I spend most of my life doing this. I’m either the guy lying in the foreground or one of the guys in the middle, waiting impatiently for everyone to take up their positions so we can start a game of cricket (haven’t you been waiting all week for this too!?). Cricket is one of only a few things that give me unrestricted happiness and the love was born out of hope and despair. I was first educated at Dulwich College in southeast London where I was first introduced to the brutal world of public school life. Mind you, I didn’t have much of a chance, as proven by this photo of me on my first day at Dulwich:
Apparently comb-overs weren’t cool in 1999…
Needless to say the affair was short-lived and just three years I was whisked out of Dulwich. Mum always said they beat out of me something I have since recovered; the unshakeable will to speak to anyone with a smile. I will never lose it.
In a school where the jocks soared and the nerds cowered (it is different at Dulwich now) I fit somewhere in the middle, hovering in No Man’s Land, fending off bullies who took exception to my crooked teeth, my podgy belly, my glasses that didn’t fit and my inability to play sport.
I quickly assumed the only way to fit in at Dulwich was to be good at sport and with rugby well and truly off the cards, I took up cricket at a school that has produced some fine players including the England pace bowler, Chris Jordan.
Not blessed however with much natural talent, or an athlete’s frame to compensate, the experience digged me further into a hole I never had a chance of escaping. I would never be good enough and when it seems like your only escape route, it often felt as though I was climbing a burning ladder.
So I left. And with quite a few scars. Incessant nose picking and nail biting were the two nervous habits that stuck around a long while and I was whisked away. A few bullies were brought before the Head. A few denied involvement, a few broke down in floods of tears, but really I was the one to bear the scars.
Fitful years soon followed. A nice, independent school in West London restored my confidence for a few years before a hideous school full of malevolent children restored the natural order of things as I moved into my GCSEs.
Here I was torn apart in a way I hadn’t experienced at Dulwich. I kept the same unshakeable will to smile and speak to others, but this time it was cloaked in a desperation to fit in that gets sniffed out at school in a matter of days. I took insult after insult and descended into stranger and stranger behaviour as I tried to assimilate into a culture that seemed to be in denial it was private education. It seemed that I couldn’t fit in anywhere.
It was just at that moment, amongst all the pain, the bleeding nails and the nights spent dreading school the next day, that a friend of my mother’s gave me a DVD boxset of the 2005 Ashes for Christmas.
For those that don’t know, the 2005 Ashes ranks as one of the most remarkable sporting contests ever seen and will likely never be matched for its drama, sportsmanship and individual performance. It was a spectacle like no other and it captured me in my darkest moment. I must have watched that DVD cover-to-cover about 100 times, which was no mean feat at a running time of 480 minutes.
I rank that gift alongside one other moment in my life as important like no other (which I’ll come to later). I decided I had to get out of the horrible school I was in and give this whole cricket lark one more go. With the full support of my parents, I left the school halfway through my GCSEs, packed my bags and went to start again at the boarding school St Bede’s (now Bede’s) in East Sussex.
Bede’s remains one of the finest cricketing schools in the country and one of my first memories there was telling everyone in my boarding house I could bowl 70mph and insisting that Alan Wells, former Sussex captain and Master of Cricket, give me the opportunity to show what I could do. He did, and my first three balls looped into the side netting.
It turns out you can’t go to the best cricketing school in the country and then be good at cricket (who thought?) and things had to get worse before they would get better. My intense attitude towards cricket didn’t quite match up with my talent levels and people soon started to treat me like a joke. And don’t forget, I still craved belonging too, so I was more than happy to play the role.
So, once again, with no other source of self-worth, the ladder started burning again and the hole seemed to get deeper and wider. I really thought I was done for. The fool was the only role I knew and aside from the trouble it was landing me in, I had no real friends, absolutely no respect and parents who were considering pulling me out of the school if I didn’t start behaving better.
At this point, I can’t say for sure if I completely hit the self-destruction button or not, but I remember falling in with the wrong crowd at school when I was 16, screwing up my GCSEs, and before long I started smoking weed and going to festivals with people who weren’t my friends.
Here comes that second defining moment. One night a friend-not-really-a-friend came to my house when I was 17 during the first year of my A-Levels. We had come back from a party and we smoked a joint that my friend had promised was “really strong”.
He wasn’t wrong.
What then proceeded after we finished smoking that joint was the single most terrifying experience of my life. It was a panic attack that lasted for four hours.
I felt the walls cave in on me, I felt an unrelenting fear that the end was approaching and at my weakest moment I considered ways that I could just end it all.
Then morning came. I dropped my friend off at the station, I went home and cried in my mother’s arms over what I had become. I took any remaining dope from my room and chucked it in the furthest bin away from the house.
What then occured was perhaps the best two years of my life but also perhaps the worst. Cricket went completely off the radar. I no longer took joy or comfort in watching that Ashes DVD, or playing on the village green. It became a scary place where eyes preyed on you waiting for a mistake.
I recluded completely from the world. I ditched Facebook, parties, alchohol and social events. My life didn’t turn into a quest to recover who I once was (a plague that affects so many people) but a commandment to start again. To discover my value from the very bottom.
And so I worked and I worked and I worked. I suffered panic attacks every night for almost two years. I had anxiety during the days and especially approaching the night. I shed weight and went within myself. I then decided to play another cricket match.
The game was played in a village where a few friends from school played. I opened the batting and got out for 2. I bowled and took no wickets. I prayed in the field that the ball wouldn’t come near me. I practically ran off at the end of the game, straight into the front seat of my mother’s Land Rover.
“Mum, I need help.”
And help is what I got. Over the course of two years I received hypnotherapy to treat my panic attacks. The process made you vulnerable and you had to be prepared to visit your darkest moments, but by the end of those 2 years I had kissed goodbye to the panic attacks, which I fast discovered were all wound up in the childhood that forgot me.
But all the while I never lost the focus that the first panic attack gave me. I never returned to the boy I was and the value I saw in my own ability hasn’t left me. By the end of my A-Levels I had an A*, 2 As and a national award for the highest mark in a Cambridge University certificate. I missed out on a place at Oxford University by a whisker and made an even better choice by going to the University of York and learning how to chill out again. I knew it was time to take up cricket again. So I joined up for the side at The Hurlingham Club that plays its matches at its beautiful ground in Putney. I immediately cocked up in my first match due to my eagerness to do well. I inside edged a ball onto my pads, was given out LBW, then refused to walk.
This time I wasn’t prepared to let the anxiety win. I apologised and vowed to come back the next week with a better attitude, a smile on my face and the knowledge that this is the game I love and I won’t have it taken from me by a past that I left behind.
I scored a century. For the rest of my life I will not be able to explain what it felt like when I hit the ball straight down the ground for 4 to bring up the hundred, or why I then felt compelled to scream and run arms aloft in the direction of the pavillion. But the moment was mine and no one could understand what a century meant in the context of my life. It was Rocky’s Creed and my Leviathan.
It has been conquered and I can finally let it go.
I am usually extremely reticent about sharing these experiences with people despite often claiming how important I think mental health is. Mental Health Day inspired me to write this piece in the light of so many others that have been brave enough to write their story.
I truly believe there is a possibility for our generation to end the stigma around mental health, but it will take all of the silent sufferers to take courage that they are not insane or worthy of our pity.
If we are brave enough to admit there is a problem, that’s a pretty big leap for making tangible change in the way we tackle the problem. My own reluctance to write this was born out of a fear of self-indulgence.
Convincing myself otherwise was realising that I was justifying my silence by the same whip that has silenced so many others.
Be strong. And talk.
Opening Up Cricket is a not for profitcommunity interest company that promotes mental wellbeing and suicide prevention through cricket.