Saturday 15 June 2019

Brent Pope: 'My issues around failure and love will never leave me'

After years of crippling anxiety and panic attacks, New Zealand-born rugby pundit Brent Pope (57) has mastered the coping strategies that see him through. Now, he wants to share his essential life advice

Rugby pundit Brent Pope has struggled with anxiety throughout his life. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Rugby pundit Brent Pope has struggled with anxiety throughout his life. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Rugby pundit Brent Pope. Picture: Fergal Phillips

For years I read articles in various self-help books that told me: "Your weakness can be your strength" - but when it came to dealing with my mental health, deep down I never really believed that.

To me, it was a just a worn-out cliché coming from authors that had never experienced what I had.

As a young man growing up in a macho rugby environment, I felt that I was weak and 'less of a man' if I were to seek help for my panic attacks and catastrophe anxiety.

While my body had served me well as a top rugby player, my mind never followed. My issues with anxiety - which I have experienced since a young boy - remained private and unseen, so people could not understand why I couldn't just fix myself. I was repeatedly told to "get over it."

When anxiety has me in its grip, I have an overwhelming fear that my life will be a failure. To most people, this is a totally irrational thought process. "What does he have to fear? Aren't there people out there with real concerns?"

I know I am considered by many to have a charmed life and therefore I should be grateful for what I have, and for years I carried serous guilt around that.

But mental health does not discriminate. Sometimes it is the very person that seems to have so much that is most in distress, and despite having all these wonderful things, it is then that they feel most vulnerable and unable to grasp real happiness.

The pain is too deep, the shame and guilt too powerful. Shame is an awful feeling to drag around, to me it is a feeling like no other, a feeling that you are less of a person, that you find it hard to accept who you are, or where you are.

A couple of years ago, my beautiful partner at that time, Orla, said something to me that has resonated with me ever since. She said: "To find real happiness, you need to find your purpose in life, Brent."

A few months ago, when I was talking to a group of people about my life experiences with mental health, a rather emotional woman stood up and said, "Brent, you have found your purpose, telling us your story and helping even one person in this room to understand that we can all change and improve our mental health every day, that is your purpose."

Win, the book Brent Pope co-wrote with Jason Brennan
Win, the book Brent Pope co-wrote with Jason Brennan

My eyes welled up, as they often do when I rake over the scars of a life so that others can learn, but this time the tears were of joy, that after all these years, maybe she was right? Maybe this was my purpose, to tell others "it's OK not to be OK; it is no longer OK to not to reach out and ask for help."

As the number of men in my age group who take their own lives rises each year, I ask myself, "what as men are we so afraid of?"

Why is it that it is deemed manly to hobble into a doctor's waiting room with a broken limb, yet still a weakness to seek help for mental health?

We need to replace stigma with better understanding, to become better listeners not only to ourselves, but to others. So that when the symptoms of mental health difficulties arise we can "change the in to change the out".

If we want to get into good physical shape, it takes goal setting and hard work, so why should the brain be any different?

If we don't eat right, exercise or get enough sleep, our body is the first to show wear and tear, but what about our mind? Surely it makes sense to visit the 'mind gym' every now and again and increase our bag of coping skills - but the mind is the last thing we attend to.

We use words such as wellness or mindfulness when talking about emotional health today, and we are learning and moving forward each day, but science is slow in this area too.

While we have scientific, explanatory models for many diseases, the power of the mind still remains an ice berg for many of us to try to fathom.

I know now that my own anxiety issues around failure and love will never leave me completely, and that my panic attacks will probably re-emerge at times, but I have my bag of tools for change. That is why I co-wrote the book Win with Jason Brennan, so others could learn too.

I meditate now when I feel panicked and picture myself in the ocean, the waves lapping peacefully at my back as I regulate my breathing.

I take a pen and physically write down the things that are making me the most anxious but will probably not happen. I break the thought versus action process and decide not to wallow in self-pity but to do something then and there that interrupts the process that wants me to curl up and give up.

I journal, I see a therapist fortnightly and I try and look after my physical health as best I can. I would like to think I practice empathy and kindness to others, and that I see that as spirituality in my life.

I still feel scared at times and loneliness is my darkest companion, but the greatest lesson has been that my thoughts don't have to be a reality, that they are often just that - thoughts.

I have learnt that rather than battle with the negativity that rattles my mind like a Gatling gun, to now recognise that they have been there for a reason in my life, and that they have helped me survive.

I am gentle with my thoughts now, and rather than battling with the bullets, I say "thank you, I appreciate you have looked after me, even helped me to succeed, but I don't need you anymore."

If I am gripped with anxiety and the manifestations of the physical symptoms of a panic attack, I realise that it is because my mind is just signalling an attack to my body and of course it responds, so I grab my bag of tools and know that it will subside.

I tell myself that despite thinking that 'this is what it feels like to have a heart attack', I am back in that ocean, looking at the gently swaying palm trees, the warm water at my back, the waves, counting one, two, three, four...

I am asking myself, are these thoughts reality, are they likely to happen? Get up Brent, break the negative thought process with affirmative action, like the sportsman in Win, go through the process, think well, be well.

But the greatest tool I have is me; the greatest lesson I have learnt is that I am the best person to help me, and while that journey starts with the smallest of steps, hope comes from the realisation that despite your battles, you are never truly alone - there are millions of us just like you.

Maybe that woman was right? Maybe I have finally found my purpose in life, a life where one day I can look back and say "Not only did I make changes in my own life, but I helped others make positive changes in theirs."

I'm not ashamed of my mental health issues anymore - people may judge me still and that can be hard, but at the moment I'm just working on being a better me.

• Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sport, Life and Mental Health by Brent Pope & Jason Brennan is published by Hachette Books Ireland, RRP €16.86

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