Chapter 14. The Chimp, the Stamp and the Letter
I met Steve Peters for the first time on an icy day in the winter of 2011. He lived up in the hills a long way past Oldham and Stockport. Chris Morgan and Zaf Iqbal took me because I was on crutches. I had also needed some convincing to make the journey. I felt even more depressed at the thought I actually needed to see a psychiatrist. Despite what I’d said to Chris after my surgery, it didn’t seem the right fit for me.
When he was still at Liverpool we all respected Dr Brukner’s opinion. He had raved about Steve Peters, who was best known for his work then with cyclists like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton.
Over the years there had been times when I’d felt moody. Some days I could be grouchy or just a bit miserable. Like most people, I had my off days, but I’d never been so down before. Everyone had ups and downs in life, good days and bad days, and I was no different. The surest sign of my balanced approach to life was that I almost always knew the reason for a sudden dip in my mood. It usually seemed football-related and I felt low, for a brief while, because of a game we had lost, a mistake I had made or because one of my teammates wanted to leave us. I could rationalize everything and get back on an even path. But after the groin, the ankle and the twin infections, everything was knotted and twisted.
I still understood the real reason for my feeling so low. I was worried that I would never get my fitness back to play football at the level I’d maintained for so many years. That was the reason I’d told Chris I needed help. But I was sceptical when he mentioned a psychiatrist. The idea of me in therapy sounded pretty weird.
Chris had heard about Steve Peters from one of the Liverpool doctors, Peter Brukner, who had been blown away by an amazing presentation he had given at a conference. Peter has since become the doctor for the Australia cricket team and he was already with them when the batsman Phillip Hughes died tragically after being struck by a ball. He was a key figure in helping the Hughes family during that terrible time.
When he was still at Liverpool we all respected Dr Brukner’s opinion. He had raved about Steve Peters, who was best known for his work then with cyclists like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. I still wasn’t sure but, at the same time, I was so low that I needed help. ‘You know what?’ I eventually said to Chris, ‘I’ll try it. I feel so sh*t I’ll try anything.’
On a freezing and icy afternoon the roads were treacherous. It took us an hour and a half to get to Steve’s house. By the time I had dragged myself out of the car, hoisted myself up on my crutches and started to shuffle down the path to his house I was terrified I was going to slip on my arse. It would be the next thing to go wrong and I’d tear a few ligaments or break a bone. That was my state of mind as we approached Steve’s front door.
We made it in and I managed to sit down without slipping off my crutches and breaking my neck. It was a start, at least. Steve was very easy to talk to and I opened up without too much prompting. After I had told him a little about the injuries, and the past eight months, I admitted that there was some good news. The rest of my life away from football – Alex, the kids, my whole family, my friends – was fine. They were always my support network and I valued and loved them. The only problem was that no one could really offer me much support or comfort when it seemed as if my career, my life in football, might be taken away from me too early.
This was when I first found out about the ‘chimp’. Steve told me how many of us allowed our chimp, the illogical side of our brain, to run ourselves down. The chimp forced us to try and look for the worst outcome and shut out all hope and common sense. My chimp had taken charge of my life and he was running riot.
Steve was very good at that first meeting. He probably said words to me that other people were wary of ever saying. He was harsh but fair. Steve also asked me some tough and searing questions: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you never kick a ball again, so what?’
I looked at him in shock. Steve didn’t shrug when he said those same two words again: ‘So what?’
Steve then pushed on to give me my answer. ‘You’ve got three beautiful little girls who sound happy and healthy. So you’re a dad. You’re also married, to a lovely wife, who supports you every step of the way. You’re a lucky man to have such a fantastic family. You’ve also had an unbelievable career. You’ve played for Liverpool for thirteen years. You’ve won the biggest trophy in club football. You’ve played so many times for your country. You live in a very nice house. You’re financially secure for the rest of your life. What are you worried about?’
I didn’t say anything but I nodded.
‘So what’s the worry?’ Steve asked again.
‘That my career might be over,’ I said in a quiet voice.
Steve spoke even more firmly then. He told me how he knew of some young sportsmen and women who had been forced to retire after six months, before they’d had a chance to achieve anything. They had no medals to show for a lifelong commitment to their sport. They had no money. How lucky was I compared to them?
Steve opened it up to say that people were in trouble in all walks of life. Some men gambled everything and ruined their lives. Others drank their lives away. How did their broken lives compare to mine? My life was fantastic.
He was right, of course, and I listened closely. This was when I first found out about the ‘chimp’. Steve told me how many of us allowed our chimp, the illogical side of our brain, to run ourselves down. The chimp forced us to try and look for the worst outcome and shut out all hope and common sense. My chimp had taken charge of my life and he was running riot. The chimp was causing havoc. Every morning I woke up he said to me: ‘You’re not going to play again. You’re done, it’s over.’
When I was young and single, and football was the be all and end all, I really would have believed there was no point to life if I couldn’t play the game. I would have been wrong but it might have been more understandable because of my youth and naivety. But I was no longer a naive teenager. I was thirty-one years old, a husband and a dad of three. Football was no longer the most important part of my life. My family came first – even if I was still besotted with the game and desperate to succeed. Football came second now – and so I knew I could survive without it. I might even still be happy.
Steve had more to say. ‘You will play football again,’ he said emphatically. ‘I’ve spoken to your doctors and they’ve got no doubt. You will be fine. You’ll get over this and you’ll play as well as you’ve ever done. But you need to take control of your mind again because the chimp is absolutely hijacking you and it’s running your life.’
I decided I’d get my f***ing chimp in a headlock and I’d f***ing muzzle him. But I thought it best not to swear in front of Steve. I just smiled instead. And it was a real smile, a proper smile, one of those smiles that had disappeared from my life for months.
We agreed that Steve and I would meet regularly from then on, just to keep the old chimp in check, and to make sure I was in charge of my head again.
I got back up on my crutches and shook Steve by the hand as I thanked him. I used my arms to hoist myself up and out of his house and I didn’t even worry about slipping on the icy path.