Tell us a little about who you are, who you work for and what you’re doing now?
My name’s Chris Kirkland, I was a professional footballer playing in goal. I started at Coventry before playing for my boyhood team Liverpool. I used to stand on the Kop as a kid, 1988 was my first game when I was 7. So to sign for Liverpool was a dream come true. I still live in the area now, we love it on Merseyside. I then went to Wigan for 6 years and then Sheffield Wednesday.
How long have you been in your industry?
I was a professional footballer for 19 years, I’m still in the industry now working for LFC Foundation as an ambassador.
We’re here to talk about mental health, especially in the workplace. In your personal experience who has managed this subject best and why?
It’s a good question but times have changed now, it’s only really been in the last 3 years or so – especially since covid that work places are thinking about it and have quite rightly ramped things up. Now you can go to your bosses and say I’m struggling, you couldn’t do that 5 years ago. At the foundation at Liverpool you can, I’ve done it and they’ve helped me. I remember them saying take whatever time you need with your family. I’m doing a talk in town in October for a law firm. This company hold mental health days every month and that’s just one example of what companies are now doing. I have to say Liverpool Football Club and the Foundation have been great for me and also Sheffield Wednesday. If you ask people, would you feel comfortable going to your boss, lots would still say no but it’s definitely improving and businesses are getting better, but they had to. Organisations now know they must look after their employees much better than they did previously. More can be done but times are definitely changing for the better. I remember you telling me about your initiative but why did you set it up?
The subject is something I’m very passionate about personally but also our MD is very passionate about it. When I joined the business it was something that I wanted to introduce and when he heard about it he said I’m not only giving you the green light for it but I also want to get behind it. It’s now within the DNA within the business, it’s in everything we do. It’s in new business meetings, new colleague meetings it’s something as a business we’re all really passionate about. We recognise we live in a real world where we all can sometimes feel vulnerable to our mental health. We wanted to create an environment where it’s normal to talk about our mental health as we recognise how much that helps, we also wanted to fundraise to help as many people as we can. In its first full year I’m really proud to state that we have now raised over £5000 from the events we’ve taken part in and in a couple of weeks we complete our toughest challenge yet, the 3 peaks.
Have you ever personally struggled with your own mental health. If so how did you or do you deal with it?
When I was with Liverpool and Wigan where I lived was 15 mins for both training grounds. I could drop Lucy off when she come along in 2006 at nursery and then pick her up after training. I could take the dog out, go for walks with the family, see all the school plays – everything. In 2012 it all changed, I was travelling to and from Sheffield. It’s not far but it’s just a hard journey, over Woodhead or Snake Pass. I was always in the car for long periods on my own. I appreciate some people have to get up early for work but I was having to set off every day at 5.30 to get to Sheffield and then arriving at 7.30 before anyone else was in, just to beat the traffic. I was getting home late at night and I was missing the stuff I was used to for 11 years and it was suddenly gone. I’d get home late at night and not want to do anything because you knew you had to get up again at 5 o’clock, I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere and I became a different person.
I had a little niggle before the first game and got hold of some pain killers. The pain killers helped with the anxiety of travelling away from home. Like everything does at the start, you depend on them more and more – in the end you’re not using them for the pain relief you’re actually addicted to them. After about 3 months they were the first thing I thought about in the morning and last thing at night but by then it’s too late. I think if it wasn’t for the travelling it might have been easier to stop taking them but I was telling myself I needed them to help and it all just led down a slippery path. For 3 or 4 years I was taking them at training and games and it totally changed me as a person and messed me up mentally. I wasn’t looking forward to things, football was then a distant memory.
I had to retire in 2016 due to my mental health from the addiction and nobody knew. I ended up getting better, I went to the PFA and got off them. After about a year I started to miss football, I really missed the routine – something I’d done all my life, the routine and structure which is vital to people. All of a sudden that’s gone and I ended up back on them again stupidly and ended up in rehab in 2019 – again nobody knew what the real reason was for it. It was my mental health and the addiction was side by side with that. I went to rehab, got off them, felt great. This was July 2019. Then lockdown hit in 2020 and everybody did what they had to do to get through. That period was really tough for me and I ended up back on them. 19 months ago now was the last time I took any. I’m convinced I wouldn’t be here right now if I was still on them as I was taking ridiculous amounts – over 2000 milligrams a day which is 5-6 times over the recommended dose. I was getting them from everywhere and even off the internet. I remember one episode when I bought some online and I didn’t know who I was. I was away somewhere, the only way I got home was I put ‘home’ in on the sat nav – on the way back I had heart palpitations I thought I was going to die that night. The next morning when I woke up I flushed all the ones from abroad down the toilet but still had some proper ones from the doctor. But that was the point when I knew it had to stop and about 3 weeks after that I completely stopped for good – that was definitely the turning point.
I opened up and said I’m addicted again and I’m in a bad way but this time I had to tell people if I stood any chance of beating it properly. I felt like I had a deep dark secret and I felt that I stood a better chance of beating it if I opened up and people could also keep an eye on me. My wife had drug tests at home, the postman knows never to give me envelopes or parcels. My daughter knows, everyone does. I think the home drug tests were a great deterrent as my wife can test me whenever she wants and she does. There’s no way of getting away with it now and that’s constantly on my mind, even though I can’t get hold of any if I did she would know straight away. I then knew I needed a structure and a purpose so that’s where the LFC Foundation came in. I’ve said this many times but I thought the Foundation was just a couple of football sessions here and there but it’s huge. They run about 50 different programmes now and I get involved with as many as I can. I’m an Ambassador for them now and it keeps me busy. All week I’ve got lots on, I’ve got lots of charity stuff and try to keep active but more importantly I’m now trying to give back. I got the help when I needed it from my friends and family, the Club but also from people I’d never heard of before so I want to give back. My wife has been absolutely amazing so that’s my purpose now in life. I still have bad days like everyone does when you don’t want to do anything, shut the door and get everyone to go away but those days are less and less. However, exercising and talking and doing the charity stuff is my therapy.
I still struggle now, I don’t know if it will ever completely leave me but you just learn to cope and know that you’re not going to feel your best all of the time.
Tell us something fun most people won’t know about you.
I like to have a laugh, it’s really important not to take life too seriously. I consider myself a bit of a prankster, I like to play pranks and sometimes blame them on someone else. There was a time at Wigan when I hid a dead fish in someone’s car and didn’t tell them about it, and it took him ages to find it. To this day I never told him it was me they’ll find out now when they read this interview! Yeah I love a good prank and laugh I’m always playing pranks on the wife and daughter.
As part of the BreatheOut initiative, which highlights the positive impact of talking to someone, especially if you are struggling, and also being active. How important are these two factors of combatting mental Ill-health to you?
People ask me what helps but for me it’s exercise and talking, I know everyone says that but it’s true. They are the 2 biggest things and they go hand in hand. Both are free, it costs nothing to go for a walk and to talk. I do a lot of walking and have our charity #WalkingsBrilliant. I know when I start feeling anxious or don’t feel great I go out on a big walk and within 15 minutes I’m starting to feel better. I’ll go out in any weather. I get talking might not be easy for some and I totally get that, we all have days when we don’t want to talk but don’t shut yourself away because that really won’t help.
What tips or guidance could you offer other people who are maybe struggling with their own mental health.
Something that really works for me when I’m really struggling is an ice cold shower. I’m into cold therapy. It acts as a rest for me, it doesn’t completely take it away – I don’t think anything does, but when I’m struggling it really works for me. I’ll do that then go on a walk and I always feel much better afterwards. I was fortunate enough to go to rehab and I know a lot of people are not in a position to do that but there’s loads of great organisations that offer free help and support. The key is to open up, it might be the hardest thing to do but if you keep it to yourself and the walls start closing in, the situation will only get worse. Get out, get some fresh air and try to open up to someone.
Date – 17.09.2023
Location – Caldy, Wirrall
Participants – Del McGee and Chris Kirkland