Today is RUOK Day, a day when we are encouraged by RUOK organisation “to connect with others & ask about life’s ups and downs” as part of the public fight against suicide and associated mental illnesses. It is for many folk out there just another awareness event that lines up alongside other worthy charity days such as Red Nose Day, Daffodil Day etc etc. I can understand that, insofar as there is such a plethora of good causes in the public domain struggling for attention, for funding, for active support. However this year, this RUOK Day I have a significant commitment to this event, and (unsurprisingly) this is filtered and concentrated through my association with the Western Sydney Wanderers football community, and by extension others out there in the online and offline band of brothers and sisters that share my passion for the round ball code.
I have already touched upon some of the circumstances that have caused me some serious anguish earlier this year in my post on why I wish I had traveled to Adelaide for the 2015/16 A-League Grand Final. The most damaging experience for me emotionally not just in the last year, but arguably since I left school was the collapse of a sixteen year long relationship. I won’t get into the messy specifics of my situation, as there are some intensely private and personal matters to consider not just for myself, but also for my ex. However I think it is both appropriate and of value to put on the table some of the more general aspects of what has been (and still is) a seriously troubling time for me. This includes confronting certain emotional and mental health ‘demons’, and trying to address the very problems that RUOK Day is focused on. It is also very important for me to put out there the positive influence my comrades in red and black, and in football in general, has had on my ongoing battles. It helps me immeasurably to publicly acknowledge my brothers and sisters in red and black (and some in other clubs’ colours) as being there for me with a kind word or an open ear, never judging, always listening.
One of the earliest expressions of this most-welcome support came on the eve of the Easter holidays. Two of my Wanderers comrades offered out of the blue to meet up in Parra for a feed and a drink, with the added diversion of watching the Socceroos play Tajikistan in Adelaide on TV. Mick and Balks (they know who they are) sat down with me and did what great mates do. They asked me how I was, listened to some of my troubles, told me a few yarns of their own to get me out of my self-absorption regarding my problems, debated aspects of the Wanderers season, laughed with me about the shit state of Adelaide Oval for a World Cup qualifier. This therapeutic conviviality was definitely for my benefit, both in terms of their original motivation, and also in the effect it had on me at that time. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t going to be left to stew in my juices; these two mates who I have found through our shared love of the Wanderers were there to help me at that time in the best way that they could.
There have been other moments of unsolicited sympathy and a willingness to let me pour out my heart and soul to my Wanderers comrades, and I have been grateful for every one of them, to every one. For quite some time earlier this year I was getting almost daily texts from one of my Red and Black sisters, checking in on me, asking me how I was fairing, discussing topics both football related and those that weren’t. Before one of the Wanderers NPL2 friendlies I shared about an hour with one of the few WSW mates I have that is of my generation (i.e. an old bastard who remembers Jimmy Shoulder and the Phillips Soccer League), sitting down to chew the fat over a few beers before venturing next door to Popondetta Park. He was more than willing to both let me yammer about my problems, tell me a few things to help me put my issues in perspective, and divert my dispirited sensibilities into football.
I must also refer to two men who have really given me plenty to think about through the agency of their experiences and their thoughts, as I discovered when I sat them down for their sessions on my Wanderers themed podcast, ‘One on Wanderers’. First there was the recording I made with Matt. In this podcast (admittedly produced prior to my relationship breakdown) he made some cogent and (for me) surprising comments on the mental health benefits of active support. It was after my personal life had turned to shit that I really comprehended some of the wisdom and empathetic thinking within Matt’s words. I can verify through my own experiences since then (more on that later) how true his comments are about the positive aspects of active support on relieving depression and stress.
To add to Matt’s football-focused comments, a few weeks after I was fortunate to find an even more expansive and positive message in another podcast guest. Another Wanderers comrade who goes by the name of Mick was incredibly open and brave when he talked about his battles with mental health issues on the episode I recorded with him. This was produced only a week before things went seriously pear shaped for me on the home front, and through the agency of that podcast I was lucky enough to hear a man, a fellow Wanderers supporter, express his emotions and thoughts in a context very similar to mine. I feel even more fortunate and dare I say a little bit proud (which in turns helps me) that Mick was willing and able to pour forth his experiences, his ruminations on being bipolar, on his time in mental health care, and how he connected his efforts to stay well through football, through the Wanderers.
There are numerous other people I could refer to, several other occasions or experiences that I could mention, where someone who shares with me a love of the Western Sydney Wanderers has given me a shoulder to lean on, a reason to smile, an ear to pour my heart and soul out to. I’ve had deep and meaningful moments over a stein with fellow WSW addicts male and female, young and old, new friends and not so new. At the semi against Brisbane I was taken into the bosom of the RBB with Lloydie, FCB, Wal and Valter and whilst I was feeling gutted away and outside the active stands at Wanderland, for those glorious few hours focused on that magnificent defeat of the Roar, I was given the heartening comradeship where my euphoria could supplant my depression. Admittedly if we had lost that would have drawn a pall over things. However we didn’t; that 5-4 come back from the dead ‘Miracle at Pirtek’ was the final sanction on a day when my red and black fraternity gave me every reason to feel good.
Perhaps the most crucial moment when I found how valuable, how life affirming it was to have my Wanderers’ mates behind me was the morning after I admitted myself to crisis care. Without going into all aspects of my situation, I was at that most low moment, where one questions why one should keep struggling with the emotional hell you are going through. Beaten down by issues relating to the ex as well as my work situation at the time (or should I say impending lack of work lol), I was in need of a refuge where professionals would make sure no self-harm would come to me. When I was asked to hand over my belt and shoelaces on admittance I was in serious doubt of my ability to go on, to continue to struggle with the feelings of hurt and hopelessness that seeped into every pore and bone of my being. However, when the immediate danger passed and I was later able to walk out of the hospital with trousers and shoes secured, there were my Wanderers mates there to ask me; are you okay? I had come through a very dark passage and they were there to shine a beacon of friendship to light the way.
Before I close off on the subject of how my Wanderers brothers and sisters have been so valuable in these last seven months of emotional trouble, I must make reference to the communal nature of this willingness to care, to listen, to openly discuss problems that give cause for RUOK Day. In the West Sydney Football forum, the home of Wanderers related chat online, there have been threads opened and fervently conversed in addressing mental health issues. It’s there that members and fans of my beloved WSW can articulate their own personal doubts and griefs, or perhaps offer succour to those like me who are in need of support during shitty times. I’ve availed myself of a willing audience for my woes there, plus also offered some thoughts and encouragement to fellow correspondents to try and help them with their issues. It’s a wonderfully positive and helpful conversation that helps set the paradigm of why being with my fellow Wanderers advocates is not just a football fan thing; it’s a real community in the best sense of that word.
At this point, before I finish this blog post, I would like to widen my observations on how my football friends have asked me ‘RUOK’ and then been willing to listen, by commending a bloke who is not a fellow traveler in red and black. A great mate for me and I firmly believe for the wider football community, Todd aka ‘A Nobody from Newcastle‘ has been consistently sending me messages via Twitter, Facebook, in person and by text asking me how I am, what I’m up to, chatting about his Jets or my Wanderers. Todd is the kind of member/supporter that every A-League club needs to look to when searching for that one individual that embodies the best values of their community. He is passionate about football in his Hunter homeland, but equally impressive is his commitment to mates away from Newy who share his love of football. He and I have bounced off each other through bad times and good, and I find his friendship incredibly life-affirming. I may feel miserable about what has happened to me due to my domestic issues and my mental health problems. However whenever Todd asks ‘Are you okay?’, or sits down with me at a pub in Parramatta or Hamilton to iron out the latest issues with our beloved clubs and code, the blues get pissed off quick smart. I would not be lying to say my brother from another A-League club is at the heart of my inspiration to engage with the whole message of ‘RUOK Day’.
I’d like to finish off with the message that asking a friend, a work mate, a relation if they are okay is something that is of so much value, so much help when one feels that it actually isn’t. From recent personal experience I have had family contacts, mental health professionals and old friends ask me how I am doing, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. I appreciate their efforts, even if at times I have been reticent or have even rejected them. However, when it comes to the ‘RUOKs’ proffered by my fellow Western Sydney Wanderers comrades, from some select and amazing football mates, I have never felt unable to answer back “I will be, thanks in no small part to you.”