Having struggled with panic attacks and depression for most of his life, rugby broadcaster Brent Pope has written a book exploring how the mind skills used in sport can be adapted to fight mental health problems in everyday life. He talks to Barry Egan.
Brent Pope’s body always served him well. His mind didn’t. He had his first panic attack when he was 13 years of age. He was in the bath on a Sunday night at home in Ashburton, a rural township south of Christchurch, New Zealand, when he started shaking and couldn’t, he felt, breathe properly. “Cowering with fear,” and “crying like a scared little boy”, Brent sat in the bath until the water went cold.
He has had panic attacks, on and off, ever since. When he was 15, Brent bought a book: When Will I Be Happy? He found it the other day at his house in Dublin. Brent thought it was “sad” that he was reading books like that in his mid-teens. “I had always been a very anxious person. I think you could probably say that my father was probably anxious before me,” he says.
In 1989, Brent — who was born on October 27, 1962 — rang the Samaritans helpline at three in the morning. He didn’t know who else to turn to. He knew he was in the grip of something that wasn’t good. “I couldn’t see a way forward,” says Brent, who played for Otago at New Zealand first division level, helping them to win the division national title in 1991. “I had huge black areas in my mind. I was depressed. I couldn’t get any help,” he says. “I was terrified. I was scared.”
I ask him what was he scared of? “Everything. I was scared of living. I ostracised myself. I had walked out of my job. I didn’t want to play rugby any more. I thought I was a burden to my friends, family. I felt I was a burden to everyone else. I thought they wouldn’t want to know my story. I tried other avenues of going to doctors. They didn’t understand me.”
Brent felt that the man who answered the phone at the Samaritans that fateful night understood him. “He just said — and the words resonate with me now — ‘what’s wrong, friend?’”
“He called me a friend, and that nearly brought me to tears. It is very emotional now because this guy wasn’t my friend. He had a gentle way of speaking.” They stayed on the phone for about “two or three hours”.
The next day Brent cleaned up his apartment; and himself. “I wasn’t washing, I wasn’t shaving, I wasn’t exercising. I had taken up smoking.” It was like Brent was willing himself to throw in the towel. Talking to his ‘friend’ in the Samaritans perhaps saved Brent from himself in some way. He had previously felt that having a mental health issue — anxiety or depression — meant that he would be judged, that he would be seen as being a weak man because he had grown up in a stereotypical tough man’s country, New Zealand of the 1960s.
He says he felt shame. “I use the word ‘shame’ and I don’t use it lightly. I was ashamed that I couldn’t handle these things. I would cut myself away, isolate myself from friends and family and tried to find help in back alleys in the sense of: ‘Who can I go to see, where no one will see me go in?’”
“Even as much as a year ago,” Brent adds, “I was seeing a therapist in town [Dublin city] and I was so paranoid about the girls working in a travel shop next door seeing me coming in.”
Part of the reason Brent came to Ireland 25 years ago was because he needed to change the toxic environment he was in. “I needed to get a new start. You have got to change the ‘in’ to change the ‘out’ — and part of that was going somewhere.”
This charismatic bear of a man, six foot four in height, is open about his feelings in a way that men rarely are. It is refreshing to be around him, and his emotional candour.
“When I am suffering a panic attack or a bout of depression,” he says, “I do try to turn the positive spin on and say: ‘Brent, this is realistically not going to happen’.
“I will write down things. ‘Am I going to end up homeless? No, probably not. If I lose a job? I’ll get another one. If a relationship breaks down, the chances are I might meet someone else ...’”
Five years ago Brent met psychotherapist and mental skills coach Jason Brennan in Wellington. He knew Brent’s brother, Mark, who is also a psychotherapist. Brent and Jason started talking and 18 months later came up with the idea for Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sports, Life and Mental Health, a book that, says Brent, looks “behind the psychology of winning and how the mental skills applied in sports can be adapted for success in everyday life”.
“I was fascinated to meet Jason because I knew he had worked with the All Blacks and because of my own life,” says Brent.
“So we decided to do a book on mental health and sports that people, not just sports people, can dip in and out of. Sport is just the launch pad. It is more about how do these people handle depression, anxiety, all those things.”
How does Brent handle, as he calls them, all those things? “I used different techniques. For instance, if I’m having a panic attack, I’ll use meditation to picture myself in the ocean and to get my breathing back,” he explains.
The facts of Brent’s successful career — as a broadcaster and rugby pundit on RTE and beyond — do not bear out any of these fears on which his panic attacks feed, gnawing at his self-esteem — his very soul — like parasites. “That’s the thing about it — it’s irrational,” Brent admits.
He adds: “Even though I obviously haven’t failed at things, my whole fear is that anything that I set my mind to will be a monumental failure. It is just crippling. It won’t allow you to move forward.”
Brent says: “When I was a young man in New Zealand, going through extreme low self-confidence and self-worth, I didn’t have the techniques to combat them.”
Jason explains: “The challenge with the mind is when the fear sets in. It can kick off a whole lot of chemicals in the brain that can get stuck there. That is the fight, flight, freeze.
“And the adrenaline and the cortisone, which make the heart rate go up, make you more anxious and more worried. Eventually that leads to panic attacks, because you could be imagining, ‘I’m going to die’.”
Jason goes on to say that you can challenge that by thinking the panic attack through to the other side.
He says: “‘Am I really going to die? Or maybe this is something going on in my body right now and I will be OK?’ There are also calming techniques to change the chemical imbalance. It can be as simple as breathing.”
“I work with lots of teams,” continues Jason, “and one of the first things I work on is communication. If someone makes a mistake on the pitch, how do you react to it?
“They might give a player a look if he makes a mistake and that is only going to damage the culture in the team.”
Brent chips in: “Every out-half in the country wants to be Johnny Sexton. Getting well paid for doing something they love doing. So they make the Leinster Academy, they’re on track and suddenly they get a serious injury where those dreams are suddenly stripped away from them. Not everybody can just get on with their life, and say: ‘That’s fine. I’ll just go off to university and I’ll do something else’.
“They’re looking back with regret. They’re looking back, thinking, ‘That could have been me, that should have been me ...’ Even with the Grand Slam,” Brent says referring to Ireland’s historic triumph at Twickenham against England recently, “you’d have some players going, ‘God, that could have been me’.”
The shot at immortality is gone.
“And it is gone forever,” he says. “And what do you do? How do you pick up the pieces?” These words have extra resonance for Brent who was selected in the original 1987 New Zealand Rugby World Cup training squad. Tragically, he had to pull out of the team — the best rugby team in the world at the time — a week before the tournament began when he suffered a serious elbow injury in the trials.
“It is a case of learning how to cope with your problems,” Brent says later.
“I speak around Ireland about mental health, and the number of men who come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I am not in a good way. I have lost my job. I’m in my fifties. I’m sure that my wife doesn’t want to be with me any more …”
Does he regret never getting married?
“Of course, I regret that.”
Does he feel his anxiety and panic attacks held him back from that side of life?
“Yeah,” he says, “absolutely, absolutely.”
Does he feel it would have helped him to be in a nourishing relationship?
“Yes,” answers Brent. “But I was always in a situation that — this goes along with the mental health — [he felt] they would always leave me. That someone would leave.”
You self-sabotaged because you felt you didn’t deserve to be happy, I say. “Yeah ...” Brent says and stops.
Brent is articulate, engaging and has emotional intelligence. He could be in a positive relationship with a partner who could help him over dinner at home if he had a bad day.
And, in turn, he could help his partner if she had a bad day. That’s what relationships are about, I say to him.
Vulnerability is the new chat-up line with women, I say to Brent. It is not ‘Oh Jesus, get me away from him’ any longer. People like you. They think you’re fantastic on television. They see you for what you are: honest to a fault and hugely likeable. You are tall, handsome and as soon as you start talking emotionally, women like you even more ...
“It’s probably the self-sabotage. You’re right,” he responds.
Brent, who is single, is now in his late fifties. Self-sabotage is chewing up his life. “You’re right. Every day, I have that mantra: ‘Get busy living or get busy dying’. But for some reason — up until now — I haven’t been able to put that into action. So, that is a legacy I have had to work at.
“I am not ashamed any more to say I go and see someone once a week, to be able to allow me at some stage to say, ‘Yeah, I deserve to be happy, too; rather than kicking around in the mud’.
“I have been told often by my therapist that there is a bit of disconnect for me between mind and feelings.”
It seems to be psychological dysmorphia, in the same way that we can have body dysmorphia. I can prove it. When I used to know Brent years ago, we would meet randomly but regularly in nightclubs at all hours. And, without fail, many women in the place would want to talk to him — this imposing Kiwi with the twinkle in his eye. “Yeah, but I never saw myself like that,” Brent says of his unhealthy self-image. “I’m probably a shyer person than most people think.”
He tells a story, inevitably against himself ...
“There used to be a guy on the radio in New Zealand, an American psychologist, Earl Nightingale. So, anyway, I was thinking at the time about asking this girl out to the school dance. I think her name was Rachel Bradley or something,” he recalls.
“I was terrified. I started ringing the number and I would hang up, like we all did as teenagers. And I remember listening to Earl Nightingale and someone came on his radio show with the same problem: he was thinking about asking this girl out but he was too scared. The message was: by asking and her saying no, you get the same answer as by not asking.”
“I made the phone call,” Brent remembers with a laugh, “and I got the ‘no’.”
Win: Proven Strategies for Success in Sports, Life and Mental Health by Brent Pope and Jason Brennan, published by Hachett, price £13.99, is out now