Tuesday 20 March 2018

'I couldn't work out why I couldn't fix myself' - Brent Pope opens up on having 'catastrophic anxiety'

5 December 2011; Speaking during a questions and answers session at the Powerade Leinster Schools Cup Draw 2012 was TV pundit Brent Pope. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
5 December 2011; Speaking during a questions and answers session at the Powerade Leinster Schools Cup Draw 2012 was TV pundit Brent Pope. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Fiona Dillon

Fiona Dillon

Rugby pundit Brent Pope has opened up about the crippling anxiety he has battled in his life - which began when he was just 13-years-old.

He was speaking today at a major Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit attended by hundreds of delegates at the Aviva Stadium.

The one-day event brought together organisations including the Defence Forces, gardai, the HSE, companies, together with members of the public and students to learn about and discuss managing mental health at work and at home.

In a moving address, Pope told how his body had served him well all his life.

"I had been a good sportsman, I always excelled physically. It's just that my mind didn't follow."

"And for so many years I couldn't work out why it was that I couldn't fix myself, that I needed help," he said.

"I never really understood until I got into my forties, until I sought the right help," said Pope, who shared his personal experience to encourage other people who need such help, to seek it.

"My problem is crippling anxiety, catastrophe anxiety. It's not just an anxiousness," he explained. When anxiety becomes chronic and negative that's when the problems exist, he said.

Growing up in New Zealand, he said he had a 'Huckleberry Finn' lifestyle - riding tyres down rivers, on horses, skiing, surfing, and all that wonderful lifestyle that the country offers as a young boy.

When Pope was around 13, he was getting into a bath on a Sunday night. "There is just a barrage or a 'Gatling gun' of negative thoughts coming to mind," he recalled.

"I then started to get the physical manifestation of a panic attack, which is being unable to breathe, being frozen, crying for no reason. But knowing at that age it wasn't normal. Kids have a gut feeling about things. I just knew this wasn't normal behaviour for a 13-year-old. I went back and lay on my bed and I cried all night," he said.

Pope said that he was scared to let anyone else into his world. "I continued to battle with panic attacks most of my teenage life, but I masked it."

He said he was "the good guy on the rugby team who didn't take things too personally", and that was the image he portrayed. "But I was hurting, because I didn't feel anybody understood me."

The dedicated charity worker said he was a young physical rugby player looking at playing for the All Blacks. "I couldn't understand why my mental health was leading me down these paths of panic attacks and anxiety. I was very low on self confidence. I didn't want to tell my parents where I played rugby for the fear that they would come and watch me. I never believed anybody who told me I was a good player.

"So I continued on having panic attacks on a regular basis, sometimes triggered by nothing," he said. Pope explained that for those who have experienced anxiety at that level,  it can just come out of nowhere.

He said that he came to the lowest point in his life. He had advanced to the apex of New Zealand rugby, and had finally started to believe he belonged to be there. However, he got an unfortunate injury. "I missed out on the All Black squad in 1987, and that was a dream of mine."

Eventually, he ended up getting the help that he needed.

"I have a choice that I have to work at my mental health. I know it now," he said.   

It's the second annual Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit, and its objective is to make mental health information and education accessible to people across all sectors of the community.


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