Clarke Carlisle: ‘I should be dead. I am delighted, blessed I can use my life’

Former Burnley and QPR defender is ‘blessed’ as he fights the depression that nearly killed him and thankful to be ‘fit and able’ to run the London Marathon

Not a day passes where Clarke Carlisle does not think about 22 December 2014 and the moment he stepped in front of a lorry travelling on the A64 at 60mph. That wet, drab day in the run-up to Christmas was the final straw; his point of no return. No hope remained, no future desired.

Seventeen months later the first thing that strikes you when speaking to the former Queens Park Rangers and Burnley defender is how open he is when discussing that attempt to kill himself.

Carlisle describes it as “amazing, bordering on miraculous” that he is alive. Life is still not easy. There have been dark days since, there will be more in the future, but the worst has passed and helping others has become his driving passion.

He runs the London Marathon on Sunday for the Bobby Moore foundation and is thankful to be “fit and able” to raise money for the cancer charity. Beyond that he views this second chance as an opportunity to prevent others from reaching such levels of despair.

“I should be dead,” he says. “The physical damage should have been irreversible but I was walking within a few days and a few months down the line I’m doing a marathon. It overwhelms me in a positive sense how miraculous it is to still have motor functions and use of my body. I’m delighted, blessed that I can use my life.”

The process that led Carlisle to that fragile state of mind is complex. He was charged with drink driving hours before the failed attempt to take his life but fundamentally the issue stemmed from what he calls a profound lack of “identity and belonging” after retiring.

He suffered with depression throughout his career, keeping it secret from team-mates, but things reached a nadir when he stopped playing in 2013. At 34 he no longer had a purpose in life. His self-esteem was pummelled. The structure and discipline that pervaded his life until that point were ripped away.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” he says of the transition from football to the real world. “For the vast majority of players there is a huge hole to be filled. Everything in your life when playing is structured and all of a sudden that gets taken away.

“The job title defines you and when you leave that you get a loss of identity and belonging. Dealing with that and deconstructing it; managing to direct yourself down another path in life where you have satisfaction is one of the hardest things to do.”

Carlisle says he is better equipped to deal with his condition and has a “toolkit” that enables him to flag oncoming episodes and seek help early, but recovering has not been painless.

His relationship with his wife, Gemma, broke down and, adding another layer of tragedy, a witness of the collision, Chris Kilbride, died just over six months later. At the time of the December incident, Kilbride was driving a van along the busy Yorkshire road, swerved to avoid the lorry and phoned 999. Carlisle paid his condolences after learning of Kilbride’s death last July.

On a personal level, the man once called Britain’s most intelligent footballer accepts there is no permanent fix to his condition, just a continuing battle.

“Once you start to manage mental health, it doesn’t mean you are immediately cured,” he says. “There are some people who go through a bout of depression and never suffer again but my diagnosis is a recurrent complex depressive disorder.

“It will come back from time to time. When that happens, I now have a toolkit to deal with that. My self-awareness is raised to a level where I can see certain signs that a depressive episode is about to come on me. When that happens I know what to do to manage the situation.

“I am free to articulate it and ensure everybody is aware I am going through a five out of 10 day instead of a 10 out of 10 day. Making sure I am on top of that takes the bottom off those troughs and enables me to get through those periods a lot quicker. In previous times I would just ruminate and descend into something much deeper. Now it’s about being self-aware and managing my mental health journey.”

Burnley's man of the match Clarke Carlisle
Burnley’s man of the match Clarke Carlisle after the 2009 Championship Play-off final win over Sheffield United at Wembley. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Preparing for the London Marathon has been cathartic, though his ankles have not taken kindly to the punishment. “When you get out there your thought process can be so tangential, arbitrary and random,” he says. “Ultimately it lifts and clears space in my head. After a run I feel so much more relaxed, so much more calm and clear.”

Carlisle has raised £2,000 for the charity at the time of writing and will continue promoting mental health awareness “until the day that I do pass away”.

So much more within football can be done. Although the Professional Footballers’ Association – where Carlisle served as chairman from 2010-13 – has support services in place, including a 24-hour hotline, he believes clubs in particular do not take enough responsibility.

“If we’re going to talk about doing more, I think there needs to be a greater involvement from the football clubs. They are the employers and it seems really bizarre to me that they don’t have a duty of care to their employees and the onus rests with the union. That doesn’t happen in any other industry. If you’re an employee of a company, they have a duty of care towards your physical and mental wellbeing. I don’t understand why football clubs don’t follow suit.”

He speaks at awareness events for numerous charities, including his own foundation set up after the incident, is happy to advise anybody in distress and is working on the content of a module in mental health as part of a new master’s in football science.

It will be run by the new University of Football and Business facility at its Manchester campus next season and will contain a combination of “academic alongside experiential” learning. Yet he concedes that even with heightened understanding and awareness, ultimately wellbeing rests with an individual.

“It’s difficult because you can try to prepare someone hypothetically for a traumatic experience but you can’t predict what their response or the outcome will be. The PFA tries to educate players about the need for an alternative career and focus, but you can’t wrap someone up in a zorb for when the day comes that their career is taken away. You never know how that person will react.”

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14


Alan Smith

The GuardianTramp

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