EXCLUSIVE: "Pretending to be grand had stopped working" - Richie Sadlier on how he became a psychotherapist
Writing for JOE, former footballer and current RTÉ pundit Richie Sadlier explains the importance of counselling in his life, and explains why he has chosen it as a career.
In a rare moment of honesty, I once told my agent I feared I was facing retirement from football. I had missed every target the surgeon had set me and I was worried I wouldn’t recover. I opened up about how I was feeling. He rang the chairman to relay the conversation, who then informed the manager.
...by Richie Sadlier
The following day the manager pulled me aside. There was to be no more negativity out of me. I wasn’t going to get better if I continued to think and talk that way. A positive attitude was required, and nothing else. Back in my box.
It would be the last time I shared this fear with anyone. The next time I mentioned the subject was when I sent a text to family and friends many months later with news that my career was over, totally unprepared for the emotional bomb that had just gone off.
We tell men it’s good to talk. We tell them it’s the healthier way. We assume the response will be understanding and compassionate but for many it will be anything but. It’s right to say it’s good to talk, but not if it’s to the wrong person.
But who is the right person and what is the right scenario? I teach a module in mental fitness to Transition year students where we pick apart the simple message that it’s good to talk. When exactly is it right to open up?
On a first date? In a job interview? In front of the whole class or with your drunken mates? Encouraging men of all ages to talk about their feelings isn’t enough. Helping them identify the safest option is the key. For many, that option could be a psychotherapist, but not everyone knows what that involves.
Pretending to be grand
When I first attended psychotherapy in my early twenties, I had no idea what to expect. I had no prior experience of it, and had never spoken to anyone who had. I had some old-fashioned views on therapy which may still be held by many men.
I figured it was primarily for Americans or women, but it certainly wasn’t for lads like me. I was a professional footballer at the time, someone who figured things out for themselves. Physically capable, emotionally self-sufficient. I was a man.
Pretending to be grand and saying I was fine had stopped working. I was struggling to do what I had to do each day and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t suffering from depression (as some reports suggested after I mentioned on Newstalk a few years ago that I’d been to therapy). Put simply, I was just overwhelmed with what I was dealing with at the time.
But who could I say that to? The manager might exclude me from the squad. My agent might see me as troublesome.
My parents might worry and my friends mightn’t understand. And there was no way in the world I’d tell my girlfriend. I was a footballer, after all, what reasons could I possibly have to complain?
A place of absolute confidentiality
My mother suggested therapy when she knew something was up. She gave me a name of someone who worked in London and I took it from there. It went from being something I would never consider to something I felt I had to do.
What it provided was a place of absolute confidentiality. Nobody knew I was going, let alone what I said while I was there.
The therapist didn’t jump in with his opinions or his solutions. He didn’t pass comment on those around me because he didn’t know them. He didn’t talk about starving kids in Africa and how good I had it by comparison. I found it easier to let this outsider into my inner world.
"Around friends I just got drunk and let on I was ok"
When I went a second time to get help adjusting to life as an ex-footballer, I knew what would be on offer. More importantly I knew I needed it. It became the only place I felt comfortable speaking completely honestly. I thought little of myself at the time or my prospects for the future. The past was just a long list of regrets. I was angry, bitter, sad, lonely and heart-broken. I was probably another dozen things too.
Telling family wasn’t too appealing because I knew they’d only worry. Around friends I just got drunk and let on I was ok.
I can’t overstate the value and importance of the support I received. It kept my head above water initially. The longer I stayed, the better I became. It laid the foundation for everything that followed.
During the final session, a thought struck me. As I reflected on just how much had changed as a result of the help she had given me, I wondered whether a job like hers would be the job for me some day. I thought I’d like it, but doubted whether I’d be taken seriously given my former career. It took me another seven years to do something about it but now I’m a practising therapist myself.
Today I work with adults and adolescents on any number of issues. Most decide to tell very few people they are in therapy, mainly for the same reasons that I didn’t tell anyone – a mixture of privacy and fear of being judged. We still see it as something to keep quiet about.
Not everyone can listen
When I first spoke publicly about seeing a therapist, I got four texts from friends who said they had done likewise and that it helped. And they all asked me to keep it to myself. I didn’t feel then and I don’t feel now that they should have been more open about it. That is a personal choice.
If you’re getting therapy, you’re doing it to help yourself and those who love you. That is the most important thing.
Speaking publicly or sharing about personal experiences isn’t everyone’s way and not everyone can listen. Not everyone can be trusted with what you tell them. Not everyone, no matter how well they know you or how much they love you, can help. Psychotherapists can.
It’s not important who you tell or how you feel about going to therapy. Sometimes the only thing that matters is that you go.