As part of Mental Health Week WA, National Indigenous Times is bringing the conversation front and centre to its readers. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the resources at the end of this article.
From small beginnings on the banks of the Lachlan River, to the bright lights of stadiums and boxing rings, Wiradjuri man Joe Williams has lived through some of life’s hardest times to come out a fighter.
A country boy through and through, Williams was born and raised in Cowra, NSW and moved to Wagga Wagga at ten-years-old.
“I had a beautiful childhood, I was loved, I was looked after. We didn’t have a great deal in terms of monetary stuff, but we had a hell of a lot of love and respect in the community with our sporting background,” Mr Williams said.
“The values that I carry today are because of the way I was raised.”
Growing up dreaming of playing in the big league, Williams struck gold signing his first contract at the age of 13 and moved to the big smoke at just 17.
“I signed with the Roosters – not many people know that, signed with the arch enemies,” he laughed.
“It was tough – I’m a country boy and I will always be that. The bright lights and fast cars threw me a little. It took me ten years before I got used to it. Every day I wanted to move home.”
Losing the drive
Williams ended up on-board with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and was making it big as a red-hot rugby league star.
However, he began to struggle with mental health and addiction.
“I haven’t said it out loud a great deal – once rugby league became a job for me, I lost that drive. It became a chore and it made things very difficult,” Mr Williams said.
“Coupled with the stuff I was going through mentally and emotionally as a young kid, a lot of my trouble started on the back of some fairly serious head trauma – my very first severe concussion [caused the start of] that negative dialogue.”
“For a long time, I thought everyone went through it, I didn’t know that it wasn’t happening to everyone else.”
To silence the negativity inside his head, Williams turned to substance.
“I silenced it the only way I could, by jamming as much substance in my body as I could,” Mr Williams said.
“I moved to Sydney and all those bright lights get turned on at once, nothing closes. You can silence what is happening in your head with more substance and partying. I found recreational drugs which just made things spiral out of control.”
Williams remembers coming to a moment of realisation.
“I thought, this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, I was supposed to be a rugby league player. I was supposed to have things together, I was doing everything I wanted to do since I was knee-high, but I was struggling in my head.”
Building spiritual resilience
Leaving rugby league in 2008, Williams began training with legendary boxing coach Johnny Lewis.
“It was just for fitness at the start, but I went alright, so I had a go. In the end of the 2008 season I went from a rugby league player at 82kg, and in three months I dropped down to 69kg and had my first fight,” Mr Williams said.
Williams said it was boxing that taught him to be tough – not rugby league.
“It taught me a real mental toughness to stand there in the face of fire and say I can do this. As a footy player when I searched deep in myself, I didn’t like the person I found, whereas as a boxer I built a resilience where I looked deep in myself and I liked that person.”
One year after leaving rugby league, Williams was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Depression.
“It made a lot of sense and it was a relief that there [was] something out there that explains this – getting diagnosed normalises things a bit,” Mr Williams said.
Taking a step back, Williams began to look at the man he was and found the values he lived by as a kid – compassion, empathy and love. He also started to explore what it meant to be an Aboriginal man.
“I always knew I was an Aboriginal man, I always connected strongly with that. But if I’m honest, I probably didn’t know what it was like to be an Aboriginal man.”
Growing up in a white world, Williams said he had to connect to the old ways.
“I sat down with some old fellas out in the bush, a couple of Elders – two extremely respected men that I attribute a lot of my healing to – one said to me, ‘You don’t have a mental illness, I don’t care what the doctors tell you. Before white man came here, we didn’t have mental illness, we had spiritual illness.’”
“The second Elder, he said, ‘You stick close to all this stuff and all your mental health problems will go away.’ And many years down the track I see he is right; I know that when I’m not well mentally I have to get back to connecting to old ways.”
Back to the old ways
Over 95 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are affected by suicide whether it’s first-hand or through family or community.
First Nations People also have the highest rate of suicide internationally.
After his own suicide attempt in 2014, Williams began The Enemy Within – a not-for-profit working towards breaking down stigmas around mental health, particularly within Aboriginal communities.
“I’ve done multiple interviews around why Aboriginal people are dying faster than anyone else in the world by suicide and if I can point back to what it is, it isn’t the act of suicide, or even the alcohol or drugs, or anything involved in the act – our people are dying from trauma.”
“Trauma that we are born with, it’s genetic and generational – we are carrying this – and the research shows, childhood trauma can change the physicality of our brains.”
“Services that are rolling out million-dollar programs in communities are failing because they aren’t addressing the right things. They’re only putting band-aids on this wound.”
Williams said communities can begin to break the cycle by starting to decolonise their lifestyles and going back to the old ways.
“We are communal people … when we hunted, we did it together, when we grieved, we did it together, when we told stories, we did it together.”
“Reconnecting to culture, language and country starts a process in our brain called neuroplasticity which helps to rewire and override trauma.”
Williams said normalising conversations about mental health and creating safe spaces for First Nations People is also a large part of the process.
The Enemy Within isn’t just a platform for Williams to tell his own story – it’s about the old stories.
“Our people have been storytelling for thousands of years, it isn’t about my story, it’s about Dreaming stories. Any Dreaming story we have is about a certain value of life – when I talk about [the idea that] stories heal, it isn’t my story, it’s those old stories.”
“I tell the story of Tiddalick the frog, that story wasn’t about a drought. It was about greed, the frog drinking water and not caring for anyone. That underlying value is about sharing, caring for country and one another.”
They say hindsight is a beautiful thing, for Williams he looks back on a life of struggle, but one that led him to where he needed to be.
“I thought my life was about being a rugby league player, I thought that was going to be it forever. Then I thought it was about being a boxer, but now I’m on the most important path of my entire life.”
“They say the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find your purpose – I believe I’ve found it.”
“For those people in those dark places, remember that it’s not a life sentence. Just because it is bad today, things will improve you can get better. I look back on my suicide attempt, in that moment I genuinely believed that my life couldn’t improve.”
“But look at my life now, I have two more children, I have a beautiful support base and I’m so proud of that and the man I am.”
Williams has just been announced as a finalist for the 2019 Australian Mental Health prize. The winner will be announced at the University of NSW on November 6.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health or substance abuse, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- Family Drug Support – 1300 368 186
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation – adf.org.au
By Rachael Knowles