IT was as I was looking down from my bedroom window one Saturday night that the true oddness of the situation truly dawned on me. There, in my garden, attempting to crawl into a two-man pop-up tent – the sort teenagers might take to festivals - with his wife Sarah, was the former England opener Graeme Fowler. Finally ensconced, their feet stuck out through the flap, they couldn’t stop laughing for half an hour. Quite what the neighbours made of it, I’m not sure.
Please don’t think we hadn’t offered ‘Foxy’ and Sarah a room in our house. It’s just he prefers to sleep outdoors. His mental health makes it thus. Foxy suffers from depression. “I realised it would be like being an alcoholic,” he says of the initial attack which floored him 12 years ago. “That’s it. Once you are, you are.”
That Graeme Fowler, generally seen as one of the chirpiest, most happy-go-lucky figures ever to step on to a cricket field, should suffer from depression was baffling to many. It was baffling to him. But depression doesn’t discriminate. It is uniformly fair in that way. It settles on a person whatever their disposition, their circumstance. And it is loath to release its grasp.
Foxy is an entertaining man, an old-school raconteur with more tales up his sleeve than the brothers Grimm. He has been a pundit on Test Match Special, written for a national newspaper, and delivers a never less than entertaining after dinner speech.
But getting his own story down on paper was tough. Foxy has a 1-20 scale for assessing his mental health. Anything under 10 precludes much more than a day on the settee. Under seven and the man Richie Benaud once dubbed the world’s best cover fielder is borderline immobile. Writing his autobiography himself was too big an ask, which is where I came in.
When I knocked on his door near Durham last March it was 30 years since we last met. Then I was a teenager who’d just won a competition to interview him for a cricket magazine. The Lancastrian showed me round Old Trafford before ferrying me back to the station in his E-Type jag. He then headed off to become the first Englishman to make a double century in India.
I never expected to meet ‘the Fox’ again, but then last year I marked the 30th anniversary of that initial encounter with a My Favourite Cricketer piece in the same magazine. He saw it, got in touch, and the rest is 320 pages of his history.
It could have all gone horribly wrong. He might not have liked me. I might have mistaken him for Buster Merryfield. But thankfully we got on. Foxy is nothing if not generous and his visits to North Staffordshire – you have to talk a lot for an autobiography – were peppered with invitations for my own family to visit his ivy-clad cottage with the 20-mile view. We did, of course, stay in a tent in his garden. Unexpectedly, certainly on my part, our families became friends.
The book itself resonated far beyond mere fans of cricket. This is an everyman, and woman, tale of how prone we are to the unpredictabilities of our mental health – something I know only too well myself. It is also the story of how he once bit the wife of Elton John.
Through Foxy, I would meet Steve Harmison, another bedevilled by mental health issues, although, unlike Foxy, who was afflicted in retirement, ‘Harmy’ had to contend with them while being a frontline bowler for England. Steve felt it was the right time to talk of his issues, and how, even as recently as ten years ago, he believed talking about them would end his international career.
In Steve, I found a vulnerable, honest, and emotional man who has yet to reconcile himself to a life outside cricket. A man who carries the baggage of mental illness alongside the accolades of success. His is an everyman story, not that of an international cricketer.
Both Foxy and Harmy have worked hard to help others recognise the signs of mental illness. They know it does not discriminate. The club player, the ordinary person in the street, is just as likely to be afflicted as those in the egg and bacon ties of the MCC.
It is for that reason they are both supporters of Opening Up. Conversation is better than silence. It prevents stigma taking hold.
For both men, this isn’t a matter of permanent doom and gloom. Depression covers a multitude of conditions, and the majority of the time all is fine. Occasionally it isn’t, and it’s then that someone like Graeme or Steve talking about their own problems can help.
If people like them can suffer from depression, and are open about it, and can show they still function as ‘normal’ human beings, then the rest of us don’t feel so marginalised. We might feel odd, but we’re not odd - we’ve just got a bit of trouble upstairs, like someone else might have irritable bowels, athlete’s foot, or own a Justin Bieber CD. I don’t know what it takes to face Waqar Younis or Malcolm Marshall, but I do know telling the world you have depression is a very difficult thing. Let’s face it, ‘out’ is something no cricketer ever wants to be.
It’s no simpler in real life. But if somebody like Graeme can be honest, then you start thinking maybe it’s time I was too. So when someone asks me why I’m tired, or why I stopped drinking, or why I run, then surely I should just be able to tell them the truth. And, bit by bit, that’s what I’m doing. I remember that day at Old Trafford, as I posed with his bat, Graeme told me I had a ‘good grip’. Looking back, it seems actually neither of us did. The clouds were already gathering. I would like to thank him for helping to ensure rain never quite stopped play.
John Woodhouse is a writer, ghostwriter and broadcaster. He has written 'Absolutely Foxed' with Graeme Fowler and 'Speed Demons' with Steve Harmison. Find him on twitter @jwoody67
Opening Up Cricket is a not for profitcommunity interest company that promotes mental wellbeing and suicide prevention through cricket.