Anxiety and my AFL career: What does help even look like?

Living out his dream in the AFL, Liam thought mental health wasn’t something he had to worry about.  

His anxiety had other ideas. 

A story about accepting help and learning to be comfortable in your own company. 

  
 

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Transcription

 

Narrator:

Just a heads up. This episode features a personal story of mental health. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue support service.

AFL CEO:

With pick 19, the Carlton football club have selected Liam Stocker from the Sandringham Dragons.

Liam:

I still remember really intensely the feeling like how proud I was when I got drafted and Juddy handed me that jumper... 

Media interviewer:

Being presented the jumper by a dual Brownlow medalist and club great, talk us through the emotions right now. 

Liam (to interviewer):

Yeah, it's a bit funny. Chris Judd is probably the hero of my footy journey. I've watched a lot of his footy so that was really, really special. 

Liam:

I think the thing I remember the most is like how quickly my emotions changed. All my exposure to AFL football has been that they live a perfect life and and the second you start living out your dream like there are no worries. And for me, it's probably when everything really going to amplify.

Narrator:

Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about how anxiety doesn't stop for your accomplishments. Something Liam Stocker knows all too well.

Liam was four months old when his family moved to China. It's a time he looks back on fondly. He attended an international school with students from all over the world. And it didn't take long for him to fall in love with competitive sport. 

Liam:

I don't remember much of the schooling. Like the only real lessons I remember are Mandarin lessons, which were fun, because they you know, they pretty much forced you to have them. So they had to make them fun somehow. But I just remember playing so much sport like school tournaments, rugby tournaments... we just did everything we could to play sport. The best memories I have are of sport on the waterfront and Stanley beach. There's like this big outdoor hardcore soccer pitch that I'd just spent hours on. And that's where I started playing rugby when I was about five or six. And that was that was like my introduction to competitive sport. And I used to love it. There were a couple of years where we were just touch and I didn't really enjoy that part. And then when we finally got to the tackling stuff, man, like that was the most fun ever.

Narrator:

And while life was good in Hong Kong, Liam also knew from a young age that he was a little... intense.

Liam:

I got the feeling I was pretty hard-wired with these little habits. Stuff like not being able to step on cracks in the pavement, putting on shoes, I was always left left, right, right, turning off lights switches a few times, locking doors a few times or like getting on the school bus and forgetting whether I'd done something in particular when I'd checked four or five times.

Flecks of dirt in car rides becoming games to me. And if I lost the game, I'd get this unreasonable welling of anxiety because I'd lost it. If I didn't listen to myself, like that, and I didn't go back and check the lights, it would build up inside me and I'd sort of overheat. And I could feel the panic setting in where, you know, I just didn't understand what was going on. Like, it was pretty unreasonable to flip out because I hadn't switched off a light or like checked it again. But yeah, I remember the feeling of my anxiety welling up and thinking that if I didn't do it, the rest of my day would be crap.

The build-up of anxiety from stuff like that, looking back on, probably should have been one of the first signs that something wasn't quite going right.

Narrator:

Liam and his family returned to Melbourne when he was 10. But adjusting to Australian life was far from easy. Culture Shock left Liam feeling out of place pretty much all the time, but especially at school.

Liam:

We first arrived back in Australia, early 2010. And three days in I went on my first school camp. Wasn't the most enjoyable experience, and I kind of repressed a lot of it. I didn't have a close group of mates there. And I probably distanced myself to a point where I was behind the eight ball a fair bit. And all I can really remember is just thinking everyone hated me and I didn't sleep much, didn't eat much, just tried to steer clear and stay safe for the five days.

That was the first time I can remember feeling socially anxious like that.

Yeah, I reckon the camp was almost symbolic of the way I went through middle school and high school. Eventually, I got to a point where I was stressing about where I was sitting at lunchtime, who I was going to speak to during the day like, whether I looked like a loner. There were just little things like that and I'd almost attach myself to people who were unhealthy for me because I could attach myself to someone.

Narrator:

Liam's social angst continued throughout high school. His anxiety centred around every possible bad scenario that might happen, and how everyone else at school was perceiving him.

Then, towards the end of high school, he experienced something he'll never forget - his first panic attack. 

Liam: 

I didn't know my first panic attack was a panic attack. But looking back, like it's fairly obvious it was. I remember I was sitting in my room at my desk, I was studying at the time. I couldn't figure out a little problem with some of my maths homework.

And I could feel my temperature rising like I, I just had no control over my emotions and how I was feeling. I just felt helpless, that my mind was taking control of the rest of my body.

I'd relate it to like a heap of alarms going off in your head, where you can't deal with one at a time. But you can't deal with all of them at once either. My residual levels of stress must have been through the roof, but I just remember losing it, like I threw a pen, got up, like was yelling at myself, slammed my head into my desk, just doing all this stuff to hurt myself.

I struggled to understand that people like me could have things like this go on, because I'd had the picture perfect life so far. But I found that punishing myself like that was just a way to feel real pain instead of, you know, feeling pain in my brain, which I couldn't rationalise. If I was boxing without gloves on or something like that, like I'd have genuine pain to worry about. And that'd be an easier thing to conceptualise than, you know, like feeling depressed or feeling super anxious. I found it a lot easier in my head to, to go, 'well, you know, this is why I'm feeling hurt or flat or down or something because I'm exhausted or because I'm in pain, not because my brain is playing tricks on me.'

Narrator:

That panic attack became the first of many for Liam. In 2018, the year after he finished school, he dedicated himself to football with the goal of maybe, just maybe, making it onto an AFL list. And in November, that dream came true. As you heard at the start of the episode, he was drafted in the first round by one of the biggest clubs in the competition. Carlton. 

Liam: 

Yeah, I had this weird assumption that the second I started earning money for being a professional athlete, the second I was surrounded by these elite performers, that everything in my brain would just compartmentalise and disappear. And frankly, it definitely wasn't the case. Like, the scrutiny, the expectation I put on myself, there were all these factors that in fact, just magnified, what was going on in my head.

I tried really hard for my external to look like how I am as a footballer. 

Commentary:

"Stocker, with a snap, that's the one they needed!" 

Liam:

Angry. And all of these things that we think the perfect 80s or 90s footballer is and that's kind of how I grew up, thinking I should play my football. 

Commentary:

"Courage from Stocker! It was Stringer who cleaned him up!"

Liam:

And for some reason, I couldn't displace my identity as a footballer with my identity as a human being.

Commentary:

"And he's mown down by Stocker!"

Liam:

And I know it's hard for people to conceptualise that you're struggling with this aggressive anxiety disorder, but you're still in front of a packed MCG. Like, how does that even breakeven? So, I think for me, it was almost me figuring it out at the same time, like I wasn't nervous in front of that many people. But there's an aspect of being able to hide behind the identity that I have out there versus the identity that I had off the field. And that's probably why it was a safe haven for me when I was playing AFL football and why I struggle so much when I'm not, it's because I don't have this ulterior identity where I can live as this other human being for two hours and people love me and then I can go back to my normal life. At the time I really struggled to go back to being me. In front of 80,000 people you're not under pressure, but at home on your own you are. Really difficult to understand.

Narrator:

When COVID-19 struck in 2020, initially, the AFL season was put on hold. But a few months later, it was set to resume and a Gold Coast hub. This meant players relocating to live, train and play in Queensland.

Liam:

I wasn't great at leaving home or anything like that. My post trauma from camps prior had really thrown me around a little bit. So going up to Queensland for me, as nerve racking as it was, it was still an opportunity to go and play football. And pretty much the second I got up there I realised that something was really off. You know, thoughts of self-harm were well past the point of being worrying.

I sort of started unpacking why I was even in the industry, like I hadn't enjoyed any of my first two years. What was the point of continuing? And that was sort of when my safe haven became the most harmful thing for me. I remember talking to Lil, our welfare manager at the time and just saying look, I like I think I've got to pack it in here. I have not found it enjoyable my first two years. And these these were the years where I'm not supposed to have pressure on me.

Basically things spiralled out of control and, my plan was to retire and forget about football and disappear into the sunset and live happily ever after. I thought that me escaping football was me escaping my mental health problems. And one of the coaches, Brent, at the time just said to me, 'If you're gonna go home, you're gonna go home for a reason. There's no point you're going home and just forgetting about it.' Because that's what I'd been doing for so long.

What is going wrong in your life? You're an AFL footballer, you're living your dream. I couldn't bear to look at myself and go, ah, you know what, you probably need help now. Because I just couldn't understand, one, whether people would actually listen to me if I was struggling and two, what does help even look like?

Narrator:

The decision to walk away from football and prioritise his recovery was one of the hardest decisions Liam has ever had to make. For the next six months, his sole focus was his mental health.

Liam: 

I didn't like the idea of rehabilitation or didn't like the idea of taking care of my mental health either. In fact, I had these associations with it that I was a weakling because I had to and, all this stuff that I've been prejudiced towards since early childhood. I guess those two weeks in Queensland finally made me realise that, you know, for the past five or six years football had been my saviour.

And it got to the point where football wasn't necessarily detrimental to me, but football could no longer save me. Pretty hard to come to terms with, when I was trying to understand that the only person that could save me was the person I thought was crazy as well.

Narrator: 

And despite what his mind had told him for so long, it was at his lowest points, when Liam realised, he wasn't alone.

Liam: 

When it finally became obvious to other people how much I was battling, the amount of time they put into me to fix things was the best thing that ever happened to me. And that's why I'm so big on, you know, telling other people what's going on, because often they have a better idea of the picture than you do. So I had a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and medication, I just needed a plateau when I was free falling, to be able to pick myself back up again, and that's what the medication ended up being for me. But the biggest things for me were the understandings of what was actually going on hormonally in my brain and having some way to justify how I was feeling. Come back to terms with, 'Right, this is why I'm feeling this way, these are the little things that I can do to get away from it, or give myself a second, where I can really come to terms with how I'm feeling and get back in the moment.' 

Those little conversations I'd have in my head, I couldn't shut them up properly. The irrational stuff used to take a grip on me for days, weeks, months, whatever it was, and it would just ruminate. Whereas now, because I know what's happening, or I understand what I've done wrong, I can come to terms with it and put it to sleep pretty quickly.

And I think, like the difference for me isn't that I don't feel depressed sometimes or I don't feel anxious sometimes. It's more that when I do, it's for a couple of hours, you know, I've done enough work on myself that I'm comfortable not feeling great sometimes. My mindfulness tends to change depending on how I'm feeling like if I don't feel like I'm in the moment, or I don't feel like I'm present, then a lot of the time it's trying to think about what I'm grateful for and who I've got in my corner as well. So I don't feel alone, even when I'm struggling. And instead of dealing with stuff on my own all the time, letting people know that I'm battling or I'm hating stuff.

For me, the hardest thing I found was telling my girlfriend about this stuff who I'd been going out with for eight months. And I was like, 'Oh, well, there's a chance I'm crazy enough that she might leave me.'

But then the bond you get with these people you already trust that you tell them this whole life story. And they just want to help you out instead of you know, trying to justify it with their own story or, you know, turn the conversation back to themselves. That's where I found my greatest connections. And that's how I ended up with mates group I have now and Lil and Brent and people like that who I'll share a lifelong bond with because I was at my lowest and they helped me out.

Narrator:

Liam returned to play in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, and while he’s no longer with Carlton, he now accepts that his story is about a lot more than football.  It might’ve taken some time, but he’s learned that being a professional athlete and being someone who lives with anxiety, well... they aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Liam: 

I now realise my purpose in football might be a little bit bigger than just being good at it. And for me that's going to be de-stigmatising mental health, whether it's in men's health circles or the AFL. I'm going to do everything in my power to make people feel like suffering like this is okay. I don't have to be the super tough guy who everyone's like, 'Oh, wow, wouldn't you love your kids to turn out like that?' I hope they're still saying that about me, but about how I can happily tell people about my struggles and open up to people who I don't even know. Because it's a part of life. I know other people struggle. I know everyone does. And that's what makes it okay for me to.

Narrator:

We want to say a huge thank you to Liam for sharing his story with us. We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you contact the beyondblue support service on 1300 224636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes. This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands. Thanks for listening to Not Alone.

Our theme song is Friends With Feelings, written and performed by Alice Skye, produced by CAAMA Music and published by Sony Music Publishing Pty Ltd.

Helpful resources

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  • Head to Health can help you find digital mental health services from some of Australia’s most trusted mental health organisations

Suicide and crisis support:

  • The Beyond Now suicide safety planning app helps you stay safe if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, feelings, distress or crisis.
  • The Suicide Call Back Service provides professional 24/7 telephone and online counselling to people who are affected by suicide. You can access this service by calling 1300 659 467.
  • Lifeline provide crisis support and suicide prevention services – they can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.
  • If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000

 

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