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
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