Life Wellbeing ‘Just existing’: Taming the black dog that hounds so many Australians

‘Just existing’: Taming the black dog that hounds so many Australians

Wayne Schwass, Jo Stanley and Tom Boyd have spoken out about their struggles with mental health. Photo: TND
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Neither the listeners tuning in nor the co-workers sitting beside her knew just how badly radio personality Jo Stanley was coping off the air.

There was never any great breakdown or moment of crisis. Rather, she was in a perpetual state of self-doubt and feeling overwhelmed when she got home after finishing up The Matt and Jo Show.

“I would lie in bed at night replaying things that I might have said on the show that morning that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, or things that might have happened in meetings afterwards,” she told The New Daily.

Jo, 48, thought she was leading a double life.

At work, she never let on that anything was wrong. On the air, she would exude confidence.

But at home, her mind would start racing about how “I shouldn’t have said it that way. Oh, now they’re all gonna think this about me”.

She would constantly second-guess herself.

There were times when she was so anxious if she was doing a good job, and questioning if she was going to keep that job, she became short of breath and experienced a “horrible” tightness in her stomach.

“I just thought that what goes hand in hand with that job is low-grade anxiety that you just live with all the time,” she said.

Because of that, “I wasn’t thriving in a job that I loved”.

Jo Stanley’s journey to mental health spans more than a decade. Photo: Getty

It would get so bad that Jo felt she wasn’t “functioning properly”. Feeling sad and flat was almost a daily occurrence – until she reached out for help.

Jo’s therapist taught her about the power of mindfulness and what to do with negative thoughts.

“Oh, that’s not me. I am not my thoughts. That’s a very familiar pattern that thought. I can let that thought go. Recognise it, go ‘Oh yeah, hello – I remember you’. Let it go and just return to this moment.

“Gratitude, that completely changed my life. But it’s been probably a 10- to 15-year process.”

‘I was watching myself just exist’

For four and a half years, AFL great Wayne Schwass thought about taking his own life.

The former North Melbourne player turned to alcohol and drugs to “numb” the pain he was feeling because of an unwritten rule that “under no circumstance” should men be vulnerable or show emotion.

The man who founded the mental health podcast Puka Up when he found his emotional feet again lived with “so much shame”.

A recent survey of 2004 men by eHarmony found just over 60 per cent believe males still struggle to speak openly about their feelings and personal struggles.

Wayne Schwass holds aloft the premiership trophy after winning the 1996 AFL Grand Final. Photo: Getty

Wayne, 51, said: “There were days where I hated training, or I hated playing, or I wasn’t loving what I was doing, where I felt so emotionally and mentally lost and broken that it was painful, that it was hard to find any joy.

“Unfortunately, those days outweigh the great days for a large part of my career.”

What his coach, his teammates, and fans saw was a facade that sucked so much energy out of him trying to maintain it that when he got home he would close the door, pull the blinds down and just breathe.

Wayne, who helped win a premiership in 1996, believed his life would never improve, that he’d never be happy and mentally healthy, that the depression and suicidal thoughts would never go away.

Every week for three years, he would say to his psychiatrist in Sydney:

I just want the colour to come back in my life because my conditions, which I’d given complete control to, have taken all the colour away.”

With tears running down his cheeks, he’d continue:

“I just want to feel the warmth of the sun on my back again. I want to be able to stop and notice the beautiful colours of the flowers and the grass and the fauna when they’re coming into summer because these conditions had robbed me of that. My world was very grey.”

Because Wayne was emotionally numb, he detached from his own life so that “I was living this experience watching myself just existing”.

He didn’t care if he lived or died. What kept him alive was him not wanting to let down his GP of 35 years.

Wayne said: “I love him as much as my dad.”

Also, he knew if he could get through the day, no matter how difficult or challenging it was, “if I could put my head on my pillow at night time, and get to sleep, I’d won”.

‘I lost sight of Tom, the person’

Ex-Greater Western Sydney Giants and Western Bulldogs player Tom Boyd clung to the hope that he’d be able to “get through” and, in doing so, denied his struggles with depression, anxiety and insomnia.

“I continued to allow football to consume my thoughts until I got to the stage where it essentially consumed every waking minute of the day,” the lanky former forward said.

“What happened was, after that I ran out of minutes in the day, well, then my mind began to fill the night with that as well,” Tom, 25, said.

He retired from the game in May last year at the age of just 23.

“I think I really lost the love of playing the game and the entire industry in a sense. And I don’t mean that in the way that I think it’s a bad industry. It’s just that it didn’t really fit who I was and who I am,” Tom explained.

Tom Boyd during the Round 15 AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and the Geelong Cats in 2018. Photo: AAP

He said his self-worth became solely tied to his performance, which was “invariably fluctuating”.

Tom, therefore, lost sight of who he was without football.

I think over time, I really lost sight of the fact that Tom the footballer and Tom the person are completely different things, and without Tom the person, Tom the footballer can’t succeed.”

Tom felt the happiest at 17 and 18.

He was working hard to achieve at school, was playing football on the side, had a “huge amount” of support from his family, and enjoyed the social aspect of life. His “ability to perform” in these different areas affected how Tom saw himself and his identity.

Juggling an education with playing in the AFL was “was too difficult to do”, so he had to give up his desire to go to university.

“I was too tired or too focused on playing the game. And I took out my family stuff as I had this sort of depreciating sense of self-worth.”

He isolated himself from everyone except his fiancé.

“Wins used to be a really enjoyable thing. And then slowly but surely over time wins became relief. And then it just felt like well, ‘Thank God, we didn’t lose’. And if I played well, it was like, ‘Thank God I didn’t play badly’.”

Tom said that if what you feel about yourself and who you are is dictated by “one thing” which you have decided is the “be all and end all”, your ability to enjoy it starts to diminish.

Saturday is World Mental Health Day, which was launched by the World Federation for Mental Health to remind people to look after their mental health.

If you need help:

Lifeline 131 114
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
Headspace 1800 650 890
QLife 1800 184 527

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