Our founder Matty spoke with UNILAD about his mental health experiences. The interview with the amazing Emily Brown can be found here. Below is the full transcript from Matty.
Trigger warning: contains mentions of mental health conditions, self-harm and suicide.
How old were you when you first recognised that you were suffering with mental health issues and depression?
I think I was in my mid to late 20s I accepted I might need help. The suffering started at 17, but I definitely ignored it for far too long. Even then, I didn’t accept how serious it was for a few years. I essentially went from ignorance into wilful denial.
Were you surprised when you realised you were struggling with these mental health issues?
Honestly, this is a difficult one to answer without sounding a bit weird… I started self-harming at 17 by cutting and yet I didn’t identify this as a having a potential issue for almost ten plus years before I accepted it. When I did, it wasn’t a surprise as much as a sort of begrudging acceptance. Begrudging as I didn’t want to be depressed.
I had a huge amount of shame around it. I couldn’t understand. How can I be like this? I am an incredibly lucky person. I look around to see people going through much bigger hardships than I. The shame led me to keep the issue hidden, which ultimately made the depression worse.
Can you describe some of the coping methods you have used over the years? Why is it important for people with depression to try and find a coping mechanism of some kind?
On the unhealthy side… there was (and is to some degree) comfort eating, binge drinking, being a total cock womble to people to push them away rather than let them in and see the truth, almost always those closest to myself. I damaged a lot of relationships unnecessarily and hurt people doing it. Self-harm was another one. Whereas the eating, drinking and being a cock womble were all about self-destruction because I didn’t want to be me, cutting was always about taking back control. When everything felt lost, I would cut myself to take back control of myself.
I have managed to avoid the need to self-harm since 2019. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had the urge. I found the end of 2021 incredibly difficult mentally and certainly had some extremely dark days.
With therapy and medication, I have managed to gain a better control of my emotions and with this work to better understand what causes the extreme highs and lows and how to manage them. The biggest thing I do now is check myself when I catch myself getting locked onto a negative path or a rant (quite good at this…) and make sure to try and articulate how I feel. For the record, I am still rubbish at this, but better than I was.
And, if I can’t then I sometimes retreat but try to in a positive way, sort of saying “I need a bit of time to me, apologies” (probably in much simple language) and then come back when I am ready to try and explain what was in my head if I can.
The best thing I ever did was share that I had depression with mates and then try and be more aware of how I am doing. I am absolutely not the poster child for how to manage and your mental health, but I stand by sharing being the best thing I ever did for mine. I have tried all sorts of habits, many which I failed on during lockdown (too much food and alcohol means I am now back on a diet…). Sharing opened routes for people I can check in with. People who occasionally check in with me too.
I think it is important to try different routes to see what works for you but no matter what if you can share you can have joint accountability. And with that you can learn to take ownership of your own mental state. Once you have done that, at least for me, I felt as though I no longer needed someone to make myself whole, either as a friend or partner. I stopped looking for someone to fill in the emptiness I have inside. I own that, I manage it, I control it. Now those are all purely relationships for the love of them.
At what point did you decide to seek help for your depression?
I got to a point where I honestly thought, I either get help or I won’t be around much longer. I felt that I had sunk so far, I felt so lost, so empty that it was either seek help or ultimately commit suicide. I planned it out in a lot of detail and decided I would overdose in my favourite place in my hometown. Oddly enough though, the closest I ever got was standing on the south coast cliffs whilst on a retreat to try and kick start my recovery. Thankfully, well at least for me, I didn’t have the courage to do it (suicide is terrifying for the person contemplating, well it is for me) and the retreat definitely helped.
In your TED Talk you mention going through ups and downs, peaks and troughs; do you think your depression has lessened at all over the years, or do you think it is something that you will consistently have to deal with?
I think I have much better control of my emotional state and the medication I am on helps level the extremes of the peaks and troughs. I don’t think I will ever truly be depression free. I still go into dark states. I still have times where I wonder what and who I am. For me I think it will be a lifelong journey, but I know many who do pass through to the other side. My goal is to get down to a lower medication dose and hopefully help a few more people share and maybe start their own journey to either full recovery or lifelong successful ownership.
As a former rugby player, have you ever found that you have been stigmatised for opening up about depression, for example being told to ‘man up’?
This is a brilliant question; I love this phrase. I love how divisive it is and how nowadays it seems like such a toxic phrase to tell a bloke (or person). Thing is, this phrase saved my life and I think it is often misused.
Before I go on - I am not for one second suggesting that everyone all the time should be told to man up or not cry… First movie I ever cried at was the Fox and the Hound, why the hell can’t they be friends?! There is no shame in being vulnerable or crying, no matter your gender, physical stature or any other aspect of yourself. You should be proud of you can be vulnerable, it is bloody terrifying.
I was stood on cliffs at night alone staring into the rocks at the bottom and this phrase got me to turn around. I told myself to ‘man the fuck up and get through this’. I had committed to one week at a mental health retreat to try and start my recovery, this attitude made me keep pushing. This attitude has its place. There is occasionally a time to suck it up and battle on with whatever scrap of hope you have left.
Where the “man up” sentiment is not helpful…
I had been hiding my feelings for years, never sharing. Sharing got me to that cliff top. If I had continued to ‘man up’ without ever letting my guard down I would not have been there, and I truly believe carried out my suicide plan of overdosing on a hill. All I am saying is I believe there is a balance to managing your emotions. Sometimes it is absolutely right to be completely vulnerable, not keep anything at bay or hidden. Sometimes it may not be. I think something I believe is that you must own your own emotions. Otherwise, you can end up using people as crutches as I mention in my talk.
An example could be staying in a relationship because you’re scared of being alone with your emotions, or deriving outward value from a relationship with someone (these are not just romantic relationships). These are crutches, by having them you are avoiding owning your emotional state. In my personal situation these have all ended in me showing the cock womble behaviour I mentioned earlier. These people did not need to be hurt at all or the hurt could have been significantly less. I think this is the other end of the ‘man up’ spectrum, you rely on people to prop up your emotions.
In terms of rugby… I think perhaps there could have been a bit more emotional understanding but as much as I feel some clubs used me and left me on the heap and never considered the players emotions, I also met some of the most wonderful and supportive people. One of my teammates was who pushed me to the retreat. Another teammate had perhaps the most eye-opening response which might show how, I think, the stigma around rugby clubs does not reflect the players as people. I think the societal attitude that you should man up emotionally at rugby is often what makes people do it, not the rugby players.
I believe we need to make sharing emotions normal. Small things like when you ask someone how they feel not accepting ‘just ok’ as a response. I think things like this can help change the stigma around these conversations. Also, there is nothing wrong with crying. I cried loads playing rugby as a kid, and just as much secretly in my car as an adult, admittedly for different reasons! As an adult crying did not make my penis vanish or make me soft. Although I didn’t really need an excuse for that though.
My favourite response when I ‘came out’ with my depression was my mate from rugby who simply looked me dead in the eye and went ‘you dickhead’. His attitude was that this is not something to hide, and I should have said something years ago, he had no idea but only wanted to help. That honestly is my favourite response. He still checks in on me. And he still calls me a dickhead.
Why do you believe mental health is one of the ‘most misunderstood medical conditions permeating our society’?
I think when we talk about depression, or mental health across the board, we think of something being wrong with someone. ‘Oh you’re depressed, that must make you mentally weak’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you can get up in the morning, look yourself in the mirror, get ready and leave your home to be productive you have won four incredibly brutal mental battles before most people have had their morning cup of coffee.
There are serious mental health conditions which I am in no way qualified to talk about and need proper professional help and perhaps intense lifelong care. A bit like physical injuries though there is a range, and for most people who deal with mental health issues they are incredibly strong mentally, mainly as you would never know. That is not easy. To function without anyone finding out is incredibly mentally difficult.
If you then couple that with subcultures and stigma around opening up about mental struggles, I think anything related to the mind gets put in a box which is wrongly labelled as pandora’s. It is as though if anyone mentions it society will freak out and label them as unemployable or not capable.
Why is it important the people with depression try to seek help for their feelings?
I think this is a simple one, if you don’t you can’t be your true self, and if you can’t be your true self, you will continually be fighting internal turmoil and exhausted from hiding how you feel.
If you are struggling, please, please find someone you can share with. I hope and know it could be nowhere near as severe as many people, but this doesn’t make it less worthy of sharing. I lost no mates from sharing. I have made new friends by doing it. I have had some incredible conversations as you find that as you share, people share back. It is truly joyful to connect with people and their true selves. This doesn’t mean you will become lifelong friends, but you will share a truly special conversation and connection.
And if you are truly nervous, there are so many brilliant free professional resources available where you can talk without fear of any repercussions. We list some of these on our Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing link tree.
What inspired you to do a TED talk about your experience? Why do you think this talk has proved so popular?
I was helping to lead mental health week at London Business School and a chap who was doing some of the actual work was also involved in the Ted Talk at the school. He mentioned how he had really enjoyed hearing me speak about my experiences openly at the rugby club and that it had resonated with him and a few others and that I should put myself forward. I told him no. Then I eventually thought, why not. I tell most people and a few it seemed had positive responses, why not tell a few more. I never believed it would be so many.
I would love to think that this number is because I am really really really ridiculously good looking and charismatic but I think the honest answer is that I present as someone who should definitely not have depression. I am not a star with those specific stressors; there are a lot of people out there like Joe Marler doing some incredible things for mental health awareness. Thing is, as a person at home that can be quite hard to relate to.
I think the fact that I am not under any unique stress, nor am I particularly special at anything (I was a prop… I still can’t catch) I think helps people relate. I like a pint. I love skiing. Sometimes I want to be surrounded by people, other times I just want to sit and do nothing (also another behaviour I need to look out for!). I will never play sports or perform music in front of thousands.
I am a person who I understand comes across as someone you would never think could be depressed, I have a great life, excellent opportunities, I don’t have a specific story or reason as the cause. Quite depressing as I write this to realise how dull I really am!
I think it resonates because it is a story which is so relatable to so many, either for themselves or someone they, I hope, still know.