WITH the summer tours now officially cancelled, and no end in sight to the national lockdown, the mental health of the nation remains a pressing concern.
The link between good physical health and good mental health has been overwhelmingly proven to be true, but even the super-fit are not vaccinated from what goes on inside their head.
Former professional players and the long-term injured often speak of finding the loss of team camaraderie, the loss of routine, hard to cope with, but the black dog doesn’t solely lie in wait for one’s career to stop or stall before it bares its teeth.
Graeme Morrison and Nick De Luca are two examples of Scotland’s elite who have since admitted that they struggled whilst at the top of their games. You needn’t be a professional player, under the constant scrutiny of fans and the media to be affected, though. It’s estimated that one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health issue each year, so of the 36,000 or so players registered in the SRU’s SCRUMS systems, that equates to some 9,000 players. One such player is Stirling County’s versatile back Daniel Tomanek.
As one of the Wolves’ ‘Clan Leaders’ – the squad are internally divided into ‘clans’ and compete in various challenges – during the now annulled 19-20 season, Tomanek had been identified by the coaching staff as someone who can inspire the youngest members of the squad through his commitment and work ethic. Despite being only 24, Tomanek, who aspires to play international rugby for Poland through family connections on his father’s side, has learned how off-field pressures can affect mental health.
To the outsider, the Tomaneks appeared to have an idyllic family lifestyle. Dan’s dad had a good job, they had a nice house, two cars in the driveway and so on. They had even lived in Brussels for a while due to his father’s work, but there was one member of the family who was casting a dark shadow over the rest of them.
“Basically, my mum’s an alcoholic”
After his mum and dad divorced when Dan was 13, her drinking got worse. By the time Tomanek was in his last year of school, his mum had moved in with a new partner, but rather than bring stability to the home environment, it became even more fractious.
“That was when the alcohol got really bad,” he recalls. “She would be drinking four or five bottles of wine a night, then move on to whatever else when that ran out.”
By now he had taken on a part-time job and was helping round the house. Often, he would have to ensure his younger sisters got up in time for school and prepare dinner for them as his mother was not fit enough to do so.
Despite taking on all these extra duties, he would frequently be verbally abused for the slightest infraction. A jacket hung up in the wrong place, a few too many end-of-season beers with his team-mates – easily done at 18 – it could all be used against him.
Things eventually came to a head one evening. Dan’s older sister had come through for a visit with her new-born son, so Dan ordered a takeaway meal for him and his three sisters whilst his mum remained upstairs. Once the meal was finished, he excused his youngest sister, Christina, from the table so she could go to watch TV.
It wasn’t long until the remaining diners had their conversation cut short by the sound of Christina’s screams, followed by the rhythmic thumping as her mother dragged her down the stairs.
“Mum came in and demanded Christina thank her partner for dinner. He was really unwell and was just in the kitchen heating up some soup, so I told her: ‘Mum, I paid for dinner, I said she could leave the table, it’s fine’.”
His riposte did not go down well, and an argument ensued. Dan went to his room to calm down but his mother followed him upstairs. Dan snapped, telling her she was a drunk, he knew that she’d been stealing money from his wallet and that she was wasting the sizeable sums of cash that his father was sending every month for their upkeep while he worked in the Middle East.
“As we were arguing, she said something I’ll never forget. Back when I was 13 or 14, I had a ruptured appendix, and the doctors said if it been another hour, I would have been dead, all because mum couldn’t get me to the hospital on time. I ended up in surgery for six hours. After I told her what I thought of her, she said: ‘You should have died on that operating table’.”
In a twist of good fortune, his dad was due to fly back from Bahrain in a few days. He tried to mediate in the argument between son and ex-wife, but no resolution could be reached. It was with regret that Dan decided he had to leave his sisters behind and go with his dad, his “number one supporter”, to live in Bahrain.
When in the Gulf state he was able to get his rugby focus back. He featured for the Wafi Warriors, alongside players from the illustrious Hartpury College, in an invitational section of the Dubai 7s.
The Poland national team were playing in another section of the same tournament, so Dan’s father approached them about how his son would go about representing the land of his lineage. The coaching staff advised him they would keep an eye on out but wanted him to play consistently at a higher level, so Dan came back to Scotland to resume his club career.
After a brief spell back with Edinburgh Accies where things didn’t work out, a friend suggested Dan meet with County’s development officer, Stewart Milne, in October 2017. Having chatted with Milne, Dan decided this was the club to help him grow and meet his playing goals.
However, there remained lingering self-doubts, and now that he was back in the country, the police would sometimes call if his mum had been found in an inebriated state, unable to take care of herself. He would be called in to check on her, but like a red rag to a bull, his presence would start off the abuse again.
“I’d be taking all this stuff in, and just feel so emotionally and physically tired,” he explains. “I’d miss training because I didn’t want to get up. At times I would lie there and believe I’m a bad person. There must be things I’m doing that are wrong.”
Taking back control
It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by many struggling with depression. Kieran Low’s recent startling revelations about how his professional career ground to a juddering halt is a prime example. The mixture of high-strength painkillers, pressure to play, and then drinking too much to escape his self-loathing thoughts, became unmanageable. Low retired at age 25, with five Scotland caps under his belt.
It was only when Fraser Brown, on behalf of the Back Onside charity foundation, held a drop-in session at Stirling in the early stages of 2019 that Dan realised how much his family history had affected him.
As Brown spoke, Tomanek found himself nodding along in agreement, and eventually opened up about his experiences. Back Onside arranged for follow-up therapy sessions, and with additional support from club coaches Chris Faill, Doug Smith and club chaplain Ben Thorpe, Tomanek soon realised help was there when needed at this community- minded club.
“I’ve had some really dark times, but rugby was my escape, and has given me the fuel to succeed,” he says. “I want my story to be out there to show that even through incredibly tough times, the good will come. It may sound like a cliché, but I fully understand that it’s okay not to be okay. If anyone out there is struggling, I hope you can see that anyone can get through anything, even if it means asking for help.
“It was around this time last year (April 2019) that I was really struggling, and I thought with what’s going on now, I might struggle again. But I put it into perspective; this is just a little pause and I give myself goals to hit every day and start ticking them off. I work out twice a day, then head to a local pitch to practise some skills. The big goal for me is playing for Poland, and when pre-season comes around at Stirling, I’m going to hit it running.”