I can’t say exactly what drew me to John Kirwan’s memoir, All Blacks Don’t Cry. Maybe it’s being so far from New Zealand and feeling a bit homesick that made me want to read about the mental health struggles of one of the country’s greatest sporting heroes, a man that figured prominently in my childhood as I was dragged to rugby matches and forced to watch endless matches on the TV by my rugby-mad father and brother.
In fact, it’s possible that I once had a crush on him – those tree-trunk thighs in that black uniform that symbolized so much, the sandy blond hair and shy, boyish good looks. I do remember having an All Blacks coin collection and a few All Blacks plastic figurines with over-sized heads that I got from the service station. I think JK was my favorite.
There’s something quite compelling and inspiring about this revered figure, the epitome of Kiwi masculinity, coming out about his demons and making himself so publicly vulnerable. New Zealand is a country that does have a terrible suicide problem, coupled with a tendency to keep everything on the inside, to ‘harden up’ and get on with things. To sweep things under the rug and say, ‘she’ll be right.’ This is probably more so for men, and Sir Kirwan does talk about this – how it was so hard for him to seek help because of stigma attached to a man of his status needing to see a psychiatrist.
The arc of his life thus far is amazing – from humble, working class roots to becoming one of the best rugby players in the world. He was an underachiever at school. He failed School Certificate and became a butcher, working with his father. He then reached the top levels of rugby playing for the All Blacks. He was rugby royalty. When he retired from rugby, he moved into a coaching role, first with the Italian national team then the Japanese national team. He currently coaches in Auckland. He is also married with three teenagers. His wife is Italian and they have a restored farmhouse in the north of Italy, and a beach house near Auckland. JK speaks fluent Italian and almost fluent Japanese. His accomplishments become even more extraordinary when we take into account that through his 20s and 30s, he suffered from debilitating depression.
Imagine the sheer willpower it took to get out of bed, train and play in front of tens of thousands of people. To engage in such a physically demanding game under intense pressure. Fortunately, his story so far has a happy ending. He describes his journey to wellness in clear and simple terms. He is candid and brave. Not too many sporting heroes want their fans to know about their mental breakdowns, but it’s all laid bare here.
His perspective is refreshing and balanced (“Rugby is a game that I had a gift for, and through it my life was enriched. It’s left me with friends all over the world. It’s the greatest game ever, but it is a game – and there is a bigger picture.”) As he outlines his road to recovery, he takes a nuanced approach. Medication helped him a lot, but it wasn’t a silver bullet. He also sought out therapy and had to try two or three psychologists before he found a good fit. He worked on himself a lot and had to rebuild his confidence and self-image. He saw that there was a genetic factor, as other family members had also suffered. He looks outside himself as well and believes that society is putting too much pressure on to lead faster, busier lives. He speaks of his Italian life which, with its emphasis on family, spending quality time with others and working less, he advocates.
JK was knighted in 2012 for his contribution to rugby and to raising awareness about mental health and depression. In his book, he recounts stories of some of the hundreds of people who have approached him in public to thank him for saving their lives. It’s warm fuzzies all around. Due to the big impact his personal story and awareness raising have had, a second book was recently released aimed at teens. Called Stand By Me, it is a comprehensive book that includes the voices of not only JK but also mental health professionals and a range of teenagers who have suffered from various mental health issues.
Both of his books are interesting, entertaining and informative. To me, it seems that the wide audience they are reaching and the impact they are having signals a positive change in how New Zealanders deal with mental health issues. We need to give JK a pat on the back for opening up the conversation and helping to remove the stigma attached to it. As the subtitle of the cover states, it is a story of hope.