Neil’s Story

Back in 2012 there was so much going on in my life. I was in a job I was struggling with. My mum was diagnosed with cancer. There were also all the responsibilities that come with being a dad. Physically, I felt done in. I began feeling dizzy all the time. I had pounding headaches. One side of my face felt numb. I almost fainted at work. I made a doctor’s appointment, and they did tests which didn’t reveal anything.

Things came to a head one weekend in March. Spurs played Bolton in the FA Cup quarterfinals, and this match made headlines because Bolton midfielder, Fabrice Muamba had a cardiac arrest. His heart stopped and he was effectively dead for 78 minutes. At work, I was reading all these papers about this incident like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, consuming everything I could about this boy collapsing, dying, finally – miraculously – being resuscitated and brought back to life. Tears were rolling down my face.

I went for another check-up, and when I mentioned the Fabrice Muamba situation, the doctor asked if I’d ever felt depressed. I answered, ‘No way I’m depressed. I’m always first in the pub, last to leave. The life and soul of the party!’ But I just burst into tears again. I can now see the extent to which I’d been hiding behind a mask.

Neil with Club Captain – David Marshall

I realised I needed to do something about my mental health. I was thinking, I’ve been diagnosed, I’m struggling, I do need help. Where’s the instant fix? There was no one thing I could think of that might’ve really triggered me. I’d had a brilliant upbringing. A loving family. I was well supported by great people around me. Opening up to talk about it still felt alien. I did try a stress control group, going along to a six-week course to listen to people discussing their mental health. I just sat in the furthest away corner, arms folded, thinking, ‘Why would I want to make pals with depressed folk?!’ But like many individuals with mental health conditions, the symptoms can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. I’d been down but started coming back up again. This calm lasted until 2018, and at that point I heard about the Changing Room.

This SAMH-run programme had been launched at Easter Road, when Neil Lennon was the Hibs manager. Neil was something of a pioneer for encouraging men to open up. I thought this might be a much better way of keeping my health in check, so I went to the second intake. This really changed my opinion about mental health. I could see people I recognised who went to Hibs games. For want of a better term, it ‘normalised’ these struggles. Just being there was a massive empowering and enlightening experience. It was also so important that it was held at Easter Road, a place where I had so many memories. Straight away, I felt safe, and amongst others who’d been through their own struggles. Pher Nicholson and Robert Nesbitt, the SAMH coaches, came up with the brilliant idea of the ‘walk and talk,’ inviting us to stroll around the hallowed turf in pairs. This really encouraged participants to speak freely. I was also inspired to become a volunteer. But. The irony was, my mental health had started sliding again, to the point I was feeling suicidal. I was helping out at sessions. Listening to people describing their issues. I just thought I’d fight my own battle. And day after day, I was losing.

After another doctor’s appointment to see about the persisting physical problems, I was informed these were symptoms of multiple sclerosis. I needed to undergo further tests. I remember leaving the hospital after being tested, January 2019. January is traditionally such a cold, bleak month. I’d been running towards a cliff edge for some time. When I took my youngest daughter to school one morning, we never chatted as we normally did. I’d decided the only way out of this was to take my life. I said goodbye, hugged her tightly in the playground.

I was at the bus stop, knowing one bus would take me to the hospital to get the results of my latest brain test; the other bus would take me to the place where I’d convinced myself I was going to do what I had to do. I’d timed the buses, so I knew when each bus was due. I was thinking, ‘Am I actually going to end up doing this? My life is hanging by a thread and it’s all down to the LRT bus timetable!’ 

This was one of those sliding doors moments. The hospital bus arrived first, and the consultant told me I didn’t have MS. But I did have a mental health issue needing to be addressed with as much urgency as any physical condition. One Thursday, as I was trundling out the bin, I saw taking the rubbish out as being like a metaphor. I was thinking, now I need to be honest. So, I sat down with my wife and made that powerful, two-word admission. ‘I’m struggling.’

I just spoke to her – at her – for about an hour and a half. She knew I’d been going through something and was a big support, but she’d no idea my state of mind had deteriorated to such an extent. I went to the doctor and was given a safety guide of who to contact during a mental health crisis: GP surgery. NHS24. The Samaritans. The Royal Ed. I was invited to add details of any other people I could count on for help. So, I put my wife’s name and number. I also wrote down the Changing Room.

The support from the Changing Room was a massive help. This really empowered me to take back control. I wanted to volunteer as much as I could to help out. I got together with Dave Thomson, and we talked about what we could do to help guys over and above the 12-week Changing Room programmes. We came up with the idea of monthly drop-ins in the Hibs Community Foundation Hub under the banner, ‘Supporting our Supporters.’ I’ve been through a challenging time, but a mate said, ‘Always remember, everything is temporary.’

Whatever stressful situation you’re facing, keep it in perspective. Our mental health is something we need to be united to face. Family and friends. Changing Room. Stuff I’ve been doing with SAMH. These have all massively helped me. Hibs are part of the reason I’m still here, and my kids have still got their dad. I’ve met so many good people through The Changing Room. With shared experiences. Developing a common bond. And it’s not just about Hibs. I’ve got pals involved with Big Hearts, which is brilliant as well. Mental health goes way beyond football rivalry. The Changing Room has given me the tools to keep my own in check.