On the road with...Lewi Brown

LEWI BROWN – The Simplistic Road

I had the honour and pleasure of chatting with ex-kiwi second rower and NRL star Lewi Brown and now creative director at Earl’s Collective where he shared with me his raw, real and heartfelt journey.

Everyone is going through something that we can not see, the thing is...because we can not see it, we don’t know who’s going through what.
Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another.
It’s a part of life.

Mental health is not just an athlete thing. What you do for a living does not have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.
No matter what our circumstances, we are all carrying around things that can hurt deep, and they can continue to hurt us if we keep them buried inside.

In my chat with Lewi we talk about the stigma surrounding mental health which can make it difficult for professional players to engage with support, Rugby league players can handle the tough stuff on the field of play, but they can too face mental challenges that threaten to overwhelm them.

However, there has been a rising demand for help, especially when high-profile, experienced players take a lead.

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Lewi, people know you as a rugby league player. You have played for New Zealand and the NRL what was your first experience with mental health?
My first experience with mental health would have been when Twitter first came out. I guess I had played a bad game, and someone sent me an article written about me. It gave me anxiety and it was the first time I had really had to deal with that level of anxiety. Playing on such a serious stadium what other people take so seriously was so stressful.
I had heard and read stories of other players who had talent, that some mental illness had got to them and in the way of their future. Till then, I didn’t really understand. I always thought…mental health? what has that got to do with playing footy? But at that moment I realised, what some random had written about me...that’s when I too started to experience the anxiety.

Do you think mental health can affect relationships around you? What do you do to practice your personal wellness?
Massively. I am still learning to deal with these relationships to the point where I am only starting to open up more than I used to. It is huge in this day and age to have somebody to talk to. Sometimes I will just speak to a stranger and that can make me feel so much better.

I currently go to a psychologist, not because I have depression but because I am trying to break the cycle. My dad committed suicide because he was depressed for three years, my grandad also and my great-grandad committed suicide too.

For me, when I lost my dad, it didn’t make me depressed I was grieving and I knew I needed to break the cycle before it could get to that point for myself.

Some days I will wake up and I have anxiety and I guess in life everyone goes through anxiety. It's about speaking up and going to talk to those people that you trust and feel connected to and just feel comfortable talking too.

Now I am starting this brand I set myself tasks to keep myself busy. It stops my mind from wandering and thinking about other things.

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What are some of the fundamentals you practice for your personal wellness?
Basically, for eleven years I played NRL straight; playing the top grade and that was always where I would go to take my mind off my mental health. That was my zone.

This year for whatever reason, I had, not a bad run-in with the coach but he decided to not play me this year and I was put into reserve playing for the year. So, for me, it was the first time I had ever experienced that after playing the last eleven years in the NRL.

So here I was living in Sydney training at Manly and at night having to go train all the way out at Blacktown, which is an hour and a half away with people that are part-time players who work part-time and come and play.

That was a real struggle this year mentally because Rugby league turned into a job as opposed to a passion. This year has been really tricky. I was going through a lot in the last few years, suffering from a lot of mental health issues when I lost my dad and I had Rugby league as my place to escape and now it had almost been taken away from me.

I got set back massively, I was going to bed worrying about everything, what I was going to do financially, I had not been to university. Overthinking, I was always worried, I was embarrassed that I was not playing first grade, I was embarrassed to see my family. In my mind, I had always played and I had deserved to play but for whatever reason (which happens to a lot of players) it was in my last year and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

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Do you think that was a big drive to you pursuing and starting ‘Earls’?
Massively, I had always collected sneakers and I have always been into high-end fashion, and for me, its become more realistic actually wearing those brands in the last 5 years. I had always wanted to start my own label or be a stylist but was too afraid to do it around 5-6 years ago because once upon a time you needed your life savings to start a clothing brand, but now because of the power of social media, you don’t need that.

As opposed to having Rugby league as my escape this year I would find myself up at night till 2 am, not because I had to be up but because I could not put the laptop down; putting this idea in my mind, with starting my own brand. That became my escape this year because I just wanted to get my own brand off the ground so badly.

My biggest fear about playing rugby league is that I was so passionate to play NRL, I did anything I could to get there, and I did everything to get there and I was not going to give up until I got there.

But my biggest fear whilst playing was when this finishes am I ever going to be this passionate about something else again, like this. Because when you are not passionate about something it becomes a job for you. I tried personal training courses and other things and nothing was for me because I just did not have the passion.

Now all of a sudden I have this brand, I am so passionate about it, it took my mind of rugby league this year and I would play on a Saturday and I would just have fun. I would think to bugger this, there is more to life than Rugby league.

After playing professional footy for over 12 years and going to the gym every day, and getting paid to go to the gym every day. Having the clothing brand Earl’s in progress and come to life for me really took my mind of Rugby league.

What are your views on social media when it comes to mental illness and well-being?
When I grew up, I was bullied as a kid at primary school but from someone in my sisters year, she was five years older than me so she was ten at the time and I was five, he had a crush on her so he would bully me to get attention from her.

I would get bullied at school but I could go home and escape it but for me I see social media now, I have a little niece who is 14 and if she goes to school and if she gets bullied there, she then can go home but can be bullied online so you can't escape it.

It’s all well and good teaching kids about history and the past but its also about teaching them to stay in the present moment and current mental health is a massive issue.

Playing sport as a kid you would just play it for the love of it but nowadays yes you play it for the love of it but you get criticized from so many angles, not just by your coach but by all public expectations and social media avenues.

Throughout your professional career, how have you managed to balance a working career, public expectations and your mental health?
That has been quite a hard one for me, because I have the characteristics, like my dad, where I hold everything in because I do not like to be a burden on other people. So I used to really struggle when I first came to the big stage, with the Warriors and I was living in Auckland. At times, when we would play on a Friday or a Saturday, if we had a bad game or we lost we had this thing that everyone would call head noise and basically It would get to the point where I just would not leave the house the next day because I was too worried about what other people thought or what other people would say to me.

It took my father taking his life for me to start dealing with this and opening up more.

It has only been the last few years where I have started opening up and talking about my feelings about football.

I know that with my sister and my mum really worry about that with me, not speaking. I probably am only still learning how to speak my feelings. I have been getting help lately on trying to break that cycle on keeping it to myself and thinking that I am a burden on other people.

It has definitely taken up until the last few years for me to stop giving a crap about what other people think about me.

Do you feel that professional sports players get the support they need with mental wellness and coaching in dealing with the public spotlight and public expectations in this social media driven world we live in?
I find that there is a massive stigma towards Rugby league, so many people are telling you to speak up. but I think slowly in the NRL they are getting people in place to help players deal with it. It has improved compared to when I first started. There have been players that have come out about there mental health not just on a Rugby league level. For example, Kevin Love who plays for Cleveland Cavaliers he wrote an article about how he had a mental break down in the middle of a game where he felt like he had that much anxiety he had to leave the marina at halftime. He spoke out about his mental health and I feel that is helping break down walls.

When you see someone on that type of level go through that, you think, they can have everything in the world but mental health can still affect anyone.

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Do you think that the transition from professional sports to normal life for players can be tough in regards to mental health?
I can not speak for other sports but I think with Rugby league there is a major issue in regards to mental health. Since I have been playing there have been possibly 8-10 suicides and numerous stories about depression.

You start out with this dream that you want to play NRL and a lot of these Aussie boys that are playing, they are getting into the league when they are around 12 years old, same for me back in New Zealand and you are driving for this goal. I started professionally when I was 19 and for the last twelve years, that is all I have known. My life has revolved around it, I moved countries for it, had relationships that were dictated by it.

For some people, I think when its pulled out from underneath you, a lot of people do not know what to do. It is your life.

But, then you may need to almost restart your life at the age of 30 or you may get injured and have to start it at 25. I just feel that Rugby league there is a big issue there, its certainly getting better because of the RLPA (Rugby League Players Association) where they are doing a massive job to make the transition from professional league to normal life much easier.

I personally think its a massive issue, what has happened for me this year, I found myself with a lot of hate towards Rugby league.

There were times I didn’t want to play anymore, at the moment finding a passion in having a brand, that has really helped me. I have not really felt that true miss of Rugby league just yet.

I don’t wake up every morning and miss going to training. I know for me, I am very stubborn and if my heart is set on something I know I will go to any extent to make it work and that’s what I did with rugby and that’s what I am doing with this brand.

What are your future plans, careers and aspirations?
I have a new apparel brand ‘Earl’s’ in progress.

For me, the name Earl is my middle name, it's my father's middle name. I did not grow up with my dad in my life. I grew up with a single mum and a sister…my mum was like my everything. That is where the connection comes in with Earls. I did not have that relationship with my dad when I was younger but I kind of have that connection with him now through the name and that is helping me drive and helping me feel better about that.

I had not spoken to my father in 8 years and the hardest thing for me was not being able to reach out to him when he was suffering from his depression because nobody told me and my sister. I think the biggest regret I have is that if somebody had of told me then I could have reached out.

I feel like with the name Earls it brings my dad with me, at the end of the day he is still my dad and we didn’t have the relationship that I had of hoped for when I was a kid but I hopefully can continue one with this brand. The aspiration for me, when I was a kid all I wanted to do was play NRL and wear the kiwi jersey, but I think now a big goal for me is just seeing someone wear my brand. That’s really motivating thing for me, it gets me excited.

I have never come from a designing background and have never worked for a brand, so I am teaching myself as I go. I am not really in it for the money, I am in it for the passion of the garment, the design. I am not just putting stuff on a t-shirt, mass manufacturing and trying to get rid of it. It is more about small pieces and trying to learn about myself and the brand and the industry as I go.

This coming year, the goal is to just do it full time and take a year off everything. Financially I have put myself in a position where I can do that and just have some time off and focus on it and get that started.

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What would be your messages to others going through struggles in their life?
For me its quite easy for me to say “speak up” but I guess for me my message is when you are going through this and you don’t speak up it feels like you have a weight on your shoulders and more importantly like a weight in your heart, like damn this won’t go away.

I found for me when I actually spoke to a stranger, I found that easier for me than someone who knew me, someone who knew nothing about me. After speaking to somebody I broke down after an hour and a half and I walked out feeling so much better.

I think it just breaks down that wall by letting somebody know that you are struggling and I feel like that is the first initial step.

Obviously, going through what you are going through is very hard but speak up, its an old cliche saying but it really does work. If you can, speak to family and friends but don’t be scared to speak to a stranger. I feel like that has really helped me.

What mantra or quote do you like to live by and why?
Like I actually learnt with my dad “ life’s too short to hold regrets”. For me, I learnt that because I regret not reaching out to my dad whilst he was going through his struggle with depression. That is something I am going to live with, but that was the whole reason why I went to talk to someone because of the guilt I hold inside of me and living with no regrets is so important.

I would often say to myself what if I start my brand and it doesn’t work out?

But my mum said '“well, you will never know unless you try!” When you regret something that will always play on your mind, that is the stage I am going through at the moment with my dad, I regret not reaching out to my dad earlier because that may have stopped him from getting or being depressed. I also think to myself well if he was still alive…would I have reached out by now?

I think I would have, I feel like that adult conversation was coming with my dad and now that he has gone I kind of regret that it didn’t come sooner.

But regretting that has opened me up to not regretting anything else in life, and that is what has made me work so much harder on everything else in my life and also got this new clothing brand Earl’s off the ground.

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Thank you Lewi!

For more on Lewi you can check out @lewi_brown and @earlscollection

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