JOEL THOMPSON –
I remember my first police raid as though it was yesterday.
My mum was in the living room when it all went down.
Three knocks on the door, and before I knew it chaos erupted.
From an early age, I was trained to always be on edge.
Fight or flight.
On that day, I managed to escape out the back door, running full pelt towards my mum’s partners house.
My whole life has always been about surviving.
I moved around a lot as a kid, and saw more than you could possibly imagine; drugs, alcohol abuse and domestic violence were part of my everyday surroundings.
Sadly it’s all too common a story for the youth in the lower economic communities.
For a long time, I hated my life. I didn’t know my place in the world, which is incredibly hard for a young guy.
I was so envious of the other school kids, who seemed to have the whole world at their feet.
I was having heaps of trouble in the classroom, finding it very difficult to make friends that understood what I was going through.
A combination of everything that was going wrong in my life led me down a self-destructing path; I had my first police interview when I was just 13, for a break and enter offence alongside my cousin.
We were taken to the police station from our grandmothers house, I will never forget that day.
Despite everything that had happened in my life up until that point in time, that was the trigger moment when it all became too much.
Even today, I feel sick even thinking about it.
The look of utter disappointment, shame and hurt on my grandmother’s face is an image I can never, and will never, let go.
She had recently taken me in, to help change the direction my life was heading.
For me, that’s when everything changed. I flicked a switch, and made a promise to myself that from that point forward all I would aspire to do is make my grandmother proud.
We made a commitment to each other, and she helped me see it through.
She, and my biological father Micheal, who had only recently come into my life, made it their mission to have me accepted into Redbend Catholic College in Forbes.
My grandmother made countless sacrifices just so I had a fighting chance of making something of myself; she saved my life.
I could say thank-you in 1,000 different ways, and it still wouldn’t be enough. She was the most beautiful person, and wanted more for me than I even envisaged for myself.
She made me realise that I didn’t want to go down the same path as the people I grew up around, many often finding themselves in and out of jail or having to overcome drug and alcohol problems.
So there I was, Redbend Catholic College, ready to start the first chapter of my new life.
And at such a young age, I grew up quick; I was definitely challenged and out of my comfort zone.
I was the black sheep going into the new school, not knowing a single person; making the transition all the more difficult.
I looked for ways to integrate myself into school, searching for extra circular activities which could help stimulate me and also act as a social vehicle.
Probably isn’t hard to guess which sport I took up!
Rugby League became everything for me; for the first time in my life, I was introduced to routine and discipline.
And in the classroom, I was wearing a uniform. A uniform!
Sometimes I would just take a moment to look at myself in the mirror, smiling asking myself “what is happening to me!”
It was a strange, yet wonderful time of my life – the school was aware I came from a difficult family background and went above and beyond to help me.
There was an incident where I could have got kicked out of school, and my life would have taken a massive backwards step, but they refused to give up on me, giving me another lifeline.
That’s why I will never be lost to Redbend Catholic College.
As my studies started to improve, in equilibrium, so too did my football.
And while it was an avenue to channel my past anger through, it didn’t even become about that for me.
I was making friends, and for the first time in my life, I was genuinely happy.
It was the escape I had been searching for my whole life.
Rugby League has saved me, and has put in in a position today where I now have a platform to give back to the kids who have come from similar upbringings.
I want to inspire them in the same manner my grandmother was able to do for me, to let them know they can make something of themselves.
You only need to look at my story; I went from being involved in a break and enter with my cousin to four years later doing a pre-season with an NRL club.
Sometimes all you need is hope and a reason to keep going.
Thankfully, I am now in a much more settled place in my life, but having had the childhood and upbringing as mine, even into my young adult years I was having to break through challenging period under the public pressure of professional football.
Entering this new, elite world – I didn’t know how to deal with it at first, and didn’t feel like I had anywhere to turn too. It took me a long time to learn how to deal with my emotions and with the things I had been subjected to as a child.
I come from a place where you don’t share your emotions; you bottle them up and don’t talk about it.
There was a period there where I was treating myself really bad.
I didn’t want to be here anymore.
I didn’t want to live.
That was my mentality, even when I finally reached the pinnacle of playing NRL football.
I starting drinking excessively and partying to help cope with my problems.
I remember sitting down with my now wife, Amy, and just breaking down to her.
I told her I didn’t want to live anymore, I didn’t want to be here anymore.
I was at the lowest of lows, and from rock bottom there I went and spoke to a trained mental health professional.
I opened up emotionally and it honestly felt like I spilled out 20 years of heartbreak and sorrow.
I never truly understood mental illness until I had my own breakdown.
The mental health officer was able to give me some tools and advice, and is a key person in my life.
Managing my mental health is ongoing and I still see professionals to ensure I’m in the best possible frame of mind.
To what little silver lining that has come from my childhood, it has helped shape the person I am today and a purpose to now give back.
I’m grateful for what I have now and the family I have started. Just having a place, in a safe environment, that I can call my own is what I spent years searching for.
I’m a survivor.
Anyone seeking counselling or help with mental health issues can contact www.livin.org or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.