A league legend shares his experience with depression
Published: 11 June, 2019
Wayne Wigham's career has taken him from the rugby field to working for the Black Dog Institute as a speaker and an educator. For Wayne, life became much better once he was able to access the help that he needed: a cause he sincerely believes in.
The early years
I was sad from the moment I was born. I cried a lot. But when I was growing up, no one really knew much about what was ‘wrong’ with me. They just put me on sedatives.
When you're sad all the time, you really don't know what’s normal. You have no benchmark. All I knew was that I felt better when I played sport. I felt better and I loved it. It was my escape. If it was raining the night before I was supposed to play sport I would cry. When I wasn’t playing sport, I was just struggling to function.
At the start of high school, I was very tall but also very skinny, so I was an easy target. I was just miserable. My mum had to come down to the school at morning tea just so I could stay for the day. It was awful and I didn't know what was wrong. I just didn't know why I felt like this.
Someone told me playing rugby league for the local team would be a good way for me to make friends. So, I went and joined up. Luckily, from the very first time I touched the ball I was really good at football.
I don't know if I would have survived without sport. It gave me an identity; it made me feel better about myself. And when I was playing, I was not miserable. What I’ve realised now is that I was getting endorphins. Exercise was helping treat my depression.
Playing for Balmain
In 1976, I was picked for the first-grade team. I was 17. The first time in the sheds before the game was exciting but very scary. And the first time I ran onto the field and the crowd cheered was a massive adrenalin rush. It’s hard to get that feeling ever again in life. Although I was technically good enough, it was a real shock to realise that I deserved my place on the team.
On the days when I was really depressed, I’d be in the toilets crying. One day, before a game everyone was getting ready and I just went and hid and cried for five minutes because I was so sad. I struggled because I had no energy. As anyone who's suffered with depression knows, when you're down it’s hard to even walk 10 metres. Sometimes I’d lose all my energy just walking to a game and wanted to fall asleep on the ground in front of me.
What I found was that if I could last the first 15 minutes of the game without making a fool of myself, I'd usually begin to feel better.
I didn’t want to let my teammates down. My friends thought I was happy-go-lucky. Not letting people know who I truly was, was exhausting too. I felt like I had to pretend that I was okay all the time. Often by the time I got home I would just shut my bedroom door, collapse and sleep.
When you have suffered sadness, anxiety or even depression in your life, you have no benchmark of normality so you don't know what's right and you don't know what you should strive for. By this time, I was starting to have some thoughts of suicide. I was getting tired of feeling so sad.
But again, the sport kept me up and kept me going. I had a lot of friends and I had a pretty active lifestyle. No one really spoke about it though. From the moment I woke up in the morning I was sad. I felt like I was going to live with overwhelming sadness for the rest of my life. I would think to myself, “What if I live for another 20 years? Can I make it?”
A fork in the road
I was only 27 when I retired from the game I loved, and it was mainly because I wanted to find out if it was the football that was making me feel this way. I knew I wouldn’t be able to survive a 9 to 5 job, so I decided to join the fire brigade – because I knew I’d have plenty of time to hide. Sure, there were periods of high energy attending fires and rescues, but there was also a lot of time between fires or practice where we would have nothing much to do, except talk. Every decision I had made in my life up until this point was based around surviving my depression. I joined the fire brigade to survive.
I spent 10 years here, hiding it from the world. I was hiding it from my workmates, from my wife, from my mother. Suicidal thoughts were getting stronger and stronger and I would panic about living too long. It eventually became too much, and I attempted suicide.
At the time, my two sons were 14 and 16. I was so worried about what they would think about me. I thought I had ruined their lives. Instead, they started to read about depression. They started to talk about it and understand that depression was an illness. What’s beautiful is that when we start talking about things like this, we realise that we don’t have to suffer alone. Now, my boys talk about it. If they are struggling, they’ll put their hand up.
After my attempt I was diagnosed with depression. Unfortunately, the medication they gave didn't help. When I was released, I still felt very ill. I really started to lose hope. I'd lost my marriage and I was drinking heavily. I didn't think there was any help. I thought there was no way out. I thought this was the way I had to live.
Getting and staying well
Eventually, at Black Dog Institute, I was diagnosed with melancholia which is a very severe type of depression and not always easy to diagnose. This correct diagnosis meant I was prescribed medication that gradually helped, but I also learned to be disciplined. I learned that I had to do certain things to stay well. For me, depression will probably be with me for life. I know I must take medication and I must exercise. I've got to manage it.
One day I was sitting in the backyard and suddenly, I noticed that the trees looked a bit greener, the sky looked a bit bluer, and I didn’t feel sad. I felt a bit different. I felt okay. And it was probably the first time in my life that I'd felt that way. It was amazing.
Although it didn't last all day or the next day, I had a taste and I began to know what normal was. I finally had a benchmark I could aim for.
One bad thought, two good ones
Some advice that I was given from a girl who also had melancholia was that every time she had a bad thought she forced two good ones in. I started practicing forcing good thoughts in. I started to pat myself on the back for the good things that I did and not just torture myself with the bad ones. I rewarded myself for small steps. I respected myself that I had an illness and learnt not to hate myself for it.
Later I began volunteering for Black Dog Institute doing presentations to community groups and schools about my own lived experience. Mainly I tried to explain that depression is an illness and once people realise that, they discover there’s a way out of it and that’s a huge relief. Giving back and sharing my story has really helped.
Sharing my story has inspired other blokes to share theirs
I’m grateful because I'm not scared to go and talk to ‘blokey’ audiences, and when I started 8 years ago no one was doing it. I think it helps that I was a league player. People don’t perceive me as being weak because I'm not physically weak, but then I’m honest and say, “depression makes me cry like a baby.” A lot of people think mental illness makes them weak, but that is so wrong. They're the toughest people in the world.
I’ve spoken to miners, who haven’t heard much about mental health, who are more resistant to hearing about the topic. Surprisingly, some of the toughest guys in the room got up and said they were struggling. When you have someone who everyone respects on the mine site, who might be a leader, and they disclose their own struggles, it’s a wonderful thing. It makes it okay.
I’ve also been involved in Country Rugby League, where we go to remote towns and present to the local sporting teams. We put money towards their clubs if they can get 80% of their players there to take away any excuse to not turn up. I can't tell you how many people have got up and got help straight after one of the presentations.
As well, I’ve done some work with the NRL to teach the players the signs and symptoms of depression, how to check in with their mates and where to seek help. Every player from under 16 and up is now well educated about mental health. The motto is: ‘It takes a tough man to live with it, but it takes a tougher man to put his hand up.’ And from what I've seen in the last four or five years, this message is really working.
My advice to others who might be experiencing mental-ill health
- Speak up honestly to friends, coworkers, your GP. Anyone you feel comfortable talking to
- Ask for help and if you are really struggling call Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Educate yourself – Knowledge is power. If you understand the illness, you can fight it
- Don’t be ashamed. There is nothing you have thought or felt that you need to be ashamed of, just tell them everything. It’s really important
You can listen to Wayne talk about his experience on the Being Well podcast below
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)