BIG INTERVIEW: Diamonds midfielder Ben Farrell opens up about his battle with anxiety and depression
For Ben Farrell, anxiety and depression are very real things.
Those of us who follow the local football scene in this area know the 32-year-old as a combative and goalscoring midfielder who has played a big part in the last two seasons at AFC Rushden & Diamonds.But, away from the Hayden Road pitch, Farrell is a man who has been battling anxiety and depression for the past 13 years.It was on May 9 that Farrell put out a post on Instagram to say he had quit his job of working in an opticians due to a “rapid decline in my mental heath”.And, about a week later, another Instagram post revealed that his brother had killed himself at the age of 22, when Farrell himself was only 16.Fast forward another week or so, the Diamonds midfielder got in contact with me saying he would be happy to talk about his battle with mental health.It’s a topical subject, of course. And, as someone who follows the non-League game closely, I haven’t seen many players coming out to talk about this sort of situation.And so, we arranged to meet in Farrell’s home town of Milton Keynes. We talked for about an hour, for about 38 minutes on the record.And it was an eye-opening, eye-watering experience for your’s truly as this man, who I and many others have judged solely for his performances on a football pitch, poured his heart out.It’s a heartbreaking and dark tale but it’s also triumphant. Triumphant because he is still here to tell it.I could paraphrase but I won’t. This is a story that needs to come to you directly.So, as we sit down with a coffee at a busy retail centre, the first question I ask stems from that first Instagram post when Farrell revealed he had to give up his job.“When I first experienced any anxiety or anything like that was when I was 19 and when that happened, it completely threw me. I was a confident lad,” Farrell said.“I had to deal with that at that point and got a bit of help but I came through the other side and was doing well, especially with my football.“You think it has gone but it came back in my early 20s again and I knew then that it was something I wouldn’t be able to just shake off.“You make progress and then it is there again. But I got my life together again in my mid to late 20s and over the last five or six years, I had felt really quite steady.“It’s always been an underlying thing. I will do a good job of pretending it’s not there.“But because I had been doing well the last few years, it was always something I wanted to talk about. “I know there are others out there suffering and I felt guilty for not going out and talking about it.“But, at the same time, I was afraid to talk about it in case it came back. I would always hide it because if it ever came up and got brought to the surface, I always felt that it would just overwhelm me.“I was in a job that I had loved for five or six years working in an opticians. I loved the customer service side of it.“But this anxiety just came to the fore and it overpowered me. I would normally be full of beans at work and talking to everyone. I would be annoying because I was so happy.“And it got to the stage where I was just dreading serving customers. It was too much.“From previous experience, rather than save all the hassle of trying to fight it, the best thing to do was to get out and try to deal with it.“So I quit on the spot, I knew I couldn’t do it. The days were getting worse. I knew I had to quit there and then to go and try to recover. I had to take all pressure off and start from scratch.“So I walked out even though I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Any type of work is uncomfortable when you are depressed because you just want to be in bed all day.“My manager made the effort. She came round and met me but in my mind I knew I wouldn’t be back.“Since I quit my job, things have changed a little bit. I have made adjustments and, at the moment, I am in a better place.”So how does something like this all start? Well, it seems to be the culmination of numerous factors.And as we get deep into the things that have happened in Farrell’s life, it leads us towards the dark area of suicidal thoughts which are something that he has had to deal with on more than one occasion.“When I was 16 my brother took his life and it was quite a surreal event to be honest,” he explained“I was 16, I was a cocky and confident lad at school and I think I brushed it off. Obviously when you’re at home and you see your family so upset, it’s a traumatic situation behind closed doors.“But me being me at the time, I just tried to carry on and for the two years after that I was feeling strong and confident.“Obviously there was something in the background and clearly, I hadn’t dealt with what happened. I almost just ignored it and I didn’t realise that I would have to deal with it.“And then, on a holiday when I was 19, I remember just being with my pals and I started getting paranoid.“There are always little arguments when you’re on holiday with your friends but the paranoia overtook me, then I had a panic attack and I didn’t really know what was going on.“But that was when I first experienced it.“In my head, I just said to myself that it was the drink and everything that went with a holiday with the lads so I went home and went back to work when I was a carpenter.“And then I noticed it again. I was having these anxiety attacks in normal social situations. It was almost like a social phobia. I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone.“I had also been injured so wasn’t playing football but I was due to come back that summer after that holiday.“I had done well at Bedford Town when I was 16 or 17 and I had broken into their first team but the injury really set me back.“I had my brother dying when I was 16 and then I was probably at my peak with football at that stage.“People were forecasting a professional career for me. Before I got injured I was in an England schoolboy trial and I was playing for Bedford but skipped the reserves and got into the first team.“I felt I was on point at that stage but the injury stopped me and I had to sit back and watch another lad go ahead of me in that schoolboy trial and he went on to have a professional career. That’s football and that’s what happens.“So I had the injury to deal with that got me down at times so I was dealing with a lot of things.“But I was putting my chest out and probably not realising the effect everything was having on my mind.“Maybe it was a build up of stuff that came out on that holiday and resulted in the panic attack.“But the worst thing was that it never went away.“I had the problem at work but then I had football and I was thinking ‘right, this is where I come into my own’.“At the time, I was probably one of the jokers in the dressing-room. But at that time I was forcing things out, I wasn’t myself.“So I was having these feelings of anxiety and panic in everything I did and that soon turned into depression.“I was going to football and worried about just turning up. That was demoralising. I waited two years to come back and all this just affected everything from my confidence to my performance.“Everything was drained from me. I became a timid person, which wasn’t me.”And now he recalls the moment when things really broke down for the first time.“I remember I got the point when I was at work and sawing away at something and I just dropped to the floor with exhaustion.“Just from existing, I was exhausted. I dropped the saw, fell on the floor and I just felt like giving up.“From there, I sought comfort from my sister. She lived around the corner from where I worked. I couldn’t spend time on lunch with those I worked with so, at that time, I went to her and told her about it.“That all led to me going for counselling and when I opened up to my counsellor she ended up crying and that’s how bad things were.“I was suicidal around that stage but there have been more times than once that I have felt like that.“My brother did what he did and there was one point where I realised I was in his shoes and I completely understood why it happened.“Before then, people would say he was selfish for doing what he did and that’s what people do say in that situation. It’s the easy thing to say ‘he’s left this person or that person behind’.“But what he was going through, it was just too painful and he couldn’t deal with it.“People open up about it more now because it is okay to not be okay.“But the first time I was struggling, I genuinely didn’t know what was going on and I just didn’t think anyone else would understand. I thought me and my brother were the only two people in the world who had this thing.“I felt completely alone. And I remember being in bed one day and thinking that if I had a gun in my bedside draw then I would do something stupid.“And it’s only out of laziness and having no energy at the time, that I didn’t do anything.“I couldn’t be bothered to go and stand in front of a train. I couldn’t be bothered to get up. I was completely exhausted and drained from just being alive.“It’s so hard to explain the feeling. It’s just a state of panic and trauma that just overwhelms you. It has its own personality.”There were points during that spell in the interview when it was clear Farrell was struggling.He found it hard to sit still and there was the odd occasion where he had to pause and gather his thoughts before carrying on.But I was keen to know what he had been through from a medical standpoint to try to help him.“When I first had it, I went for counselling and I had the tablets but because the tablets didn’t work, I was panicking even more,” he said.“My sister has been a complete saviour, I can open up to her.“But in terms of coping with it, me quitting my job recently was a way of me taking control. It sounds bad but I just had to do something.“Even now, I am sleeping more than I should have to do. But I feel I have to do it to almost sleep off the depression.“But there were times when I would be bed ridden for 20 hours a day. It was too stressful to move.“I am taking things day-by-day at the moment.“Since I quit my job I feel like I have got to a place where it’s a bit more stable.“But I take things slowly and every decision I make is a big decision. So I take things day-by-day and try to look after myself.”We have seen more and more high-profile celebrities coming out and talking about mental health in recent years.But rarely do we see a footballer on a much lesser scale pouring his soul out.Farrell is clearly in a place where he feels he can do it but the other reason for it is to show that it is, indeed, okay to not be okay.And his feeling is that if him speaking out inspires just one more non-League footballer or someone else to open up and talk about their issues, then it has all been worth it.“People might not say something directly to me but maybe me talking about this might be a step towards someone who is struggling coming out and seeking help.“We all try to pretend it’s not there but, with me, I saw a couple of celebrities coming out and talking about it and it got to the point where it hit me and I needed to say something.“I guarantee there are players out there who have quit the game just because of these feelings.“My dreams of playing professional football were ruined by this. I should have been happy but inside I was feeling suicidal.“I think football can be a release though. When you feel like this, it’s good to have a focus and a goal.“If you can use the energy you use to cope with depression and anxiety and push it towards another goal then it can be a help.“But my motivation for football at the moment is trying to make up for the years I lost.“When I left Cambridge United, when I was 23 or 24, I just sat out of the game for two years because I couldn’t cope with it.“I feel like I am motivated to make up or that and I feel like I have been doing that in the last five years when things have been a bit better.“I owe football and myself another few years. Teams might not accept me but, whatever the level, I am going to try to play because of what has been taken away from me before.”It’s at that point that the interview ends.A horrific yet somewhat inspiring story of a man who has struggled to cope and who is still battling away with it today.But those final words were telling. For Farrell, there will always be football and having that goal of playing for as long as possible is one mechanism that helps keep the demons at bay.It may be at Diamonds, it may be somewhere else. But as long as he’s playing, he has something else to focus on.I’ll admit it. I walked into this interview having no real clue about what causes depression and anxiety and what effect it actually has on people’s lives.Farrell, like many out there, is a brave man who has faced his issues head on and is still here to tell his story.For that, we should all be very grateful.
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