Part 2: no Saga stuff in this part
HM: Did the coaches know you were struggling? Was it obvious? Were you open with them?
DF: I think so — the signs were there that I was struggling mentally. I remember a couple of coaches called me the next day asking if I was OK. I’d say “Yeah, I’m fine mate, no worries”, but I wasn’t, I was done. I was done six months before I tipped over the edge, there’s no doubting that whatsoever.
HM: I looked up the definition of depression. “Feelings of severe despondency and dejection. Self-doubt creeps in, and that swiftly turns to depression. Melancholy, misery, sadness, unhappiness, sadness, sorrow, woe, gloom, gloominess, dejection”. Is that what you felt?
DF: Yeah, it’s all of that. The glass is always half-empty. That’s why I owe it to my beautiful wife, Anita. I remember she said to me: “You’re a great man and you have been a great husband, but you’ve turned into a bitter, twisted person that just looks at the negatives of everyone”. In a way, if I didn’t get depression, I would have lost my family too, as over the last few years I wasn’t a great husband or father. I’d made mistakes and unbeknown to me, I didn’t know that depression makes you selfish, and all I was doing was trying to chase happiness for myself at the cost of my family.
HM: Anita was very honest with you.
DF: She was, and she needed to be. She was hoping I’d get better, but felt she needed to tell me what it was doing to her and the kids, as it affects everyone around you too. I had to see a psychiatrist, and I’ll never forget when Anita had to drop me into a clinic in Melbourne. It was for people who were ready to do away with it all.
HM: End it all?
DF: Yeah. I went in there, and again, I couldn’t wait to get out of the place, but I’m so thankful that I went. It doesn’t pick or choose who it affects, and whoever it chooses, we all need help.
HM: It doesn’t discriminate.
DF: No, and all these guys in there knew me. I walked around the Tan with a few of them, and some of their stories were extraordinary. A lot of them were farmers, living on their own in debt during the drought. They kept looking at me saying “What? What have you got to be so disappointed about?” They were right, and I kept trying to convince myself that I had everything. A beautiful young family, no debt, a great job, but again, it took me 18 months. I went away to a farm, and I had a guy looking after me there. It was a farm where people were really struggling. I remember he said “We’re going to go for a walk”. We just went for a walk through this beautiful park, and unbeknown to me, every time he got on my shoulder, I’d just get two metres in front of him. Anita and the girls were telling me this for years. “Why don’t you just walk with us, Dad?” Again, it was just me being a competitor.
HM: You had to win the walk?
DF: I had to win. The guy goes: “Mate, you’re not smelling the roses, you’re giving them windburn. Slow down, what is wrong with you?” I was just like a hurricane for the first week up there. I had to get broken down to actually work out that it was me, no one else. It was just what evolved over a long period of time. The little black hole just got bigger and bigger. The thing that got me back was that I like to help charities. I’d go down to the Sacred Heart Mission on a Wednesday when I was battling, and I started coaching a lot of guys there that were living on the streets. It’s the best thing I ever did.
HM: It gave you perspective?
DF: It gave me a huge perspective, and it gave me an ability to tell them that I was battling. Some of their stories were remarkable. Kids were thrown out of home when they were 15! I’ve got a lot more empathy for people now, there’s no doubting that whatsoever.
HM: When you were at your lowest, you didn’t leave the house?
DF: I didn’t.
HM: You didn’t want to see people? You didn’t sleep?
DF: I didn’t sleep for three weeks! It got to the stage where I was running 15km going to work, to the AFLCA, before going and putting a footy jumper on to do a challenge with the chief (Jason Dunstall). Then I’d go back to work, put a suit on, get home, do some gym work, drink two bottles of red and lay awake all night with this huge noise in my head.
HM: You’d lay awake all night?
DF: All night.
HM: How many hours would you get. One?
DF: No. I never slept.
HM: At all?
DF: At all, for three weeks. I’ve done tests on it, and no wonder my brain shut down. I was waiting to get the flu or to become run down, but my mind and the adrenaline glands were just firing. The flood gates were open.
HM: Literally you’d lie and stare at the ceiling all night?
DF: All ■■■■■■ night. I was doing meditation and things, and that’s why as I said, my brain got to a stage where I couldn’t get home from the MCG. I knew I was battling, but I thought it was just from a lack of sleep. Eventually I went to the doctor to get a couple of sleeping tablets, but looking back, it was always going to happen to me. That was just the tipping point. At the time when it happened I blamed Essendon, I blamed the media. Why couldn’t I have a job like JB? Why can’t I do this? Why aren’t I still coaching senior footy? Looking back now, I’m very thankful to wake up and realise the blame was all squarely on my shoulders, no one else. My life is all around my girls.
HM: Anita, Chelsea, Danielle and Keeley.
DF: That’s it. The rest is just a road map to get where you want to. As I said, they were there, but I wasn’t. I am now.
HM: All your focus was elsewhere at the time?
DF: It was. It took an illness for me to get perspective on life. I spoke to Schwatta (Wayne Schwass), and he was a great support. My three doctors were as well. I still see my psychiatrist.
HM: How often do you catch up?
DF: I see him every six weeks now, and it’s basically just a checklist to see how things are going. The big thing that I’ve found is that if something happens, or if I lost my job in the media tomorrow, I wouldn’t be worried. I’d be disappointed, but it doesn’t define me. My three girls do, and Anita …(begins crying). I’m sorry for getting a bit emotional.
HM: It’s perfectly normal.
DF: It’s just a part of life that happened, I guess. St Kilda knew I was battling, and they brought me back into their womb, so to speak. That helped, because it gave me a bit of discipline, and I was back to something that I loved doing. Coaching. I owe Richo and Matty Finnis a lot for giving me another opportunity, and to Fox and Triple M and SEN, all for different reasons.
HM: Are you more attentive now as a husband and as a father than you’ve ever been?
DF: I listen more, I hope … I think. I’ve still got a bad habit of interjecting when I’m passionate about something. At the end of 2001 I lost a proportion between my lips and my ears. I didn’t listen. That’s what I do now: I listen. That’s how you gain wisdom. You don’t gain any wisdom if you’re talking 24/7. You’ve got that wisdom, but you’re not going to get any more, because all you’re espousing is what you know. The only way to learn is to listen. Listen and read. I love leadership, but the thing I say to young coaches when they become a senior coach is: “Don’t forget the ability to listen”. I reckon Dimma’s a good example of that. He’s got Balmey in, and I’m sure as the coach he listens a hell of a lot more. He’s in a happy place, the players are happy, and the club is happy. I think at times, when your ego gets out of control and you’ve got love bites in the mirror, you’re not going to listen. You’re hearing, but you’re not listening. I reckon I was like that.
HM: The treatment now for you — are you on any medication?
DF: I’m on antidepressants. Do I have to take them? Probably not. Do I take them as a matter of just keeping things in tow? Yeah. I do a bit of yoga. I do meditation.
HM: Does that help?
DF: It does. I do it with Anita. I’m in there with a lot of ladies, and they giggle a bit. I can’t touch my knees. let alone my toes! If someone had have told me four years ago I was going to do yoga, I would have said “You’ve got to be joking”.
HM: And if somebody had said you’d be wanting to do it!
DF: You’d think that can’t be a spud farmer from Bungaree! That was part of the issue. My persona was a senior coach, a tough gruff, a man who was a man’s man. Deep down I’m just a big, gentle puppy dog.
HM: I think probably a lot of men are, but they don’t feel like they can be who they really are.
DF: I owe my late father everything, but for him to cuddle one of his sons wasn’t an option. But that was the way it was back then.
HM: Did he ever tell you he loved you?
DF: Nup. But I knew he did, of course.
HM: Gave you a kiss?
DF: Never. But that was it. It was passed on for generations. We are now fourth-generation spud farmers in Australia, from Tipperary in Ireland. I’ve been back to Ireland, and it’s like looking at my father when I see those guys. It’s work all day, have a few beers every night, get up and do it again. If you’ve got a weakness, bad luck. If you’ve got an issue, grab a tissue.
HM: Not healthy physically, emotionally, or mentally?
DF: No. Most of my uncles on both sides of the family were farmers, and that’s why they died before the age of 60.
HM: On your darkest days, what was it that you felt?
DF: The darkest days for me were when I’d come to the realisation of how bad I was, and that I wasn’t going to get any better. There was no time frame as to when I would get better. And the “black dog” was barking louder and louder and louder. He’d go to sleep for a few days and I’d think, “How good’s this, he’s gone”, and then he would come back, and he would just bite you again and wouldn’t let you go.
HM: Are you better now at accepting that things will go against you and you’ll lose, and you don’t let it get you to a point where you feel like a failure?
DF: I am. If I’d have been a boxer, I probably wouldn’t have got as bad as I did, because as a boxer, there’s always someone better than you, and you get used to it. As a footballer you’re part of a team, and win lose or draw, you’ve still got your position. My position was great. Even though the team got beaten at times — and the Saints got beaten a hell of a lot — I’d still hang my hat on the fact that I beat Dunstall, or I beat Paul Salmon, or Warwick Capper. I don’t look back on being a competitor as being a weakness, and I’ve still got it there; you can’t fight being a competitor. I don’t cheat in Monopoly anymore with my daughters and my golf is getting better!
HM: Did you used to cheat?
DF: They’d go to the toilet and I’d grab another $2000 out of the bank!
HM: Because you had to beat them?
DF: I had to.
HM: That’s a problem!
DF: (laughs) It’s a huge problem, especially when they knew it was happening!
HM: (laughs) Dad’s a cheat.
DF: When they’d see a hotel on Mayfair they’d say “How did that get there, Dad!” I’d just say “I don’t know; it just fell there”. I think they understand all that now. The cheating was a part of being a competitor as well. That was like hanging onto the jumper of a full-forward because he was too good.
HM: You spoke about how you were drinking too much. Schwatta said he drank basically to numb the pain. Is that what you were doing?
DF: Yeah, I did. My wife and kids would go away, and I’d watch a movie and have two bottles of red. I thought it was good because my brain would just relax a bit. It was just not on, especially with the medication. I thought it’d actually put me to sleep, but it actually made me worse. It hyped me up too much. I’ve put on a bit of weight now and I’ve got to lose a bit, but when I was crook I was like a stick.
HM: How many kilos did you lose?
DF: I reckon I lost about 25. Initially, the fitness thing made me feel really good, so I thought I’d train for 10 hours a day. My endorphins felt good, so I just kept training and training and training, and all of a sudden I’d be beating guys out on the bike who were 20. It was the competitor in me again. It felt good, but it wasn’t doing me any good. It just got my adrenaline glands opened up again. The word “balance” is an interesting one now for me. I hear people talking about it, but balance, now that I’ve been through it, is just about being happy, and being able to float throughout the day. To me, balance was about fitting as many things into my day as I could … and then some.
HM: Are you living simpler days?
DF: I love being on my own now, which is amazing. I did hate it. I love people, too. A part of my persona is that I can create quite a good environment, whether it’s team orientated, or at a function, or whatever, around me. Now I like to switch off, go down to the Brighton Baths and just sit on the decking there and read a book.
HM: And you’d never do that historically?
DF: Never, ever, ever. If I told you I liked colouring in, would you believe me?
DF: I do. There’s these books now that you can buy, and I just colour in. A game of chess, even. A game of chess for me in the past would have lasted five minutes, because if I was getting beaten and I knew the guy had me, we’d just start again. Now, I can have a game of chess on the phone for six months, and it’s all about the next move. It’s a bit like what the guy said to me on the farm: “Smell the roses, don’t give them windburn”.
HM: So how did you get from a point where everything was rushed, where you tried to do too much and where you had to win everything, to a simple, easier life? What was the lightbulb moment, or transition?
DF: Basically, I had to reprogram the hard drive. I had to retrain myself, which is really difficult when you’re in your early 50s. When you think historically, the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet nappy! My father never changed, at all, until the day he died. I’m proud of that, but when I look at some of his bad habits I think that I was starting to go down that road as well. That takes a lot of work now, because I can slip back a bit. I see my psychiatrist as a mentor now, and I can openly talk about it. If I had told someone two years ago that I was seeing a psychiatrist, I would have become really down.
DF: I would think people would assume I’ve got something wrong with me.
HM: When did you get to the point where you were happy to talk about it?
DF: Probably now.
HM: I’ve never heard you talk like this.
DF: No. As I said, I’ve got a real passion to help people, and I’ve got a real passion for country people. I know the Flying Doctors do a great job. Farmers traditionally had a lot of manual labour, but now machinery has taken away a lot of jobs for farmers.
HM: And mateship?
DF: And mateship. Now, the machine takes over. The farmer’s just sitting there all day on his own and he’s got no one to talk to. When the farmers do a job on themselves, there’s no coming back from it. They’ve got no one to help them, and no one to talk to. I only got through it with support, mainly from my wife; I wouldn’t be here now without it. I was thinking about getting out of bed and walking onto Beach Rd under a truck. The only thing that kept me going was knowing I couldn’t leave my wife and daughters with that. I look back now and wonder how I got that bad. My brain just shut down, and the thoughts were getting darker and darker. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me.
HM: The stigma is something that we need to remove, because the more you say you talked about it, the easier it became. There is a reluctance to talk about mental health issues.
DF: There is, and I was reluctant until now because I still saw it as a weakness, not an illness. It’s an illness.
HM: If you had a broken arm, you’d talk about it. If you had a cancer, you’d talk about it.
DF: That’s spot on. I wanted to get those things. I wanted to have a heart attack. I thought, “At least that’s going to pinpoint the problem”. There’s a heart attack every 12 minutes, and I thought, “Why can’t I be one of those?” I thought I was on that path physically. I thought people were as weak as ■■■■ if they had a mental illness. I’d say it to their face. Now I realise that poor ■■■■■■■ was looking for a bit of support and I just put fuel on the fire, because now I know that if people talk about those things and you speak to them like that, you can nearly tip them over the edge.
HM: Do you feel like talking about it helps you?
DF: Yeah, it does — there’s no doubting that.
HM: If you were helping those that are listening or reading, what would be your advice? What were the best learnings for you on how to attack it and address it?
DF: Don’t beat yourself up: it is what it is, and you are what you are. Be honest with yourself. If you’re struggling, tell people. Don’t be like me and look in the mirror, start crying, and then cover it up and walk out with a smile on your face. You’re just living a lie. I wouldn’t do anything differently, and I used to beat myself up over that. Don’t make excuses. It’s all I knew and that’s why I did it. Now, having been through it, and now that I’m wiser and older, I’d do things differently. If I was losing two nights’ sleep, I’d tell Anita look, I’m battling a bit.
HM: And talk.
DF: Talk. I think doctors are getting a hell of a lot better at it. A good friend of mine, Dr Rohan White, is a great advocate of it. My wife and our girls talk openly about any issue. I get embarrassed about it, and I’ve got to walk out. Anita and her friends have coffee three times a week. I’m sure they talk about me, as I’m sure Soph talks about you. The soothing is there, and the advice is there around the coffee table.
DF: Men are stoic. Men over 40 have an issue talking about it. If we’ve got an erectile dysfunction for example, it’s a part of life. Go to Chemist Warehouse and get a Viagra, mate! Go to the doctor and tell them you’re struggling.
HM: How long did it take for you when you were diagnosed to ring your best mate and say “I’ve got depression”?
DF: My best mate was good. He was a bit like me though — he found it very confusing. We both come from the bush, we’re first cousins, we’re best mates, and we tell each other everything. He was great, but he didn’t get it. He didn’t get it because he used to look up to me as bulletproof. You’re bulletproof, you’ve done this, you’ve done that, and you’ll get through it, you’ll be fine. His attitude was very positive, but he just couldn’t relate to it. He now knows how bad it was, because he saw me a couple of times in the hospital. He was quite shocked. I was too, but that actually gave him a bit more of a sense on how bad it was.
HM: The beauty out of all of this is that positives come out of it. You’ve got a plan. You’re keen to get men talking. How are you going to do it?
DF: We’re going to start a show here on SEN, or at least a podcast. I’ve helped Schwatta a little bit, and it’s going to be more proactive than reactive. That’s what I like to do. It’s going to be a conversation, like you’re having with me, on a Sunday morning on SEN. We’re going to get some experts in and just get the conversation started. The underlying factor will be that no man should ever walk alone. If you look over your fence and see your mate hasn’t picked up the paper for two days, go and knock on his ■■■■■■ door and drag him out. A lot of friends of mine dragged me out of bed to go for a walk. It was the best thing that ever happened. Did I go back to bed after the walk? Yep, but I got through a day, which to me at that stage was a huge goal. Just to get through a day was a real bonus.
HM: It can be as simple as saying “Are you OK?”
DF: For men, it’s just a case of getting the conversation started. Women do an outstanding job, with breast cancer and all those initiatives. More males die of a heart attack than any other disease in Australia, and it’s due to two things. Physically, whether that be your diet or your habits, and mentally, the stress. We are carriers of far too much stress, and that has an impact physically and mentally. That’s it in a nutshell. You still need some enjoyment in your life. Mine’s my three daughters now and spending time with Anita. Would I have loved a son? I’d be lying if I said no. Would I crave for a grandson? Yeah, that would be a good thing.
HM: You might have one soon.
DF: Yeah, hopefully. It’s been good today, Hame — thanks! I don’t like getting emotional still, as you can see … (wiping tears).
HM: But the reality is, as you’ve just preached, don’t be afraid to speak, don’t be afraid to cry, and don’t be afraid to get emotional.
DF: And don’t be afraid to give a guy a hug. I do that now. Not as a smartie pants, it’s just to show that I’m here for them.
HM: You said your old man was very tough. My old man was tough too, but my brothers and I have taken the initiative and every time we see him instead of giving him a handshake, we give him a kiss. I’ve got a little boy, and I kiss him every day.
DF: And so you ■■■■■■ should. We are changing and we’re getting better, but we can get a hell of a lot better, there’s no doubting that. As I said, I’m blessed looking back now with the life I’ve had. Hopefully I’ve got a lot more to go. I’m excited about the next phase of our life, because our girls will be off our hands soon, and Anita and I will have a great life. Getting old doesn’t worry me; nothing worries me, actually, other than the health of my four girls and my mother. The rest is just a part of life.
HM: They love you, I love you — thanks for talking.
DF: Good on you, Hame. Give us a hug.
Hear Hamish & Danny’s interview on 1116 SEN at 5pm today then download the full interview on podcast at sen.com.au