Snooker and mental health: how the game gave me my most important break in 30 years
I came to understand the link between snooker and mental health during the Pandemic. At one of the lowest points in my life, the game came to my rescue. From those reclusive, anxious, long-ago weeks I’ve emerged into full-health (with one setback), opened Surrey Snooker Academy with Brian, and set out on my most exciting journey yet.
I believe in being open about my challenges, so this is my story about where my mental health issues come from and how snooker helped to resolve them. If you have suffered too, I hope it gives you grounds for optimism.
My diagnosis and what happens to me
I’ve been told that I have OCD and bipolar 2. That means I can be prey to obsessive, negative thoughts and hypomania (very pronounced moods, both high and low). I take one anti-depressant every day, which keeps the symptoms under control, but without the medication something might trigger an episode and then there’s nothing I can do to stop the depression coming on.
In fact, some episodes are bad enough to stop me doing things that are of the utmost importance to me.
The last one, the setback I referred to in the first sentence, happened a few days before one of the most important days in the Academy’s short history. I’d arranged for snooker legends Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor to do an exhibition at Surrey Snooker Academy. I was thrilled and convinced it would put our club on the map (and it was a great success – you can read our blog post on these two snooker legends for more).
The trouble was, in all the excitement of the build-up, I’d been overlooking my meds. A couple of weeks before the event I started to feel not-quite-right. When it comes on, I get very self-conscious and start worrying about all sorts of stuff. Things were assuming monstrous importance in my mind and, a week before the event, I pretty much passed out on the floor of my flat. I knew what was coming and knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle such an important evening. So, I phoned Brian and told him he would have to take over.
That’s right up there, or perhaps down there, as one of the worst episodes I’ve had. I was devastated. I couldn’t even leave my flat for a month. Some of you will know how this feels.
Where do my challenges come from?
I was born in Epsom in 1970, just a few hundred yards from where another snooker legend, Jimmy White, practices today.
My mum, Jackie, was only 17 when she had me. I think having a baby so early in life was very difficult for her. I also think that she too wasn’t that well for most of her life, although she never admitted to it or sought help. So, perhaps there’s a genetic component to my situation. My biological father, Bill, was almost as young when I was conceived.
Mum was a national-standard tennis player; coached by Buster Mottram’s dad, Tony. Bill played tennis with her. I was the unintended result of a brief affair.
Being the 1970s, the families stepped in. My parents separated and, for the first three years of my life, I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents. I didn’t see my biological father for 19 years. I was staggered by our family resemblance when I finally did.
My mum soon met Richard, the man whom I think of as my real father. Quite quickly I had two brothers, Mark and Nick. They are great mates, but I remember feeling very different to them. Like Richard, they are both naturally skinny and dark. Dad has a five o’clock shadow by lunchtime. I could wait a week for mine to show.
My relationship with my mum was, and still is, strained. I really feel that she would have been happier had it just been the nuclear family of Mark, Nick, Dad and her. I feel like a reminder of something she would prefer to forget.
Comfort in sport
Finding solace in sport is something of a theme in my life. My grandfather, a Welshman from Abertillery, instilled in me a lifelong passion for rugby. Dad was an accomplished sportsman with fantastic hand-eye coordination. He once made three back-to-back centuries in cricket. His cousin played football for Southampton F.C. There’s definitely sporting prowess in the family. I would absorb myself in every sport I could. It made me feel that I belonged.
Dad can’t play snooker though. It took my pal, Laurence Dunkling, to introduce me to the game. He had a 6′ x 3′ table that we used to play on all the time. Eventually I pestered Dad into getting me one. He put it in an outhouse. It was so cold in winter that I could see my breath as I played. In summer it was a furnace. Yet I played on and on.
Somehow I managed to keep up with my schoolwork too and got a place at Huddersfield University to study politics. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I thought I might become a journalist.
Whilst I was at Huddersfield I suffered a trauma that sent my life in a completely different direction.
Trauma as a trigger
At the start of my final year I was walking a girl home from a night club at about 2 a.m. Her digs were in a pretty rough part of town. As we neared her accommodation we could hear a woman screaming, quite desperately, from a house close by.
My girlfriend immediately ran up the path and banged on the door. I followed a few steps behind. The door opened and a large, thuggish-looking man loomed over us from the raised doorstep. He challenged us aggressively. I tried to gently explain that we’d heard the sound of someone in trouble. That appeared, deceptively, to pacify him.
I hadn’t seen that he was holding one hand behind his back. Before I knew it, he had whipped out a baseball bat and bludgeoned me over the head. I fell and couldn’t regain my feet. My girlfriend ran to phone an ambulance whilst I lay, covered in blood, on the garden path.
It transpired that we had heard two men assaulting a woman that evening. The second man came out of the house and stood over me with the baseball bat. Unable to stand, I had to plead for him not to hit me again. That was probably the most dreadful moment of my life. Thankfully, something persuaded him to turn away.
After a few moments I was able to drag myself up the path to the street. A passing police car saw me and got me to the safety of an ambulance and hospital. I was extremely lucky not to have suffered a fractured skull, or worse.
Up until that awful evening I had, like most young men, felt invincible. From that point on, my confidence in the world as a safe, benevolent environment was massively shaken. I tried to brush it off with a jack-the-lad attitude when, really, I was suffering badly.
Not malingering… P.T.S.D.
I reacted to the trauma by withdrawing. I barely attended any lectures or seminars and found myself falling way behind in my studies; so much so that I received a letter warning me that if I didn’t complete my dissertation, I could only hope for a pass at the very best. When I told my kindly tutor what had happened, he suggested I take a year out and re-start rather than try and catch up.
So I went home to my parents.
Most young people would go to their Mum and Dad as the best source of comfort when in trouble. Mine weren’t. They thought I was malingering and ducking out of my commitments. When I asked if I could stay in my brother’s room for a while, they turned me down flat. I had to go back to Huddersfield and live alone until the next academic year.
During those months I learned that I was suffering from P.T.S.D. and anxiety, made worse by the fact that my attacker was about to go on trial. Fertile conditions for mental health problems to develop.
My first big episode
I made it through those difficult months to my final exams. That’s when I first knew there was something seriously wrong. I sat in the examination room, turned over the paper and wrote my name on the top. Then I looked out of the window and suddenly felt much, much lower than I had ever felt before. I could barely be bothered to write a sentence on one of the most important documents in my young life.
It was 1991. Mental health wasn’t something that was talked about. You were expected to muddle through, so that’s what I did. Somehow I got through the exams and came out with a 2:1, but I’ve been in a regular battle with my condition ever since.
Escape into the outdoors
I had wanted to be a sports journalist, but I knew that I couldn’t cope with an office-based job because my mental health challenges would always reach their peak when I was around other people. Especially people I hadn’t chosen to be with. My anxiety would reach a point where I felt I had to get away.
To cope with this, I set up my own landscape gardening business. That allowed me to do something constructive without having to face the circumstances that would trigger an episode.
There was another outdoor pursuit that made me feel better in my mind; golf. Even in my bleakest moments I could find relief on the driving range. The second I started hitting golf balls, my mind would ease. I started to take lessons at the Hoebridge golf club and found the process of learning and improving extremely therapeutic.
It worked wonders for my golf too! After a few years I managed to work my handicap down to zero. A scratch golfer, no less!
The thing with golf though, is that it never quite made me feel like I fitted in. The elitism and snobbery that appeals to some golfers doesn’t fit with my own set of values. I fell out of love with the game.
Now my story has almost come full-circle. In the first lockdown, I wasn’t in a great place. When we were at last allowed to go out I knew I needed to do something to ease my mind. I remembered an old snooker cue that I had in my shed, so I took myself off to Woking snooker centre and spent an hour potting some balls.
Over to my right were a father and son taking a lesson from a coach. I listened in for a while and was struck by what a good guy the coach seemed to be. When they had finished, I went over and booked a lesson for myself. The friendly coach is, of course, our own Brian Cox.
Learning to play snooker with Brian had the same therapeutic effect on me as learning to play golf. Except this time I also felt that I was making a good friend. By the way, it’s something that the WPBSA has also recognised. Check out their video to learn more. During the second lock down we would be miles apart, watching the snooker at Milton Keynes on TV and swapping an endless stream of text messages about how to play the game.
Late one evening I sent him a message asking him what he would do if money were no object. Straight away he said he would have a table in his house, which he followed up immediately with “but that’s not gonna happen.”
That was the spark for Surrey Snooker Academy. I messaged back saying “there’s nowhere nice to play snooker. Why don’t we set up somewhere ourselves?” I’d met a guy who knew about the two tables at the Camphill Social Club so I went and had a look.
The room was a total wreck, but the brand “Burroughes and Watts” on each table caught my eye. I knew that was a great British brand. Even better, both tables had steel-block cushions. I made an offer to the secretary of the club and, soon after, I was restoring the tables and the room. Now it is the kind of snooker room that every club should offer.
Finally, I’m where I should be
At last, after all the years of struggle, and despite the recent setback, I know I have found where I belong. I’m doing something I love, for people I care about, every day. It’s not work.
If you would like to listen to the full interview, you can find it using the link below. It’s a long one, but if you have the time, you’ll certainly get to know me. I would like that.
(4) Snooker and my mental health – YouTube
If you’ve been through anything like I have, I urge you to find something that gives you the same sense of growth and belonging. Who knows..? It might even be snooker.
You are a loyal and caring man who I have a lot of respect for and even more after reading this
I have shared with you my Battles with alcohol and we connect well on issues like these
What you are doing at SSA is fantastic and it’s always a pleasure seeing you at the club
Love out to bits mate
What an inspiring read Gareth.
You have shown great strength of character, vision for the future and a kindness to people that proves you’re a true gent, not to mention a great eye for a ball sport.
Pure class Gareth.
A wonderful written piece, touching, enjoyable and inspirational!
Snooker is a game of sheer depth and so is this telling story and we thank you for sharing it! 🙏