Last night I had the pleasure of representing Dorset Mind at Fighting Back: In Conversation with Nigel Owens, MBE. Nigel Owens is a very successful rugby referee from Wales, who has experienced a lot of adversity due to his sexual orientation. I was fortunate enough to hear him share his experiences with his mental health, eating disorders and bullying.
Nigel grew up in the village of Mynyddcerrig, Wales. It was a small village, with a population of 140. Nigel says his early life sculpted him:
“Most people say life is what you make it, however, I say life will make you. We are all shaped by our school, friends, parents, community…”
Despite having loving parents, his early life was tainted by hate. Nigel experienced bullying as a young person. This bullying caused him to dread going to school, so he would often miss it, falling into a bad crowd.
“Going to school in the morning with a horrible feeling in your stomach- that’s what it feels like to be bullied as a young person”.
However, this all changed when his friend witnessed this bullying, stood up for him, and he wasn’t bullied again. He emphasised how important it is to intervene and speak up against hate:
“Not only do we have responsibility in what we say and do, we have even more of a responsibility when we stand by and say nothing”.
“Be proud of who you are, call out the bullies. Although you feel like the world is against you, they are a minority. It’s a sign of great strength to speak up about issues.”
Struggles with Sexuality
Nigel went on to describe his journey with his sexuality.
“At 19, I found myself on some occasions finding myself attracted to men… This was completely alien to me, growing up in a small village… It was not something I wanted to happen”.
He struggled to come to terms with who he was, unable to accept himself or imagine the world accepting him.
“I was becoming something I didn’t want to be- I was scared. Living in the fear of what people would say”.
Nigel’s self-esteem and fear sent his mental health spiralling; he felt trapped in a life he didn’t want.
“I went into a darker place, deeply depressed… I thought there was only one way out”.
Nigel attempted to take his own life when he was 26.
However, Nigel’s story did not end that day. His early difficulties did not define his future. It wasn’t easy, but Nigel began to accept and love himself.
“I realised: this is who I am. I need to accept who I am. There’s no choice- our sexuality is not something we choose… Accepting myself was the hardest challenge.”
The Road to Self-Acceptance
The first step to self-acceptance was admitting to himself who he was and how he felt.
“Whatever is worrying you and getting you down, until you accept these issues exist, you can’t begin to deal with them.
“This is also true with an eating disorder or mental health issue: if you can deal with it and accept it early, you’ll have a greater chance of making it better. That’s why it’s important to speak up.”
Accepting himself transformed his life.
“If you are carrying around a worry, if you manage to let go of it, it is the most wonderful feeling in the world”.
“Unless you’re happy within yourself and allowed to be yourself, you can’t enjoy your life as much as you should do. You can’t be the best you can be. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything that I did if I hadn’t accepted myself.”
His many accomplishments truly reflect how inspirational he is. His story shows us how important it is not to give up, even in the hardest of times. It possible to come out of a dark place, happier, wiser and more prepared for the next challenge.
Nigel Owens values respect for fellow human beings above anything else.
“It doesn’t matter who you are; what country you come from; the colour of your skin; your sexual orientation or your religious beliefs… As long as you are a good person and treat everyone the same way you would be expected to be treated.”
He left us with a message that everyone should hear:
“Never underestimate the influence you have on others’ lives. Respecting people who are different to who you are and being mindful of the language you use will have a huge effect on the people around you. Let them be themselves.”
We should all strive to become kinder to ourselves, and eachother, every day. Keep being you.