Joe Williams visited Narrandera on Monday to deliver his “The Enemy Within” presentation to Narrandera High School students and the community.
A former NRL player turned boxer, Mr Williams has struggled with addiction and mental illness for years, and now tours the country delivering presentations to talk about mental health and suicide.
“I’ve lived with mental illness my entire life, but I just managed it. But what I do now is travel around the place and encourage people to speak about it. All I do is talk about that and try and normalise the conversation, as such.
“I guarantee you that every person who dies by suicide has flipped a coin in their heads a hundred times before. When I attempted my life I didn’t want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop. I took a drug overdose that should have killed me. The doctor told me, ‘You’ve got a second chance at life. What are you going to do with it?’
“I made a pact that I would make a positive input on people’s lives. I’m not a doctor. All I do is try to normalise the situation. It’s all right to say ‘I’m not good.’
“Aboriginal people have the highest suicide rates in the world. Not in NSW, but the world,” Mr Williams said in his presentation.
“That’s not always because of mental illness. I grew up with parents who loved and nurtured me. People who have mental illnesses, with drug and alcohol addictions, they aren’t always disadvantaged.
“We know now that it’s genetic. I’m a recovering alcoholic, drug addict. I haven’t touched a drop for 12 years but I know that addiction is in my genes.”
Mr Williams did an exercise with the room where everyone bowed their head and shut their eyes. He asked people to raise their hands if they had suffered from or knew people who’d had depression or anxiety.
“Every single person raised their hand. Every single one of you has encountered depression or anxiety,” he said.
Mr Williams talked at length about his struggles with mental illness, but he also raised a point which resonated with some members of the audience.
“Two things happened to me at 13. Firstly, I had six NRL clubs after me to play for them. The second thing was a massive concussion. What they know with mental illness is that it is linked to concussion. There’s a condition called CTE: chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It’s bruising and trauma on the brain from concussion.”
CTE affects a lot of former athletes – it was first identified in “punch-drunk” boxers – particularly those who suffer repeated concussions. It also can affect defence personnel, domestic
violence victims and last year a documentary speculated that King Henry VIII may have been a sufferer. Sufferers are more likely to become depressed, have short-term memory problems and often become easily disorientated.
“It cannot be diagnosed when you’re alive, the only way to know if you’ve got it is to slice up your brain. But you can be pre-diagnosed, and I’ve got a pre-diagnosis,” Mr Williams said.
“It was in the week of that concussion that I went home and had my first suicidal ideation. I had voices in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough and that I should kill myself. The only way to stop that was to drink. Why I drank was because I wanted to quiet down what was happening up here.
“I moved to Sydney and developed a habit of drinking and then drug taking. I was a fully fledged alcoholic and drug addict. I wasn’t a role model. I was an egomaniac who was out of control. I was self medicating.”
Mr Williams talked at length about his recovery and about his approach to getting well.
“Why we’ve got so many problems with depression and anxiety is that we live in our heads. There is no weakness in anxiety. There is no weakness in depression.
“Your anxiety is caused by living in the future. Your depression is caused by living in the past. The past is gone; you can’t change it. You can only learn from it. There’s no such thing as the future. How many times do plans change and events never happen?
“I try to live with four values: love, respect, care and humility. It’s our own mind that can choose suffering over happiness.”