I used to play clips of 1990s Arsenal players on a loop when I got anxious, when the ghosts in my head got too much. Every morning when it felt like someone was kicking a ball of anxiety around my brain, I took comfort in Dennis Bergkamp, a Dreamcast shirt billowing around him like a cheap Halloween costume, flicking the ball right whilst he spun left, and meeting it the other side of the Newcastle defender to slot the goal home past the keeper. My anxiety shifted over the years, from illness to body image to sexuality to nuclear war to the climate crisis. It enlarged and shrank like a pupil coming in and out of the light and darkness. From the moment I woke up, intrusive thoughts of disaster and violence were already warming up behind my eyes, and when I went to bed the same ghosts appeared at the top of the stairs of my spine, swelled in my knees and ankles, ran laps around my head. They made me feel monstrous, unable to control myself.
Watching football became a sort of holy water I used to shift the ghosts and lift my spirits. When you watched a football game there were almost no visual cues to the outside world. Football was this hermetically sealed, exceptional space where I could get away from all my worries. My ghosts thrived on the association, one thing reminding me of another, of another and the worry unfolding exponentially, like each ghost was playing in a well-organized Guardiola tactic, building from the back and ending in the panic attack of a goal. But the ghosts themselves couldn’t get into stadiums: they didn’t have the tickets or the Sky subscription. Watching matches was escapism, a moment away from the flurry of everyday existence.
The same was true of playing football. I joined a Tuesday 5-a-side team as a way to combat my loneliness, which added to the anxiety and intrusive thoughts. I wanted to take my ghosts to that pitch once a week, place them on the penalty spot and kick them as hard as I could over the crossbar, into the car park and hear their spectres thud on the bonnet on a Fiat 500. Each week I would run myself ragged. I would try and make myself so tired that not only would I not think about my worries whilst I was playing, I would be too exhausted later that evening to be kept awake by them. It was a violent kind of exorcism: the combination each week of playing till I was so tired I could not stay up to watch Gary Lineker on Match of the Day chanting statistics like bible verses over my haunted week. It was an unsustainable kind of therapy that begged the question: what to do when the season finished? The years of no international competition? Or when I was injured from over exercising: ankles crumpling between me, calves in spasm, over-extenuated Achilles tendons.
Watching and playing football had become compulsions that helped me deal with my anxieties, and now I relied on them almost entirely. In my most intimate moments, I would find myself listing Premier League golden boot winners from the past ten years. I would get myself to sleep by going through the alphabet and finding an Arsenal players’ name for each letter: Aubayang; Bukayo Saka; Callum Chambers. For me – and I suspect many others – football was what I did instead of feeling. It was the cortisone injected into my leg at half-time to dull the pain. So I started going to counselling. I feared it at first, as I thought that talking about my ghosts would let them in too much and ruin the things I loved and found comfort in, like football. I was tempted to continue the football metaphor and think of this as training, a way of taking my mind and body out onto the pitch of life and exercising them until I felt alright again. But this metaphor falls apart too easily: my problem was, once I started talking or thinking about my feelings, I couldn’t stop and lost control of them. In the first instance, counselling helped me accept that the ghosts would not leave just because I kicked at them.
Two years of counselling helped with a great many things but the intrusive thoughts of disaster still returned every hour like a well-timed poltergeist. I was moving further away from loved ones like my brother who I’d not called in months for fear something he said would trigger me. I continued to watch football religiously, continued to try and outrun my ghosts, kick them out of my head with exercise. But they kept coming back: I would count the seconds I left a tap running for fear of wasting water; check the weather to see how unseasonable it was every time I went for a run and struggle to go if it seemed too hot for February. I finally decided that this was not a psychological state I could stay in much longer and I took myself to the doctors. At the GP we discussed general anxiety disorder and OCD tendencies and I was prescribed a course of medication and cognitive behavioural therapy which, so far, have been very helpful.
The initial sessions and conversations around diagnosis gave me the language and the confidence to talk to my brother again: in trying to tell the world about what I was going through, I felt like the space in between defenders that I might be able to use. He might be the other team’s break in concentration that gave me the chance to explain where I was at. One Sunday, he texted me saying there was a Burnley vs Wolves game on BBC. We watched it, texting each other about Sean Dyche’s facial hair and how it would probably end 1-1. But when Burnley went in at half time 3-0 up, I took my chance and sent him a message I had drafted explaining what had been going on with me, my symptoms and my trip to the GP, how I did not need him to fix anything but just to hear the discomfort I was in. My brother gave me was the time and space for a conversation that was about football and mental health, rather than one as a metaphor for the other. Football, instead of being the space where ghosts were stopped at the turnstile, became somewhere I could invite my anxieties, let them in at halftime and deal with them gently, tenderly in the spooky séance glow of my phone screen. It was a space where I did not have to worry, where we could – for a moment – leave that football of anxiety to roll into the net, but that I could also pick it up later, when I was better prepared, when I could bring it under control.
There are many different ways to deal with mental health problems: counselling, medication, group therapy. And the ghosts we deal with are just as multiple. Perhaps we have as many ghosts as we have bones and muscles. My question is, what do I do with it all? We’re so often told that men don’t talk about their emotions enough. And I don’t have a single answer on how to get men to talk more or take better care of their strained muscles. All I know is that I took my ghosts to the altar of the goals, tore at biceps, ran my quads like they were whippets, watched games until the 97th minute, replayed clips again and again in an attempt to quieten my intrusive thoughts, and it did not work.
So I have a new idea: it is not an answer but a question of tenderness. I have always wanted to be tender, a word that shares its root with tendon, the part of us that holds muscle to bone, that connects all our ghosts, and I think of my conversations with my brother, my therapists, teammates, and Arsenal WhatsApp groups like this too: how they slacken and tighten, some of us soft muscle, others hard bones. Talking with my brother during Burnley vs Wolves was the first time I had allowed my ghosts inside the stadium: and it did not ruin football, it actually helped me enjoy it more. Consciously allowing myself to be vulnerable, letting my anxieties into the world of football, showed me that they had been there all along anyway. Maybe this is not about exorcising my ghosts, it is about exercising, playing, talking and sitting down with them to watch Match of the Day. The ghosts won’t leave just because we kick them out. But they might quieten down if we gently stretch the space between us far enough to let our ghosts in, if we thank them for the times they’ve tried to protect us, if we invite them to come for a run instead of running away from them.