MATTHEW Mitcham’s amazing dive which garnered him scores of perfect 10s at the Beijing Olympics meant that, for a few moments, he was the best in the world.
Did people love you then? And in the way you’d hoped? ‘‘Thinking people would love me if I was the best sure was a powerful subconscious message from my childhood that I took into sport to drive me to be the very best. But after Beijing happened and I was the best in the world I found it really unfulfilling. I mean the high of the Olympics itself and the crescendo of the previous seven years to this one moment — and I just crashed. There was such a profound emptiness and void,’’ he said by phone.
‘‘I had depression as a mid-teenager. From 14 to 18 it was pretty serious. It went on so long because I never reached out to anyone. I was ashamed of it. It got to the point of self-harm and hospital trips and stitches because of cuts to my arms and suicide attempts.
‘‘But I pulled it together and changed my environment and coaches and I started diving again because I loved it. And the Olympics turned out perfectly and naively I thought I was fixed because I hadn’t felt depressed since I was 18. I competed in Beijing at 20 and I thought I’d never suffer depression again. But I’d never actually addressed it and it never went away. It was waiting for the right circumstances to rear its head again.’’
We live in a world that over-values success, especially in sport, which reduces personal worth to the number of medals. ‘‘Yeah. It’s interesting that trampolining and diving ended up being my sport — there’s such direct feedback, you know, in numbers. If you do really well you get 9 and 10. I didn’t realise I’d become quite dependent on these numbers. After Beijing I was laid up with injuries and all of a sudden this positive reinforcement was taken away and my depression reared its head again and I fell back onto the last coping mechanism I’d used as a teenager — drugs and alcohol.’’
There’s a big difference between clinical depression and self-doubt. ‘‘Depression is feeling low for a sustained period. It can be subtle. Slight mood-swings, lack of energy, lack of motivation but my problem was being self-deprecating, really negative, making myself feel inferior to everyone and shaming myself for the way I felt, which just compounded it. I was lucky things got so severe I was able to reach out to someone but I had to get to rock bottom before I was able to get past my shame. Ireached out to my manager and I told her everything that was going on and she was so helpful. She gave me an ultimatum: drugs or diving. And of course diving is the most important thing in my life. She helped me get into rehab and get clean. This was all in 2010 and 2011 and I’ve been great since.’’
Were your manager or trainer aware of your problems? ‘‘No, I was so ashamed I hid it from absolutely everyone. Even my partner. I maintained the highest level of professionalism. I made sure nobody suspected what I was doing. I was trying to do it all on my own, so it went on for so long. That’s why I decided to be so frank in this book, so people won’t feel so ashamed and they’ll get help, too.’’
When you go to such lengths to hide it how can parents and loved ones help? ‘‘Make the person know their feelings are legitimate is the most important thing because saying they shouldn’t feel this way is counter-productive. We under-estimate the severity of mental illness because we can’t see it or touch it or feel it.
‘‘You can’t hear it. It’s a concept. So people don’t take it seriously. Feelings are very real and very powerful. But the thing to know is they’re not insurmountable.’’
Depression is the elephant in the room among sportsmen, who appear to be so triumphant in every area of their lives. ‘‘Elite sportsmen don’t talk about it among themselves because there’s that macho mentality where they don’t wanna be seen as weak. Depression is seen as a weakness in sport. Ian Thorpe coming out about his depression was amazingly brave.’’
It’s also very brave to come out as a young gay man. ‘‘I recognised I had gay tendencies from about 5. By 9 I began to absorb this notion that gay is not as good as straight and life would be easier if I was straight. To condition myself out of these gay thoughts I put a rubber-band around my wrist and snapped it hard against my wrist whenever I had a gay thought. Which was counter-productive because I was shaming myself for who I was and I couldn’t change that. Amazingly I changed my mentality quickly and was OK with the fact I was different to other people around me so I started to surround myself with people who were like-minded and sympathetic. It was a few years before I was comfortable with exactly who I was in front of absolutely everyone. I changed cities, I changed coaches, I changed everything about my life. It was a good opportunity to start afresh when I moved to Sydney to start diving again after a year of retirement. I made the conscious choice to be absolutely authentic and really honour exactly who I was. Perhaps I was a little bit too up-front [he laughs], It was a conscious choice to be really authentic. Just before the Beijing Games a journalist asked who I lived with and my honest answer was my boyfriend. The reporter knew the stigma that gay athletes don’t get the big endorsements so she gave me the courtesy of reconsidering. I decided I wanted Australia to know exactly who they were supporting at the Olympics. It was more imporrtant for me to be authentic than to be rich. That’s all.’’