Opening with words from his suicide note to his children, former NRL player and professional boxer Joe Williams held nothing back when he shared his story with Moree Secondary College students in The Enemy Within workshop on Thursday.
“It can be impacting, knowing the subject we talk about,” Joe said. Raw and real, Joe shared the daily struggle that led him to the brink, and the great resilience and small steps that brought him back to a healthy place.
“I'm still alive and I'm lucky to be alive. When I realised that I've got a second chance, I made a promise to myself to make a positive impact.”
Teacher John O’Connor said the students were transfixed by Joe’s honesty, the quietest he could remember seeing them. “It's certainly engaged them into the moment,” he said.
“This is real, this person's been there.” John said it meant a lot for students to see how Joe had come back from his darkest days.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Joe said he had struggled with suicidal thoughts and depressive moods almost every day of his life. Dealing with extreme emotional highs and lows, Joe said, “can be a moment by moment thing, sometimes”.
“It wasn’t spoken about for a couple of years, people are taken aback by it,” he admitted. Joe wanted the students to know that mental illness didn’t need to hold them back, and was proud to keep achieving at a high level despite the daily struggle.
Through his years of mental anguish, Joe was able to play NRL for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs. He became a professional boxer in 2009, is a two time WBF World Jnr Welterweight champion and recently won the WBC Asia Continental Title.
“You can succeed in whatever you want to do if you are struggling,” Joe said. He said the diagnosis gave him some relief, but explained that bipolar disorder didn’t define him, and neither did his professional sporting career.
“I’m like every other single person out there in the community that goes to work and has my bills to pay.”
Joe taught students how to recognise the signs of mental illness in themselves and others, and shared a number of practical tips for those struggling to get through each day. He talked about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity, and led students through maintaining healthy communication with others.
He told students that dealing with mental illness was no different to physical illnesses – there’s no shame in going to a doctor if you break your leg, likewise there should be no shame in seeking help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
He felt lucky to share his story everyday, and to know that he had a positive impact on others.