The Soul Baring of Simon Thomas

My secret battle.

It was 28th October, a few short weeks ago. It was about 11:10 on a Saturday morning and in twenty minutes time we were going live for Saturday lunchtime’s game on Sky Sports between Manchester United and Tottenham. I should have been in the studio and in my chair getting ready to go on air at 11:30. Instead I was slumped on the floor in the nearby disabled loo in tears, shaking and hyperventilating. The depression and anxiety that had come out of nowhere in September had reached fever pitch, and I was gripped by what I later came to realise was a panic attack. That pain filled disconcerting day was the last time I worked, the last time I sat in front of a camera and did the job I had done hundreds of times. This is the battle I had fought in secret; this is the battle I have struggled to admit to; this is the battle that so many secretly struggle with and too many feel unable to talk about; this is the battle I now have to face amidst the pain of the sudden death of my wife.

I had had depression for the first time a few years back. After having Ethan in 2009 we’d reached the time where we wanted to try and give Ethan a brother or a sister. But after months of trying to no avail we decided it was time to go for some tests. On a Tuesday afternoon whilst I was preparing for my shift on Sky Sports News, I had a call from my distraught wife Gemma who had discovered that the tests had revealed she had a very low egg count and that the chances of us conceiving naturally were very very low. It was a hammer blow. A few months later after much thought and soul searching we decided to go down the IVF route. Although you go into something like this with your eyes wide open and with all the statistics on success rates before you, there is still nothing that can prepare you for when it doesn’t work. After weeks of poor Gemma having to inject herself and take various drugs every day, and then the procedure itself in the hospital, the IVF didn’t work. It left us both on the floor but worse was to come.

After a few months we decided to give it one last go and this time Gemma fell pregnant. There was much reserved joy, we knew we had a long way to go but she had carried Ethan to birth so naturally we were hopeful that this time, it would be the same. Four weeks later I awoke to Gemma next to me in our bed in tears. She had discovered some bleeding and feared the worst. Hours later, after a painful long wait in the Royal Berkshire Hospital, our fears were realised – she’d had a miscarriage. If the first round was a hammer blow, this was like being hit by a ten tonne truck. Having been given the briefest flicker of hope our dreams of a brother or sister for our boy Ethan were in tatters.

We all deal with difficulties and challenges in life in different ways, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was angry, disappointed, and bitter. As anyone who has been through any kind of fertility problems knows, it’s a tough road to walk. Unless you decide to cut yourself off from the rest of the world you are surrounded by a world where it appears that most of your friends are able to pop out babies like a cash dispenser dispenses ten pound notes. Social media only adds to this with the, at times, constant reel of posted photos featuring three month scans.

As part of the IVF they include two counselling sessions if you end up in the place we found ourselves in. Within a few minutes of our first session our counsellor had nailed it as far as where I was – she said to Gemma that ‘Simon is in his cave and that until he’s ready to come out leave him be, let him come out in his own time.’ In other words I had withdrawn from the world and to a lesser extent my wife. I was angry, I was upset and I was frustrated that this was a problem I could not fix however much money I threw at it. The trouble was that cave was a dark place, and over the next few weeks as I remained in that dark ‘cave’ angry at the world, I began to spiral downwards into a much darker place in my life.

Until this point I had never had depression. I didn’t really know what it was, I thought it was something they labelled people when they felt a bit down. As the days and weeks went on after Gemma’s miscarriage I became more and more detached from what was going on around us. I struggled to be around close friends. The church we normally went to on a Sunday morning became a painful place to be, and most weeks I would last about twenty minutes before I walked out of the service and found solace in a coffee cup in the nearby shop. I was starting to struggle to even get out of bed. Some days I just wanted to stay there and never get out of it again – the darkness was closing in. By the time we got to Christmas that year I was in a very bad place.

Somehow through all of this I had managed to keep working. I had been put on anti-depressants by my doctor, and was able to carry on presenting the football for Sky. Although I would regularly turn up for work in a bad place there was a bizarre solace in being on air because live TV gave me some kind of temporary release from how I was really feeling. I guess when the program went on air it was flight or fight time and when your job relies on you doing it in front of people, I found a way to fight. The black clouds that felt like they were constantly above my head would momentarily clear and for three or so hours the chains of depression would appear to fall away, but almost as soon as I drove my car out of whichever football ground we had been at, the clouds gathered again. Although I let my producer Jim know a bit of what I was going through (he had also been through IVF with his wife) I kept a lot of what I was feeling to myself. Gemma knew (obviously) and some of my closest friends, but mostly I faced this new battle alone, unable to admit to, or talk about the depression that had taken a grip on my life. I felt totally cut off from the world around me. It was like being in a parallel universe – life carries on as normal around you and you’re part of it, yet you feel totally cut off from it. You’re in the world but not of the world.

A couple of days before that Christmas I went out for a drink with a few friends near to where I live. I didn’t want to go but Gemma practically pushed me out of the door telling me it would do me some good. I can still remember that evening vividly. We went to a pub in Caversham called The Griffin. The pub was swaying to the sounds of the festive season and the anticipation of the holidays to come. I didn’t want to be there. But as I have so often done in my life, I found solace in the comfort of a glass of something. However, as the evening went on instead of finding some temporary respite the clouds above me, if anything, grew bigger and darker. The sounds of my friends talking around me were nothing more than echoes in my head, the music blaring out of the speakers sounded like someone was playing it on an old record player at a slower speed. As we walked home that night I felt like the pit I was in had reached a deeper, more sinister depth. As my friends walked ahead of me a new and frightening thought entered my head – I wanted to end my life. As we walked down the Causeway that leads to the farm estate we live on, the group I was with were far enough ahead not to notice me jump the fence and start to walk into the nearby field. As they carried on I stood there alone in the freezing night, alone with my thoughts and now with the thought that I didn’t want to go on. You may be reading this thinking why? Why when you already had been blessed with a child could you be this affected? OK it’s sad that you couldn’t have any more children but look at the blessing you already have? I couldn’t agree more, except I didn’t decide to be like this. Yes it was me who decided to allow my disappointment and anger over the miscarriage to fester and grow, but the place I was now in was entirely different, this was something I had no control over.

As my mates walked through the gate into the farm I stood in that field on that cold December night and wanted to end it. I had had enough. As the tears of hopelessness flowed, thoughts began to turn to how I would do it – an empty field doesn’t exactly offer many options! But before I knew it my friends had realised I was no longer with them, and were walking back down the Causeway shouting my name. Almost without thinking I shouted back that I was having a wee and re-joined them like nothing had happened. We ended up back at my friend Dave’s house drinking some of his single malt whiskey and the festivities of earlier carried on. Whilst I tried as hard as I could to look and sound OK the act didn’t last very long, and in front of four blokes I began to sob uncontrollably. Understandably, none of them knew what to do or how to react. I can see their faces now as they looked at me confused, wondering what on earth they might have said or done. They of course had done nothing wrong.

Dave knew this was not the place for me to be and walked me round to our house where Gemma was waiting. The three of us sat on the sofa as I continued to cry and I kept on saying again and again – ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ As they held me, listened to me and prayed for me I told them that I just wanted to give up on life, that something had got hold of me that had taken me to the lowest point I’d ever been to.

That was the worst place I reached, and over many weeks of medication, counselling and talking about it with Gemma and close friends the clouds eventually began to clear and I was able to re-join life, and love and appreciate what I already had – an amazing wife and son who loved me unconditionally and needed me weaknesses and all. And for the next few years that’s the life I was able to lead. As a family we had reached a point where we were at peace with what we had. Yes there would always be that residual disappointment that Ethan was going to grow up without a brother or sister; but we knew that unlike so many others, we had been hugely blessed just to have him in our lives, but then in September of last year, out of nowhere, the clouds began to gather again; but this time they were accompanied by something altogether different and more crippling – anxiety.

Unlike before I have no idea what triggered it. All I remember was that it was a Thursday in late September. Sky Sports has started a new show called ‘The Debate’ and it was my turn that week to present it that night. It’s a good show; but for a presenter pretty straight forward – two guests, one hour, discuss the main football talking points of the day, job done. Without meaning to sound arrogant, for someone who had been in sports broadcasting for twelve years it was a fairly straightforward show. Nothing to worry about. Yet as I awoke that morning a new, strange bedfellow had entered my life. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I lay there wondering what on earth it was about. I tried to rationalise it – an hour show, two easy to chat to guests, live TV, football, my working life – I could go on and list all the things that made what I was feeling ridiculous yet I just felt a massive sense of inexplicable unease.

I was due to catch the train to Sky early afternoon on that Thursday. I had spent the morning going through my stats for the game I was presenting on the Saturday and then Gemma rang. She said she was in town and wondered if I’d like to meet up for lunch before catching the train to work. As I walked the fifteen-minute walk from my house to town I couldn’t shake off this uncomfortable feeling about work. The most bizarre thoughts began to churn through my mind – what if the guests aren’t very talkative? What if I can’t think of another question? What if I’m just shown up to be really rubbish at my job? Most of it was completely irrational, yet at that moment in my mind it wasn’t irrational it was real, palpable fear.

I sat down with Gemma to have lunch in central Reading and I just wasn’t hungry. I tried to pretend everything was OK but I couldn’t escape those unnerving feelings that I awoke with. I hardly touched my food. After pushing my pasta round the bowl for the 25th time Gemma looked at me and said – “What’s wrong? You’re not yourself.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and said I didn’t know. All I could articulate to her was that I had woken up really nervous about work and didn’t know why. Understandably she was somewhat bemused. In the sixteen years I had been her boyfriend, and then husband, I had never been nervous about work. Yes there had been those occasions when the game demanded a healthy dose of nervous adrenaline, but I had never had a moment where it felt there was a very real fear sense it could go very wrong. Now I had that feeling.

I hoped that day was a one off. Maybe I’d just slept badly, maybe I was overtired, but as the weeks went on rather than evaporating, that feeling only accelerated. Every single time I was due to work this sinister bedfellow greeted my awakening and it reached its fever pitch on 28th October.

As I woke in the morning of the Friday before the game I felt terrible. My sleep until this point had been a nightmare and I’d decided to take a Nightol tablet – mistake. I woke in the morning feeling like I’d sunk a bottle of Gin but without the sickness. As I tried to write my script for Manchester United’s game against Tottenham I could only focus for about twenty minutes at a time. The rest I spent on our bed trying to sleep. I couldn’t work out what was going on. For years I had prepped a game in the same way without any fuss, yet now I was in a place where doing that seemed virtually impossible.

As late afternoon arrived and Gemma picked Ethan up from school it was time to pack the bag and head off. Gemma gave me a lift to the station and I barely said a word. As I kissed her and Ethan goodbye I trudged off with a feeling of dread. What was happening? The job I had worked so hard to get and loved had become my worst enemy. Except it wasn’t the job, it was the state of my mental health. As the train ploughed northwards through Birmingham and beyond I tried to focus on the game to come. I couldn’t. As I arrived into Manchester Piccadilly all I could think about was checking in and getting to my hotel room as quickly as I could without seeing or bumping into anyone from work. I managed it. The team I work with are lovely; it was nothing personal, I just wasn’t in a place to engage with anyone.

That night I never slept. The worries, anxiety and depression of those challenging weeks never gave me a moments rest. As the pointless alarm rang out at seven AM I reluctantly got dressed for work and walked nervously out of my room. As I checked out I wanted to avoid seeing anyone from work, I wasn’t in the right place for breezy morning chats. I grabbed a cab and headed for Old Trafford. I felt sick. The cab driver dropped me off outside the ground but at the wrong end of the ground. I didn’t care. I walked through the driving rain until I found the outside broadcast trucks and sat down – in a daze. And daze is how I felt for the rest of the day. At 8:15 we had the usual production meeting but it just passed me by. The only way I can describe it was like an out of body experience. As Jack our Producer went through the first hour of the show I sat there totally disengaged. I tried to focus but couldn’t. As he pointed out the graphics I would be talking about in the build up to the game I felt like a drunken man being asked to walk in a straight line.

Eventually I was sat in my usual chair in the studio, rehearsing the top of the show like we do every week. I managed to get through most of it but as our on airtime of 11:30 approached and Graham Souness and company were in their chairs ready to go I had to escape. I knew I’d be there when it mattered but at that moment I had to get out. I could feel a sense of panic overcoming me. Never before had I felt like this. I made my excuses – last minute trip to the loo and all that – and headed to the disabled loo. At least there I would be alone. As I sunk to the floor I began to cry, uncontrollably, and began to breathe quicker and quicker. In a small part of my mind the cry was ‘what the hell is wrong with me’, but the bigger part was gripped by fear. All I could do at that moment was grab my phone and ring the only person who would truly understand. That person was my rock – my wife Gemma.

As ever she was the reassuring voice of calm. Whilst my body was shaking and my breaths had become more shallow and more rapid, she spoke truth and reassurance without dismissing the pain I was in. I can remember so clearly her words – “Darl I know you can do it. God had given you this gift and he won’t let you down. He knows you have the strength to do it, you know you can do it and I know you can do it, now please darl tell Jack your producer how you are feeling.’ I did as she said and somehow at 11:30 the titles music kicked and it was all about survival. My boss Gary Hughes who has since heard this story told me that when he watched the game back he would never have known, and if anything my performance levels were higher than normal. That’s the amazing thing about the mind – as we went on air it was flight or fight. If I fly the whole hour build up ends up in a disaster, if I fight I had an outside chance of holding it together. Thankfully it was the latter.

That was the last time I worked. Five days later I had another panic attack at home and never made it to work. Sometimes companies get a bad wrap for how they deal with mental illness – Sky were brilliant. Admittedly I was initially nervous about how they would react to that I was feeling – they were nothing but supportive and showed a real desire to understand what I was going through. The message that came through again and again is that we want to do everything we can to help you get better. On Monday November 20th my boss Gary rang me. I missed the call. His voicemail message was all about wanting to meet up with me and see how I was doing and chat about the busy Christmas period of live games and whether or not I was in the right place to even think about doing them. I was always planning to ring Gary back – and I did the next morning.

Except the next morning I was dealing with worst news of my life. My dear Gemma had been diagnosed with blood cancer. Three days later my wife was dead, leaving me devastated and my precious boy Ethan without his Mum.

Why write this? Why when I should be grieving talk about this? I am grieving; it’s the most painful, brutal and lonely experience I have ever been through. But I know from hearing the stories of others, is that what I have been through is the life narrative for so many, and in particular men, but us men are rubbish at even beginning to whisper those fears and articulate what is actually an illness. I didn’t choose to feel a nervous wreck back in September. I didn’t decide work was more than I could handle, the only thing I chose was to walk out the studio that day and find solace in the loving and encouraging words of my wife.

Now I find myself confused and fearful. I’m grieving my dear wife but at times also questioning where on earth I’m at with all the stuff I had battled with before. I have no idea where I’m at or how I’ll get through this – but all I know is this, as a life long Christian, I don’t pretend to have the answers but what I do have is hope. An eternal hope. When I struggle to make sense of the mess of my life, when I ask how it can be that Ethan will grow up without his Mum I think of this verse from the Bible.

Psalm 18:2 – “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”

Right now all I can muster is the strength to hold onto that rock and try my best, to try and be as Godly a Dad as I can for Ethan and trust that out of this fog of grief all that I felt before will clear as well.

For those reading this who understand – don’t suffer in silence. Like me, remember, you didn’t choose to be this way. Don’t sit on and bury the uncomfortable murmurings of mental illness – talk. Talk to your other half. Talk to those friends you trust, try and open your heart and your mind and allow the soothing balm of openness to begin to heal. Compared to others my experience is limited but this is all I can offer.

God Bless


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