Christophe Dominici

Vale Christophe Dominici

Unlike most of the people featured in my columns, I didn’t know Christophe Dominici personally. But anytime a relatively young person passes away, without a clear cause of death and with a published history of mental health challenges it’s something I think needs to be spoken about.

Athletes are human beings and often when they finish life as athletes (if they’re lucky in their mid-30s). Many, struggle with their new identity, perceived lack of purpose and mental health. We need to remember (especially as members of the media) that athletes have so much more access to information now in 2020 than ever before. And, with access to all this, it’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and self-perpetuating negative thoughts.

I don’t want to make Christophe’s death about me. But, I thought that maybe if I shared my story, it might help someone else work through their own struggle.

We probably won’t get a cause of death for some time. But, what we do know is that he was seen climbing an abandoned building just minutes before being found unresponsive. As I said, I didn’t know Christophe so I can’t say if this was something he did regularly. However, it does seem a little unusual given the outcome.

Before I get into my own battle with mental health, I thought I’d share with you what I remember about Christophe.

1999 World Cup

I was 9 years old. The previous night I’d set my alarm to watch the Wallabies Semi-Final against the Springboks.

I had this clock-radio that used to blast an alarm with whatever was playing on the radio at full volume. It was impossible to sleep through, for me, and the rest of my family.

I can’t remember exactly what time it went off (2 maybe 3 am). But I’d set it so that I could get up and watch the Wallabies play the Springboks.

When this happened me and my Dad yelled so loud even the dog started howling while watching the game with us.

My dad and I figured we’d be playing the All Blacks so I didn’t have much interest in watching the other semi-final.

The next morning my alarm went off and scared the life out of me, I wasn’t expecting it this time. I’d forgotten to disarm it from the night before. As I sat there fearing for my life I heard sounds coming from the living room. My dad was already up watching the game.

So, I snuck down the hallway to watch with him.

The two major Christophe Dominici involvements from that game have been shared on social media non-stop. There’s no doubt that Christophe turned that game with his individual brilliance. But what I remember about that game was the contrasting number 11s. Dominici was quick, slippery and incredibly creative while Lomu was all about power and physical dominance. And, the battle between them was all time!

Dominici hit first creating this try

Then Lomu hit back with two of his own.

Before Dominici came up with this which put the French in front for the first time since the 24th minute of the game. And completely shifted the momentum back towards the French.

He was an incredible player and to see him go toe to toe with one of the most intimidating players in World Rugby at the time was truly inspiring.

And, judging by the public outpouring of support after his passing, it seems like he was a good person too. And I think that’s an important thing for us to understand. Athletes are people first, they’re just better at sport than the rest of us.

You Are Not Your Brain

This is a concept I’ve only recently been able to grasp. And, I have my partner to thank for it. She’s a psychologist and explained to me that the basic idea is that just because our brains tell us something or push us to feel a certain way, that’s not necessarily us. It’s just your brain telling you that. Sometimes our brain chemistry gets a little out of whack and understanding that there are ways to help get it back on track (like any injury or ailment) helps normalise mental health and informs ways in which we can cope and sometimes cure mental health challenges.

As I’ve aged I’ve been able to have some more open discussions with my family about mental health. I wish I’d been able to have these conversations earlier in my life. I’ve discovered is that there is a significant and extensive family history of mental health disorders on one side of my family. And, now that the research has found a hereditary link it’s allowed me to make sense of the concept above and why as a teenager and young adult I would often find myself unable to pull myself out of a low.

I can remember the first time I experienced one of these lows. I was travelling with the team home from a junior Basketball tournament, as the Bushfires of 2003 hit Canberra. One of my teammates was unable to get home as his parents were trapped by surrounding fire, they weren’t in any danger but were unable to leave their home. So, my parents offered our place for him to stay until his parents were able to come and collect him.

I hadn’t performed well at this tournament and I’ve discovered that throughout my athletic career this was a trigger. And when we arrived home my mum had hired us some DVDs. One of which was the Jackass movie. We popped the tape in and I expected that some physical comedy should help shift my mood. But as the movie played I couldn’t laugh. I knew that these things were funny, and maybe a week or two ago I would have been in stitches. But, for some reason, I could not bring myself to laugh.

I remember thinking about a South Park episode I’d seen where Cartman believed that he had “blown a funny fuse” and could no longer laugh at anything. This is obviously an absurd notion, but it was the only point of reference I had as a young boy to the way I was feeling. I began to worry that this would be my new normal. And, for a while it was.

I basically lost interest in playing basketball, playing wasn’t fun anymore and I was unable to make an impact on the game like I used to. My parents kept asking me if everything was ok, but I couldn’t really articulate what was happening, I didn’t know what it was or if they’d even understand. Eventually, Rugby season rolled around again (a place I felt comfortable) and it lifted me back to “normal”.

I have now been battling with these incredibly low swings since then. Often in my late teens and early 20s, I would, like many, turn to alcohol to try and lift me. But, whatever short-term happiness I felt was soon lost to feelings of guilt and self-loathing after what was sometimes entire weekends lost to binge drinking.

I’d be lying if I said the thought of ending it hadn’t crossed my mind. But, I knew that I was loved and that I had many people in my life who cared for me. I also understood the ramifications for those I’d be leaving behind. And yet, that made the way I was feeling even more difficult to understand.

At some point along the way, I met my partner. She was studying psychology at the time and would explain certain theories and ideas to me. Many of which resonated with me as they described things I was and had gone through. Then she said the phrase “you are not your brain” and the penny dropped. I realised that just because I’m feeling a certain way doesn’t mean I have to give in to those feelings and there are healthy things that I can do and people I can talk to that can help.

What Helps?

It’s different for everyone but for me, there are a few things that help.

Exercise –  Seems obvious right? Once I stopped playing Rugby I felt no need to continue to exercise. I always hated the gym, and unless I’m training for a purpose what’s the point? Well, the point is that when we exercise the brain releases dopamine and endorphins. These are the “happy chemicals” which also help the brain filter out the chemicals that cause stress and anxiety.

This is a conclusion I’ve only come to recently and exercise without purpose is still a struggle. I’ve rekindled my love affair with golf which helps give me the competition I need to be motivated to exercise.

I also do Gym sessions with the team I coach. I’m in the Gym anyway why wouldn’t I work out?

Routine – If my routine gets out of whack, I’m working late hours, not spending enough time at home, not getting enough sleep the darkness will start to creep in.

I’ve gotten much better at recognising when this is happening. Usually, the house starts to get messy, then I start forgetting things (like all the things), then I start to feel down because I’m underperforming at life and so on.

So for me sticking to a routine is important.

Recharging – Again recharging looks different for everyone. My partner battles with my method sometimes and it can be a double-edged sword too.

But for me recharging is allowing myself time to do nothing either on my own or with my family. I don’t need it all the time and I only need to do it for a few hours at a time. But allowing myself to relax and literally do nothing helps me reset and prepare for whatever the next week/month/year is going to bring.

However, I have to be careful with this. It is easy for me to slip into a state where I’ve been doing nothing for a long period and I am no longer motivated to do anything. And, if I spend too much time alone I can open pandoras box in my head and that’s not good for anyone.

The final thing that helps me, is talking about it. Again it seems simple, but I hold onto things. If I hold on for too long they manifest in a deep dark low swing. And, I implore anyone who is dealing with problems internally just try and speak to someone, anyone, I promise it will help.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to apologise, I’ve made Christophe’s passing about me and when I started this column that was certainly not my intent.

Christophe should be remembered for his brilliant attacking flair and genius-level rugby IQ. He inspired an entire nation with his heroics in the 1999 World Cup semi-final and he won 5 premierships in France. To many, he was a hero and has probably inspired many more to play the game.

But he should also be remembered for the man he was. Complex, eccentric and intelligent are all words I’ve heard used to describe him. The president of the French Rugby Federation Bernard Laporte called him “the James Dean of rugby, the hero of the Fury of Living, the wind that swept the obstacles”.

He leaves behind his Partner Loretta and two daughters Chiara and Mia. The former gave a heartfelt tribute at his funeral service. “My daddy of love, you were taken from me too quickly,” she said. “I still needed you and since then I listen to your music on repeat. I miss your kisses, your hugs and your smile so much. I love you.”

Rest easy Christophe, you were loved and you will be missed.

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