The revelation – or confirmation, rather – that former footballer, PFA Chairman, media pundit and TV Countdown star Clarke Carlisle was actually attempting suicide when he was hit by a lorry on the A64 just before Christmas, comes as a salutary reminder of some uncomfortable factors in any life. It’s confirmation, were any needed, of how potentially close we all are to disaster, of the flimsy veil that separates even apparently blessed people, with seemingly blessed lives, from profound despair, abandonment of hope, loss of any self-esteem and ultimate oblivion.
Carlisle, a one-season wearer of Leeds United’s famous white shirt, is the latest in too long a line of footballing personalities who have sought escape from an existence they could no longer bear. You can conjure the names out of years and lives gone by: Gary Speed, also formerly of Leeds; Justin Fashanu, of Norwich and Nottingham Forest; Hughie Gallacher of Newcastle United and Chelsea; Dave Clement of QPR and Bolton. The difference with Clarke Carlisle is that he survived the attempt to take his own life, and has now chosen to go public with the story of the illness that so nearly finished him off.
An assured and articulate speaker, Carlisle may now have a role to play in explaining the mindset of the star – or the person in the street – moved to such drastic action. He might even, perhaps, be instrumental in helping prevent those, both inside the game and out, who are even now contemplating a drastically final end to their woes. Others, of course, have been to the brink of eternity – and have pulled back. But Carlisle is a prominent figure, an erudite man with a mastery of language that can get his message across. He is someone who epitomises how even a life stuffed with achievement and advantage can suddenly go pear-shaped. Surely he, better than most, could tell how the dream can turn into a nightmare, and thus illuminate the whole question of what prompts this descent into despair. There is an opportunity here, maybe, to learn and even to identify potential victims and actually help.
One of the main threads in the national anguish following the tragic death of Gary Speed was this baffled and hopeless question of “Why? Why??” In other cases, it was slightly easier to deduce a cause – but there is no real insight into the workings of a mind suddenly closed to every solution except one, not when it’s been annihilated forever by that awful, final step. Justin Fashanu was a probable victim of homophobic prejudice in society in general (and football in particular). Dave Clement suffered from depression, as did Hughie Gallacher, who never adjusted to the curtain falling on his career and then the untimely death of his wife. Clement took his life with weedkiller, Gallacher stepped in front of a train. There is no one common factor to link all of these sad ends; just details emerging later of the pressures and stresses the people concerned could no longer handle. But the victims of suicide themselves, of course, are sadly beyond being able to help us help others in danger of a like fate.
What is beyond doubt, after all this time, is that there will be many people out there for whom some form of self-immolation is a likely outcome – unless they can somehow be identified and helped. Various danger signs can be tentatively identified: the dicey period when a short career in the public eye comes to an end; the presence of some transgression of the law for a well-known person such as a footballer, with the possibility then of public disgrace. But these do not form an exhaustive list, and the candidates for suicide are not limited to those lately in the public gaze. The suicide rate in wider society has spiked over the past few years, especially among the poor and sick; those marginalised by what is a bleaker and more chilly, unsympathetic landscape both politically and economically.
It is Carlisle’s very celebrity, however, combined with his gift for communication, that might well now make him the ideal candidate to spearhead a crusade against the blight of self-inflicted death. If he can possibly recover from the profoundly low point which saw him hurl himself into the path of a lorry that December night, surely Clarke would have a lot to contribute in this cause – and therefore a new purpose and path for himself. As a prominent person who has sought to terminate his own existence, and yet has survived, he’s almost uniquely placed, certainly in the world of football, to cast some light on these long, dark shadows; to reach out to those who may feel there is no help for them, and who see their options dwindling down to that one, awfully final choice.
Such an initiative, starting within the game of professional football and probably under the auspices of the Professional Footballers’ Association, could be built on the survival of Carlisle – awareness having previously been raised, in the fairly recent past, by the tragic example of Gary Speed. Carlisle, as a former leading light in the PFA, could just be an almost divine gift where such a cause is concerned. Great oaks from little acorns grow, and any effect a PFA-led campaign might have on those within the game at risk of such an awful circumstance, could then have a multiplied impact in society at large. In the nature of these things, the message is far more effective if it originates from a high-profile and highly popular environment, football being an obvious example. In times when football’s – and football stars’ – stock is low due to the perceived greed and aloofness in the game, this could be a chance to redeem the whole thing; to give something very real and solid to the rest of us. It’s not fanciful to suggest that, properly harnessed and channelled, a crisis like that suffered by Clarke Carlisle could ultimately save many hundreds, thousands, of lives.
Clarke Carlisle has walked through his own private hell, as Speed, Fashanu, Clement, Gallacher and others must have done before him. For Carlisle, it seems to have been the winding-down of his professional life, with the loss of his playing career and then his media employment, against a background of a drink problem that had afflicted him before and has lately resulted in a charge of drink-driving. But he survived his planned exit from life, and will now presumably face up to his issues. He has already spoken frankly about the fact that he attempted to take his life; that’s a step on the way to speaking a lot more, working towards dealing with his own demons and helping others be identified before it’s too late, so that they, too, can deal with theirs. Carlisle has the opportunity now to do something very positive that would arise directly out of his lowest ebb – and to this end, surely the game of football, the PFA and the wider authorities in this country should do everything they can to encourage and help him to help those who might otherwise end up as more statistics in the tragic roll-call of suicide.
As a Leeds fan, I sympathise with an ex-player’s hard times; I’m grateful for his narrow escape and I’m hopeful for his full recovery. But, just as a human being, I hope that some good can come out of this, so that perhaps it’s less likely in the future that there will be another Gary Speed lost to us, or another Hughie Gallacher, major stars and international footballers who yet found themselves unable to carry on. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step; let someone step in now and help Clarke Carlisle be instrumental in starting that journey towards a time when people gripped by despair can look up with some hope that there is much more available to them than just that final, self-inflicted end.
It may well be too early yet for Clarke Carlisle to be thinking along these lines; he will almost certainly have more immediate priorities, pressing problems to deal with. But the willingness to speak out publicly augurs well – and it must be true that the one thing Clarke will need right now and for the future is some hope for that future; something to cling on to, something to get up in the morning for. Some good to do. He’s well-placed and uniquely equipped to do it. Good luck to him.