How NRL star Joel Thompson overcame 'demons' to find a passion to help others

2019-03-29 20:44:28

Christchurch kids have lived through earthquakes and the emotional impact of the mosque shootings tragedy, but NRL star-turned-mental health advocate Joel Thompson has told them they can stand tall.

The Manly second rower  - in Christchurch for Saturday's game against the Warriors – addressed a roomful of rangitahi at Wainoni's He Waka Tapu wellbeing programme on Thursday.

"You guys in Christchurch, no doubt you have been through some setbacks and adversity, but yous have come through it; you are a strong place and strong people," he said.

"Life is tough, as you guys know, it's about overcoming those setbacks."

Clad in Manly gear, Thompson, 30, shared some of the hurdles he had jumped to forge a 200-game NRL career.

Domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction scarred his upbringing in a rural Aboriginal community and left him with "bad flashbacks".

Unresolved pain led to him abusing alcohol in the early years of his NRL career and left him feeling so low he got to the point where "I didn't want to live".

His life turned around after his wife Amy urged him to seek mental health help.

Now, he tells his story to inspire young people because he's found "a passion for helping others".

Thompson was "born to a teenage mum, who probably wasn't ready to bring me into the world" after she fell pregnant to "a white farmer's son" in Ivanhoe, a New South Wales outback town of around 250 souls.

Thompson did not grow up with his "real dad" in his life.

"My mum had a mental illness and she had an addiction problem. A lot of my childhood memories were of getting shoved into cars and going to different homes, different women's refuges.

"It was hard to go to school and concentrate, hard to be a nice kid sometimes. There'd be a lot of drugs, alcohol and violence at home."

Thompson grew up "watching me mum get bashed across the house".

Growing up, he felt like an "outcast". "I'd go to school with no sleep and was always hungry. I was always pretending to go to the toilet and I'd go through all the white kids' lunch boxes, take their food out and go back to class. I was always up to scams."

Thompson's mother "always had bad men in her life, career criminals".  At one point, she and her partner "had to sell drugs" to survive.

That led to "a lot more violence" and left Thompson feeling "even more isolated" at school, where he was shunned by classmates.

"I didn't feel that good; I had no self-worth … I was on auto-pilot," he said.

Then came his first turning point. Following a police raid, Thompson's mother returned home to Ivanhoe, where his loving grandmother, Gloria, a non-smoker and non-drinker "who worked real hard all her life", became "big part of me being resilient and overcoming a few setbacks".

One night, after seeing his mum's "eyes roll back in her head" after being assaulted, young Joel "ran across the road to my Nan's house. It was raining and I was crying, screaming, thinking 'I'm going to lose my mum'.

He began living with Gloria and "for the first time, I started getting fed properly and having my clothes washed. Going to school with food in me lunchbox was mad.

"I started feeling good about myself."

But the teenage Thompson was "still breaking into houses and stealing cars because I didn't know anything else."

One day, while raking Nan's garden, "the police wagon rolled in". "I thought, 'Far out, I'm in trouble here'."

"My cousin, who was a couple of years older, was gone. It was just me left standing out there."

The police took him to the station where, "for the first time, a little switch in me head went, 'I've got to change'.

"It wasn't that I was getting in trouble with the police, it was more the embarrassment and shame I was bringing to people who cared for me and loved me; my positive role model."

Thompson "tried to act tough" to the police, but "a couple of tears were rolling down my cheeks. I was I was sorry and I didn't want to go to juvie… I was very lucky, they let me off … my cousin took the rap for me."

The brush with the law was "a chance to take stock of my life".

Soon after, his Nan urged him to "get in touch with my real dad – which was one of the most awkward calls I've ever hard to make".

"He helped me to get a boarding school to play rugby league."

"That was a turning point. All the setbacks in my life gave me a bit of motivation to make something of myself."

Thompson arrived at boarding school still "a rough kid, who struggled to make eye contact" with others. "I didn't know how to use a knife and fork – I still struggle a bit, my missus always gets into me".

"I didn't know how to dress. If someone told me I was doing the wrong thing, I'd get angry, swear and kick stuff."

But he started playing rugby league and "found a way to channel what was going on. All these demons in my head, I could put into something."

He urged his Christchurch audience to find an outlet of their own, whether "it's art, if it's your culture, whatever it is… it doesn't have to be rugby league'."

Thompson soon proved he was a footy natural.  He was "very lucky to get signed" by the Melbourne Storm and moved to Victoria at 18.

"But again, I felt out of place," he said. "I saw guys like Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, all the superstars. I was one of those kids who watched them on TV and dreamed of being a NRL player. I was down there, training with them. I was from the bush, I didn't really do weights or fitness."

Thompson would ring home to tell his Nan, "I want to come home… I don't want to play NRL, this is too hard".

"She kept telling me: 'You're making me proud. Stick it out. Look at your family, you don't want to end up the way they live. You've got to work hard'."

Thompson said NRL fitness left players feeling "at the end of each one like you're going to die".

He recalled a final fitness session in Melbourne before the Christmas break where he "put my foot just [centimetres] short of the line".  Alex Corvo, now the Warriors trainer – "he's a hard man, it gives me nightmares saying his name" – saw Thompson's skimp and ordered a re-run.

"I made the whole squad re-do a fitness drill because I took a small shortcut.. I won't say what Billy Slater [and the other Storm players] called me, but I thought 'I don't want to be here, I don't want to play football. It would have been real easy to quit.

"But that taught me about being resilient, probably for the first time. All the setbacks I'd had… they built me for that moment.

"Things are going to come in your life. You kids are going to face it at some stage. It's about how do you bounce back and how do you overcome it."

At 19, Thompson discovered his mother and siblings had moved to Canberra. He sought a move to the Raiders because "I felt drawn to go back and help my brothers and sisters. I knew what type of life, I would be living."

Thompson joined the Raiders and made his NRL debut in 2008, at 19.

"Everything looked good. I signed a good contract, I had some money and I was playing first grade."

But he still hadn't confronted his childhood demons.

"I started having flashbacks and mental health problems. I didn't know how to address them. I was brought up to be this hard, little kid, show now weakness, don't speak about your problems.

"I didn't want to go to my teammates and say I was 'struggling, I'm not happy I don't want to be in this world'."

Nor did Thompson want to burden his Nan. "I had all this pain I didn't want to put on other people.

"I felt alone."

When he put his head on the pillow, he was struck by "real bad flashbacks of seeing my mum getting bashed".

His only resort was, "when things were going wrong, I'd go and drink and drink and party, and put myself in bad situations".

His contract was ripped up after he was charged with assault. "The case got thrown out. I was innocent, but I put myself in that situation through drinking, by not going to talk to someone and deal with what was going on inside me."

Thompson's rock bottom came when he had "a mental breakdown after a festival". During a party on his balcony, he started throwing bottles. "I was in destruction mode, just really hating myself and the world."

He showed his audience a sketch of a man a small boy huddling in the corner of his brain. Thompson said that was him. "I was always happy and laughing on the outside, the fun guys, but I was this hurt, lonely boy", inside.

Around the time of "that crazy bender", Thompson met "my beautiful wife Amy", with whom he now has "three beautiful daughters". Early in their relationship, he told Amy: 'I didn't want to be here any more'.

"It was the first time I spoke out loud about how I felt."

Amy urged him to "go to a counsellor" and made him an appointment.

Thompson "went to speak to a 40-year-old woman I'd never met in me life". "I was holding it all in, I didn't know how to speak about my childhood, but she got it out of me.

"I started crying like a baby. I couldn't stop. I started sharing … about all this abuse and stuff that had happened to me. I was just a big mess, but it saved me life.

"[Without it] I wouldn't be here presenting or talking to you guys."

His counsellor advised him to get "some balance in your life" and "go out and share your experience with people that have been through domestic violence and know the pain, who have had parents who have been in and out of jail, or through addiction".

Ever since Thompson has been inspiring others how "you can overcome obstacles and come through it".

He started a programme at the Aboriginal Indigenous Leadership Centre in Canberra.

In 2012, he started The Mindset Project, a foundation aimed at encouraging resilience.

After transferring to the St George Illawarra Dragons in 2014, he worked with Mission Australia, helping kids transition from school to the workplace, and mentored boys and girls at Reiby juvenile detention centre.

He's also been involved with the NRL's State of Mind campaign. He won the Ken Stephen Medal, the NRL's top prize for community service in 2016. After joining Manly in 2018, he began volunteering with the Gamarada healing group in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern.

Thompson admits he has still had challenges. "I was actually diagnosed four or five years ago with bipolar. Over that period of time, my behaviour was still on a bit of a roller-coaster. At times, I'd be full of life and would come in and train the house down. At other times, I'd be down, wouldn't talk to anyone and would give them the cold shoulder.

"For a second time, I accepted [the diagnosis] and moved forward with it."

Thompson has also watched, powerlessly, as his 15-year-old twin brothers were sentenced "to juvie" and has had to "make the toughest decision of my life" and cut off contact with his mother for his own wellbeing, and that of his young family.

His message to young people facing their own issues involves finding positive role models and "support networks" – family members, teachers and friends – and developing "good self-care", including "bush walking, exercise and no social media!"

He also champions "achievable goalsetting", working hard and cultivating gratitude.

"Sometimes, the fight can hard for some of us, but it can all be overcome."


1737, Need to talk? - Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor - 0800 111 757 or text 4202

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email, or find online chat and other support options here.

Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily. – Web chat, email chat or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825.

If it is an emergency click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team. In a life-threatening situation call 111.

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