How men­tal health prob­lems have stopped this for­mer rugby player and suc­cess­ful pun­dit find­ing true love

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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

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

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