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The difficulty of opening up

March 24, 2010

I am a big fan of rugby league, and I’m proud of the way the UK rugby league authority (the RFL) handles controversial events and topics. Drug testing, for example, happens frequently and without warning at matches, with fines and bans for several years for those caught, be it performance-enhancing drugs or recreational ones. Clubs also work closely with the local communities, like in schools, promoting exercise and denouncing bullying and drug abuse, and in towns like the one I grew up in having your local heroes giving you this advice is a lot more effective than just having your teachers do it.

The RFL also takes crime and violent behaviour very seriously both on and off the field – they are well aware of how the behaviour of said local heroes influences the people watching, especially children, and so any malicious or aggressive behaviour is clamped down on with more fines and match bans. About a year ago, a player I am ashamed to say played for my home team was convicted and sentenced to 6 months in prison for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. I am more pleased to say that our response was the immediate termination of his contract, as this was the least he deserved (and the most the team had the authority to do). However, I seem to be drifting towards shameless promotion of rugby league and away from my point, so let me get back on track.

Late last year I noticed another case of a rugby league player, Paul Whatuira, arrested for assault, but this time it also mentioned that he was taken to hospital for mental assessment. No other details were revealed at the time, so I paid little attention to it, but I just saw an interview he did on the weekly Super League Show on the whole situation, and I found it really quite moving.

Sadly I do not have the video of the interview and it will disappear from the BBC iPlayer next weekend, so, for that reason and for the benefit of those who can’t access the video, instead I’ll transcribe it below. Whatuira says at one point that he wants people to hear his story, to try and help anyone else who is in a similar position.

Just as a warning: the interview discusses a nervous breakdown caused by abuse as a child. Feel free to skip to the end of the blockquote if you don’t want to read through it.

V/O: It seemed like he had it all – Paul Whatuira was playing the game he loved at a club on the up, he proposed to his girlfriend, and they were expecting their first child. But it was [her] pregnancy that eventually led to his breakdown.

PW: Becoming a father started to trigger off memories of abuse in my childhood, that I didn’t confront and seek help. It started a bit of a rollercoaster ride, my life kinda went downhill, I started to lose my confidence in myself, in this life for myself. I didn’t know how to get help, I didn’t want help, I just wanted to be alone, I wasn’t socialising with people, and I was in a bad way.

V/O: The club gave him some time off, he and [his girlfriend] went on holiday, but for seven nights he couldn’t sleep, so came back and checked himself into hospital.

PW: I lost touch with reality, I was hallucinating, I was in a very bad way. I checked myself out of the hospital, and in those early hours of [that morning] I felt like I was possessed. I felt like I was a bad man, and like I said, I lost touch with reality. Unfortunately, I walked into the two innocent victims that I assaulted and, you know, I’m truly remorseful of my actions, and that’s when I got arrested.

Interviewer: Had you not been arrested, what do you think might have happened?

PW: Well I probably wouldn’t be here right now, I was hearing voices in my head, that the only way was to kill myself. I was suffering from severe insomnia, I was hallucinating, and all these voices were coming into my head, telling me to do these things, and yeah, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

I: What about the club? I mean, it must have come as something of a shock for them as well, and something new for them to deal with, how have they helped you?

PW: The club have been very supportive of me, on and off the field, [the coaches] have been very supportive. Obviously, when I was sick, [they] were in touch with my partner, making sure she was alright, and my teammates were there for me too, and the supporters have been fantastic. I got a lot of well-wishers while I was sick and, you know, it made me happy, you know, it was a good feeling knowing that there were people out there that cared for you.

V/O: Paul’s now back, playing for the Giants, he has an 8-week old daughter, and is learning to deal with his past. He hopes that by telling his story, it may help someone else, who is in a similar situation, seek help.

PW: I had to hold all my true feelings inside, you know, I had to keep everything to myself, and that’s definitely not the thing to do. You’ve got to let it out, because it eats you up inside. Maybe if I did seek help in my younger years, those two innocent victims would have not had to go through what, unfortunately, I did to them. I’m truly remorseful, and I hope one day they’ll learn to forgive me, but, you know, I can’t take back the past now. I’m trying to live the best I can, and trying to be a positive role model for my child and my family…

This man has my utmost respect: I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to talk about, especially on national television. It goes on to say he wants to travel around the country to make people more aware of this kind of situation and how you can try to deal with it. His courage is incredible, and I hope he goes ahead, because it is the kind of message people need to hear, especially if you are in that kind of situation.

I went through a minor breakdown a few years ago after a rough patch in my life – nothing close to the magnitude of his, though, I’m very lucky compared to something like that. I do know, however, that knowing that you aren’t alone is an immense help during that kind of situation, and that talking to other people about it is incredibly difficult (I have the anonymity of the internet to protect me here), especially as a man in this society. I’m very emotional compared to the expected male stereotype, and even I found it difficult to talk about at first, and my problem was fairly minor. I cannot imagine how much more difficult it must have been for him, especially in a career like professional rugby, where people expect you to be tough and keep your feelings inside.

Thankfully, though, this ridiculous expectation is being broken down, at least in part – immediately after the interview, a fellow rugby player and friend of Whatuira, Robbie Paul, talked to the host of the show about how he (Whatuira) had kept it inside, and how the pressure to not talk about it combined with his career and becoming a father had caused it to break out. Robbie then went on to say that it’s great that he wants to go into schools and tell people about it, because young people, especially young men, need to learn that talking about your problems is the way to deal with it. This is exactly the kind of message we need to get out, and even better that it should come from people who are seen as role models for masculine stereotypes.

I only wish that more people watched rugby league, so they could have seen this message for themselves.

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