secret, heavy, debt and, as all addicts do, became a world-class liar. Eventually with the help of GA I broke that addiction, one which I didn’t tell anyone about until relatively recently.
June 2004 heralded another ‘new dawn’ for Liverpool - and it should’ve been one for me too. Rafael Benitez came in and, amazingly, we won the European Cup Final in May 2005 - the greatest European Cup final in history. I travelled to Istanbul on my own, but even during that glorious Turkish adventure, the dark clouds were heavy, and building. But I chose to either block everything out or drown it in beer and rum.
Things got so bad that the night before I left my ex-wife, I tried to take my own life, and I was ready. Luckily (although I didn’t see it that way immediately afterwards) I was unsuccessful. As I walked to the train station all I could think was, ‘I couldn’t even do that properly’.
I never told my ex-wife, and never blamed her. I didn’t even tell my family and friends until last year.
Please, please, don’t ever suffer in silence like I did... Look, I can’t tell anyone what to do. We can only help ourselves when we are ready. But never forget, we all have people around us who love us; and when we’re ready, medical professionals who can help us too.
I married for the second time in 2012 (and now have an amazing, beautiful wife and two spectacular daughters) but even then, I was unwell. But like so many men, I didn’t talk about it. Partly because I didn’t know how to, partly because I didn’t know what my friends and family would say, and that petrified me.
Then, three years ago, I had a breakdown and was signed off work for seven weeks; I didn’t step out of the house for the first three. When I finally started talking to my family and friends, they felt guilty that they’d not helped, or ‘saved me’. But how can anybody help us if they don’t know we’re in trouble? Only we can help ourselves…
When I finally left the house, I went to my doctor. Initially he prescribed mood inhibitors (SSRIs) and discussed therapy and homeopathy. I walked out shell-shocked. The drugs petrified me, and still do. I’ve always maintained I’d rather feel something, both good and bad, than nothing. But they undoubtedly save and improve the quality of so many lives. It’s a deeply personal choice.
I decided on therapy and homeopathy. Therapy also scared me; but this was a fear of the unknown. The first phone call was just to register and so they could explain the process. When the call ended, I felt relief, but mainly shame. But at least I’d taken the first step. The telephone assessment, a week later, was 45 minutes of pain. Opening-up and making myself totally vulnerable. I cried at the end. Partly because I felt relived and unburdened, but mainly because I realised how unwell I was, and how long it was going to take to start feeling even remotely better.
The first face-to-face session was the hardest but also the most liberating. Speaking to a total stranger, for me, was easier. But the silences were excruciating - thinking about my life and processing everything. Why was I there? Why was I so broken? What did I want from it? Could I even do it?
My first time in therapy lasted eight sessions. I’ll also never call it counselling - I feel like this term makes people sound weak. We are intelligent, bright, soulful people, who are trying to ease the pain we feel. We are not weak. We are strong.
Therapy can be draining. But there is a synergy and chronology that makes it easier to understand. Everyone starts and ends at a different place. But the fundamentals remain the same. Leave your pride at the door because you’re not being judged… And you only get out what you are prepared to put it. A cliché? Yes. The truth? Utterly and unequivocally. Therapy works, but only when you are ready.
I finished my first block of sessions feeling more comfortable in my own skin, and with an idea of what I needed to do to continue my slow and steady progress. I’ll never be free of mental illness, but every day is a step closer to where I want to be. As I write this, I’ve recently been diagnosed bipolar , which has helped me. So, I’m cautiously optimistic.
Shortly after my first session I started writing my first book ‘Mad, sad, dysfunctional dad’. It’s a diary-style account of 18 months of struggles with mental illness, addiction, post-natal depression, self-harm and suicide – and the amazing privilege of becoming a dad for the second time. It’s also for our amazing and wonderful partners, families and friends. I want to offer a real window into our lives; and for so many, our secret lives.
After being in and out of therapy for three years things are still slowly improving. I’m reconnecting with myself, and the people closest to me, many of whom I’ve hurt badly and unacceptably over the last twenty-five years. But I will never use my mental illness as an excuse. I want to be a bigger man than that.
We are all leading different lives and doing what we can to change society for the better. And it’s amazing to read about and privilege to be a part of.
It’s time to talk…Talking changes lives.
Love and respect,
Find Stephen on Twitter: @talkingcl
‘Mad, sad, dysfunctional dad’ will be available on March 15 from book stores, Amazon and via www.theconradpress.com