An audible wall of roaring cheers flooded from the stands and across the hallowed ground of the MCG, smashing into Wayne Schwass as he stood on a podium, a premiership medal draped around his neck.
As 94,000 spectators watched on, on that AFL Grand Final day in 1996, the 26-year-old North Melbourne star thrust his hands into the air, flashing a grin from ear-to-ear.
Resembling a gladiator returning victorious from battle, Schwass occupied a spot that millions of Australian kids dream of as they kick around the Sherrin in their backyards.
It was the biggest day of his playing career. It was one that many strive for but only a select, privileged few ever reach. But Schwass was an utter mess.
When you look at a photograph of that moment, there is no hint of the turmoil raging inside his head — except perhaps for the faintest glint of panic behind his dark eyes, which were furiously darting around the stadium.
“I was trying to find my wife in the crowd,” Schwass explained to news.com.au of that afternoon.
“I was scanning thousands of faces looking for hers. Because I was standing there thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore and I want to die’.
“I flipped back and forth between, ‘How good is this? We’ve won a Grand Final’ and, ‘You’re a fraud. What are you doing here? You should just end your life’.”
LIVING TWO LIVES
Three years before that momentous day, Schwass was driving home from training when he pulled up at a set of traffic lights.
It was a seemingly ordinary moment that catapulted his life — on the outside, an envied existence of fame and success — onto an unexpected path.
“It was July 26, 1993,” Schwass said, remembering it now as vividly as it played out then.
“I was driving home from training and pulled up at a set of traffic lights and just broke down. It was essentially a nervous breakdown, a total collapse of myself. I had no control over my emotions, which was very confusing. I couldn’t understand what was happening.
“All I knew was it wasn’t how a man was meant to behave or feel — particularly a 23-year-old AFL football player,” he said.
“I was overcome with shame and embarrassment. I grew up thinking foolishly that that’s not how men are meant to behave and feel. For days and days, I struggled in a fog. I was a mess.
“After two weeks, at the insistence of my wife, I went to see someone and I was diagnosed with depression. It was the beginning of a very long journey with lots of bumps and challenges along the way.”
The confirmation of what was going on inside his head offered no comfort or relief, Schwass said. In reality, it probably made things worse for a while.
Mental illness? Him? No chance. Schwass refused to accept the diagnosis.
“I foolishly believed that people who had mental illness issues were from low socio-economic backgrounds, they had done bad things, they had character flaws or weaknesses — that’s who had mental health conditions. Not a 23-year-old AFL player.
“It was so ignorant — that was my thinking back then. So, the diagnosis didn’t help in any way.”
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For years, Schwass lived a double life in total secrecy.
There was his professional existence, filled with on-field glory and a kind of heroic regard among the many who follow the religion that is football in Victoria.
But privately, he was “in hell” and fighting an increasingly losing battle to fulfil his sporting obligations without falling apart.
The two lives bled into each other.
When he was diagnosed, it was the day after Schwass notched up his 97th game of football. For the almost 200 more that followed, he was more often than not disconnected from the experience.
“I was there physically but emotionally I was absent,” he said.
“There were definitely times I was engaged and loved what I did, because it gave me joy. There were more days and more games where I wasn’t engaged, I wasn’t enjoying it, I didn’t want to play, I hated the attention that came with it, and it was a battle.”
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
On three occasions, Schwass said he found himself in “potentially dangerous situations” when it came to his life.
They’re scenarios all but a very small group of people would not be aware of. They’re ones that still haunt him to an extent.
“I’m not proud of those moments,” he said. “But what I’m confident in saying is that I don’t genuinely believe I wanted to die. It was a desperate call for help.”
The aftermath was often the same. Having ascended just a little from rock bottom, Schwass would be hit again with a new wave of emotion.
A different feeling to the one he felt immediately before those attempts to take his own life — not necessarily worse, just different.
“It’s not terrifying. There’s just a lot of shame and guilt. It’s an overwhelming sense of feeling pathetic. Is this what I’ve become? Is this what my life is about?”
Two people kept him going. Those two stopped him far enough away from the edge. One was his wife, Rachel, and the other was Harry Unglik, the doctor at North Melbourne.
“I’ve never told this story, but there was a day I wound up in hospital. I can vividly recall Harry coming in. I was laying in a hospital bed. He gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear. I’ll never forget it,” Schwass said.
“He said: ‘You can’t do this to the people who care about you the most’. I realised that it wasn’t only about me, it was about them. It made me realise that I meant something to people. This battle was much bigger than me.”
It was Dr Unglik who diagnosed him in the first place on that August day in 1993. The next afternoon at training, Schwass broke down.
He was near hysterics, convinced he could not go on life this, begging the team doctor to let him go home.
“He pulled me aside and asked if I trusted him. Of course I did. But what did that have to do with the moment. I told him I couldn’t do this anymore and wanted to go home. Then he said: ‘Do you trust me? Then trust me I know what I’m doing when it comes to your health and we’ll get through this.’
“I think that kept me going. I was in such a desperate place where I didn’t care what happened to me, but I cared about Harry and I cared about my wife Rachel. I didn’t want to let them down.”
This is what suicidal looks like. Fake smile, act happy, celebrating premiership success with @NMFCOfficial in 1996. Truth was, incredibly suicidal, looking for my wife in the crowd because I wanted to end my life. Only 2 people knew in a crowd of 94.5k my wife & GP #pukaup pic.twitter.com/jRfLMAYY4k
— Wayne Schwass (@WayneSchwass) December 13, 2017
LIVING A SECRET
Between the day of his diagnosis in mid-1993 and a moment of truth in October 2005, just four people knew what Schwass was going through.
He kept his secret “shame” — that’s what it felt like — confined to a small circle of four who knew out of necessity.
“It was my wife, thankfully, my doctor who diagnosed me when I was playing with North Melbourne, the doctor at the Sydney Swans and a psychiatrist in Sydney.
“They knew out of necessity. No one else knew.
“It took me 12 years to talk to my family about my experiences. Six months after that, I told my closest male friends. Then, on March 1, 2006, I did an article for the Herald Sun and my that was it, my story was out.”
The irony seems almost extraordinary now, Schwass said. Here was someone who never once compromised his physical health while playing football.
Dropping the ball, so to speak, when it came to protecting his athletic ability to continue playing would have been madness.
“It was so important to my professional career. Yet, through that same playing career, I did everything I could to compromise my mental health because of fear.
“It makes no sense. But it’s what I thought I needed to do.”
But it was a different time — for mental health, for a high-profile figure to be vulnerable, for a man to appear weak.
Schwass assumed that if he spoke up about his battle with depression and the enormous impact it was having on his life, that he would be judged.
The game, fellow players, the media and the fans might judge him, might ostracise him for an illness few in the mainstream knew a lot about, a thing that most severely misunderstood.
And sadly, Schwass was probably right back then.
“My sense is that the response would’ve been very different. It probably would’ve been incredibly different.
“The perceptions and attitudes were ignorant and discriminatory. It was an uneducated stigma. I convinced myself that if I took the chance and told people, then I’d be judged and criticised.
“I thought I would lose relationships and my career, so I chose not to talk.”
Things now would undoubtedly be different, he said. They might have been then — who knows?
“I made decisions on behalf of other people — that’s the interesting thing. I never tested it though. I never took the chance to tell someone what I was doing with, to give them the opportunity to support me.
“I assumed so much about what the response would be.”
When he did eventually speak, he did not lose a single one of those things he was terrified of watching slip away.
In fact, his courage and honesty at long last had the exact opposite effect.
“When you bring the people closest to you into what you’re living, you give them the opportunity to understand what you’re doing as well as insight into how they can support you.
“The benefit of that is not having to pretend that you’re OK. When people know you’re doing a bit tough, they can rally around you, and you can invest the time and energy into getting well.
“Those are the lessons I’ve learnt.”
But back then, shame was damaging and dangerous, particularly for blokes. It remains so in many ways to this day, despite the advances Australian society has made in terms of awareness and breaking down stigma.
“It’s damaging in the sense that it’s a barrier for men to put their hands up and saying they’re in pain and need support,” he said.
“There’s a genuine, paralysing fear that I see in a lot of men. They’re fearful of judgment. They’re stressed, they’re not coping, they feel vulnerable or insecure. They have issues in their private life or at work, or with finances.
“There’s so much conditioning applied to men from a very young age that says you’re expected to be tough and strong. You’re discouraged from connecting emotionally. It’s one of the greatest challenges we face.
“I meet so many men who are so frightened to ask for help and that’s a huge issue. It’s stopping men from asking for help and getting the support they need. And unfortunately, it’s a contributing factor to the huge number of men who take their lives.
“The current narrative about what it means to be a man is, quite frankly, killing too many of them.”
It was that realisation and a determination to do something, to help others who are where Schwass was, that changed his life.
ANOTHER KIND OF CALLING
When Schwass retired from football, having played 282 games for North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans from 1988 to 2002, he began on a new path.
It took a few more years and came on the back of that very public declaration about his struggles in the Herald Sun in 2006.
But it’s a journey that culminated with Schwass testifying this week at the Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health — one of 50 or so experts and people with first-hand experience to share their stories.
As he sat in the box, an audience watching on both in the room and via screens around the country linked in to the live feed, Schwass felt nervous.
He still does from time to time when sharing his story. But mostly, that nervous energy was sparked by how much is at stake.
“It’s important and serious, given the impact it has on Victoria,” Schwass said.
Twenty-six years of struggle, of emotional turmoil and distress, of ups and downs, of finding himself and being well, rested on his shoulders.
He reflected on those 12 long years that he kept his internal war to himself and four others, out of fear and out of shame.
“I wish I had that time again,” he said. “It’s the main driver behind being so outspoken and advocating for mental health for other people. I don’t want other men to make my mistakes.”
Schwass now runs the social enterprise PukaUp, which works hard to normalise mental health conversations and promote emotional wellbeing.
It also has an ambitious goal, he explains.
“Our mission is to eliminate suicide by normalising suicide prevention conversations.”
The next phase of that mission is launching a support program that aims to give people the tools they need to proactively manage their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
“It’s about prevention, about being proactive, not reacting once you’re unwell. It’s really exciting.”
This has been quite the week for Schwass. Thinking back from 1993 to now, he feels proud.
“I’m grateful for the journey, even though it was really challenging and confronting. I’m a better person for it and I’ve learnt a lot about myself. And it led me to the work I’m doing now.
“There are members of the community who are living with and engaging with their families, friends and workplaces because we gave them hope, and that hope allowed them to make a different decision. That different decision was to live.
“I don’t know of anything else I could do that’s more rewarding or important.”
To find out more about the work PukaUp does in the community, visit their website
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au
In an emergency, please call triple-0
Originally published as AFL star’s turmoil behind this photo