I don’t even remember how I got home. But I remember the kids. They were in the lounge, and there was all this medication lying around, painkillers from all my operations. I picked up a packet of Tramadol. I was heavily intoxicated. And I remember pouring it all into my hand, drinking some water and then looking at my boys. I said to them, ‘if anything happens, just go and tell mummy’.
I don’t know how I woke up. My wife was crying over me and my two boys were cuddling her, and I was like what the f*ck just happened? What are you guys crying for? My wife explained that I had stopped breathing through the night, and she didn’t know what to do. And that’s when I thought, oh shit.
God was strong in our house. My grandparents founded a church with extended family so a lot of our spare time was spent there. Like many Pasifika families, it was a weakness to be vulnerable and express emotions. Boys don’t cry, right? When someone is talking, you don’t make eye contact. Speak when you’re spoken to. If you question something, be prepared for a backhand. A lot of these were signs of respect. But as I found out the hard way, it led to a lot of issues.
I struggled at school. Always getting into trouble for fighting. I was crying out for attention. Rugby became an outlet for me, a way to run away from my problems. It was seen as the pinnacle in our home. So if I could push myself to play in rep teams I wouldn’t have to go to church on Sunday.
I was playing a game of bull rush with family. And I got singled out by my older cousin. I made an attempt to tackle him and he bumped me off, breaking my nose in the process. I vividly remember the blood pouring out and him standing there laughing, calling me every name under the sun. You p***y, lil b***h. And they were the nice ones. I didn’t know how to express my feelings. And I was afraid of the way I would be perceived. So I made it my goal to never get shamed or embarrassed like that again
Every time I played rugby I would go out and turn my insecurities and fear into rage. When the whistle blew, I could let out all my bottled up emotions on anyone standing in my way and enforce my dominance.
I moved into professional rugby after school, and for a while I thought I was the man. I felt invincible. I was always warned not to put all my eggs in one basket. Being young and naïve, I was like 'nah, nothing’s going to happen to me'. But then something did happen. I had three major shoulder reconstructions before I was 23. Eventually I had to throw in the towel.
Things started to spiral. I had let the sport define who I was and now had nothing to fall back on. I had to find my feet in the unknown, and find a source of income to support my family. So I applied for everything and anything under the sun that had to do with sports … 17, 18, 19, the tally kept climbing. You interviewed really well, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.
Self-doubt crept in. And the internal conversations were not nice. I felt like a failure to my family. I felt the shame of being a father, a leader, and not being able to support my wife and two beautiful kids. The tally kept growing – 40, 41, 42, I kid you not. I was finally given the opportunity to work for a global sporting brand. It kept me connected to sport, which I loved. I moved up the ranks. But every time there was an opportunity to grow, I kept getting knocked back. They’d say, this person was a little more experienced.
The same old thoughts slunk back. What are you doing? Just give up. You're not good enough. Quit embarrassing yourself. You don't belong here. You're a good guy but you're not qualified. My confidence took a massive hit. And then the drinking started. And it took me to a dark place. The darkest place I’ve ever been.
I used to think, I just need to catch up with the boys. Back then, that was my way of saying: hey, I need help. My wife knew about the drinking, but not the extent of it. I was embarrassed. I hadn’t achieved what I set out to achieve. People didn’t see me the way I thought they’d see me. I couldn’t provide for my family as well as I had intended to.
But then an opportunity came up at work again. And I thought, I’ll just give it one more shot. Everyone was telling me to leave, go do something else. But I was so connected to sport and I loved what the brand was about, and I wasn’t ready to let go of the dream I had to play footy. I walked into the office a nervous wreck. The interview didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I was defeated walking into it because I already knew the outcome. I came out and I just sat in the car and cried.
My mates called me, what are you up to? I said nah nothing, just finished my interview, let’s go catch up for a beer. This was at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I chugged through jugs, saying I had to be home by five. I don’t remember getting home, though.
For a good ten months before this, I wasn’t sleeping, I had lost a lot of weight, I was drinking heavily, using drugs. There were times my family would be asleep and I’d wake up and go for a ride. I’d drive around Auckland until I felt tired, then I’d pull over, set my alarm and sleep. Sometimes I’d wake in a ball, shaking and crying my eyes out. When my alarm went off, I would go back home and make sure nobody knew that I’d gone.
My greatest fear was not wanting to be around anymore. I’m not too sure if suicide was an option. All I know was that I was desperate for sleep because I had gone so long without it. I wanted to wake up and for everything to be perfect again.
After that night, my whole life changed. The fear of not waking up was the kick in the pants I needed. Who knows, one more pill and I might not be here now, sharing this journey. The tragic thing is that all this came about because I didn’t have the courage to say to my wife or to my friends: 'man I’m struggling. I need help'. When I look back at my childhood, it comes back to not understanding how to share my emotions. From that point on, I knew I had to get better.
My wife set up an appointment with our doctor. I walked into her room and bawled my eyes out. It was the first time I had felt safe. Safe enough to talk about what was going on.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but I didn’t want to see a psychologist. So the doctor said to me, well is there anyone else you could talk to? That’s when I thought of Sir John Kirwan. My wife called his PA but he was on his way to Italy and wouldn’t be back for a couple of months. She asked if there was anything I needed. My wife told her what had happened. She said, I’ll call you back in two minutes.
He was meant to be packing. But I still got a call back in two minutes. That was a turning point, and I don’t think he knows how important he was in that moment. When I saw him, my guard dropped. My mask had come off from trying to be someone I wasn’t. And he really helped kick start my journey to wellbeing. I had a real sense of connection with him. A sense of belonging. He said, you know it’s OK to have these days but we need plans to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
I decided I needed to be around positive, inspirational people. So I reconnected with Sonny Bill Williams. He was one of the few people who knew what I was going through. And he was someone who had been at the pinnacle of three different sports. So to sit with him and hear him say, I understand where you’re coming from bro, I realised it was common. It was common, but people deal with it differently.
We used to catch up at his house, and he would randomly go off. He’d be like: 'bro I’ll be back, I’ll be five minutes'. And he’d just go into the corner and pray. So I started learning more about Islam. I knew if I wanted to be the best person I could be, the best husband, the best father, the best friend, I knew I needed what he had. And it just made perfect sense.
My grandparents worked numerous jobs but all their money would go back into the church. I wouldn’t say we lived a poor life. We always had food to eat, we were clothed. But I’d see them work hard to give it all back to the church so the people in church could drive big cars, live in big houses. And that didn’t sit right. But then SBW comes into the picture and everything changed for me.
In Islam, they say you have to pray five times a day to connect with our Creator. I’m not perfect, but now if there’s anything I’m stressed about I go down to the basics and pray. If there’s anything I can’t control, I let go. I don’t really pray for me, I pray for other people to ensure everyone is OK and safe, pray for the less fortunate, pray for those who need help. It puts me in a mindset of gratitude. Having that faith saved me.
The big thing with mental health is that it never goes away. So it’s important for me to create safe spaces for people to share and be vulnerable. That’s how the Ballsy movement came about. I wanted to do something meaningful that could impact our community in a positive way. So I merged two things I’m passionate about – fashion and mental health and wellbeing. Ballsy uses garments as a unique way to raise awareness around mental health issues, especially for men.
We also have an open door policy in our house. Whether it’s around the dinner table or in the car, I always ask how everyone is feeling today. It’s creating a safe space for my kids to be able to share. If you cry, I’m not going to judge you. The thing that really touches my heart is when I see them trying to create those spaces with their friends.
These days, I feel content. I’m really lucky to have a small circle of family and friends who rode this wave with me. If it wasn’t for their love, support and guidance, I may not be here today.
I’m not ashamed of my story. I’m not ashamed of who I am. And even though I’m not going to save everyone, hopefully my story can resonate with someone to be ballsy or courageous enough to turn to the person next to them and say hey, I’m not doing OK, can you help me?