Rugby ace: How I dealt with my depression

A lot has changed for the rugby ace and podcast host Joe Marler since being diagnosed with depression. Abi Jackson finds out more
Rugby ace: How I dealt with my depression

Joe Marler as he prepares to take The Joe Marler Show on tour in the UK

IT’S almost two years since Joe Marler was introduced to cold water swimming in Sky documentary Big Boys Don’t Cry, which saw the rugby star open up about his experiences with depression.

He’s kept it up - although it’s more of a “bob around” because he “can’t swim particularly well”.

It’s one of “my absolute favourite things to do every Sunday”, says the 32-year-old English father-of-four. 

“I don’t live too far from Brighton and I head down to the sea for a bob. There are a couple of us that do that.

“It’s a combination of things - you’ve got a little network there and we can just talk about anything that’s going on in our lives that week, anything that’s been troubling us, or just have a catch-up in general.

“But also on an individual basis, ever since [I was introduced to cold water swimming in the documentary], I’ve been chasing the physical reaction. You get this rush in your body. I also get to look out at the sea - it’s such a vastness of nature.

“Never in a million years, just a couple of years ago, did I think I’d be thinking or talking about the vastness of nature,” the England and Harlequins prop adds.

“I just can’t get over the vastness of it all, and I feel really insignificant, but in a good way.

“Because if I’m insignificant, any thoughts or struggles I’ve had in that week or that month or whatever, are even more insignificant. It is like a reset button for me.”

It’s one of many things that have changed for Marler in the past few years.

As he’s previously talked about, in early 2019, the mental health struggles he’d been bottling up in the background came to a head when he “snapped” and smashed up his kitchen.

It was a deeply upsetting moment for him and his wife, Daisy, but marked a turning point: Marler was referred to a psychiatrist, diagnosed with depression, prescribed medication and started looking for ways to take care of himself.

Bobbing in the chilly sea is “probably my biggest thing I try and do each week”, he says.

A lot of people struggle to prioritise self-care, often because we’ve been led to believe it’s selfish putting ourselves first. But Marler - who is dad to Jasper, Maggie, Felix and Pixie - has realised it’s actually the opposite.

“I’m looking after myself so I can be 100% present when I am there for them,” he says - something that wasn’t the case during the “fog” of depression.

“I’m very lucky with what I do, I get the chance to spend time with my kids, because that’s ultimately what I want. So I’m grateful for that, and I’ve made the most of it.”

Something else he’s extremely grateful for is The Joe Marler Show, the podcast he co-hosts with former BBC Sports journalist host Tom Fordyce. They’ve had five million downloads since launching in 2020, with a live UK tour now set for next spring.

The show is funny, engaging and deeply insightful - a lot like Marler himself. It sees the pair chat with all sorts of guests about their jobs - and with it their lives and histories too - which is what it’s all about, really.

“Because everyone’s got a story,” Marler enthuses.

“Sometimes we put a list together of different guests we want to get on, and there’ll be some big topics - we’ve had a psychopath expert, we’ve had a doctor, we’ve had someone that used to work on death row, and you know you’re going to get something out of that. We’ve had reformed gangsters, and we’ll go, ‘Right, you know these guys have got stories’.

“And then they’ll come with other ones like, ‘Oh, we’ve got an architect’ or a ‘drainage engineer’, and you’re going, hmm, is there going to be a lot in that? But then you go, yeah, because everyone has a story, regardless of what they do.

“It may sound like the most mundane job in the world, but how did they get there? What made them go down that route? That’s the fascination for me.”

Has he always had this curiosity about people?

“I have,” Marler reflects. “But I haven’t always portrayed that. Earlier on in my career, people would joke or pass on how much I disliked people, I was an extroverted introvert, if that makes sense. I would put on this mask and try and have a jolly and a laugh in front of everyone, but actually, deep down, I didn’t like people and I’d like to keep on my own and not socialise too much. But I always had this curiosity.”

He recalls in the early days of his rugby career after first moving to London, at weekends, while his housemates would go home, he’d sometimes go and sit at busy stations and watch the world go by.

“I’d fill my bag with a load of food. I’d sit there and I would absolutely love people-watching. Not in a creepy serial killer-esque way,” he adds, laughing. “It was more fascination with people, what are their stories? Where are they going?

“The podcast has been a real-life opportunity to actually hear all these different stories, and not have to be the creepy guy sat at Clapham Junction.”

He now sees how the extrovert ‘mask’ he used to wear was a “defence mechanism - because I wanted to ward people off,” he says. “Because if I let anyone in, I was too afraid to get hurt or something. I’d be let down.”

Trying to “just be myself” has been an important part of Marler’s healing. “And I’d encourage others to do the same. Be whoever you want to be, you know? As long as it’s coming from a place of love and kindness.

“I now feel like I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m happy with who I am,” he shares. “And I’m also aware of the things I still need to continue to work on, so I can continue to feel that I’m mostly a good person, that I can contribute to this world.”

The podcast’s success has been a “surprise” and a tonic.

“Selfishly, it has helped me too. Meeting all these different people, hearing their stories, has helped me grow and connect and give me perspective in the world,” says Marler. “And I just really, really enjoy it, it’s great.”

Joe Marler will tour the UK on The Joe Marler Show next year from mid-April. For tickets and further info, see premier.ticketek.co.uk

SUPPORT CONTACTS

Samaritans services 24 hours a day. Call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie. 

Pieta provide suicide and self-harm prevention services. Freephone 1800 247 247 any time.

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