"THE whole reason I am speaking here is I want to make change and save lives, and I don't want other people to go through what we have been through."
Anita Frawley, 18 months after her husband Danny Frawley's passing, is focused on a future where mental health is continued to be destigmatised, and where not only is support given to those suffering the disease, but equally importantly for those closest to them.
It is why she wants all football supporters and the wider community to either begin, or continue, talking about mental health.
In the week leading into the inaugural Spud's Game: Time 2 Talk, she has emotionally spoken to AFL.com.au's Damian Barrett, who was one of Danny's closest friends.
Damian Barrett: Anita, we are sitting here in the week leading into Spud's Game: Time 2 Talk, what do you think Danny would have made of a game being played in his honour?
Anita Frawley: Interesting you say that because this week I have been listening to his past podcasts, and what resonates through all of them is you've got to start the conversation, it is time to talk. He would be thrilled and beside himself that this is happening, but he would also want it to be raised to a bigger platform again, so this is one step, and we're hoping the AFL can next year take it to the next step and make it the entire round. I know (Saints CEO) Matt Finnis will be working very, very hard on that. It is something we need to be talking about, to get into the early stages of the intervention side and stopping how severe the problem we are dealing with.
DB: How are you going? And I know this conversation we are about to have is one that you don't want to be about you, but how are you with this game this week?
AF: Well, trauma, and when you go through trauma, and you have post traumatic stress disorder, which I have, is anything triggers it. So leading in to this, while I am so proud and thrilled that it is going ahead, and I want it to be a positive forward movement for Danny and his legacy, it does bring back a lot of trauma. And I have noticed for my girls as well, it is just a lot of time thinking, looking back, and it just brings up a lot of the pain which never goes away, and it kind of really arises again.
DB: The reason behind doing it Anita, obviously there is awareness, but also to help people in the future …
>> LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW IN THE PODCAST BELOW
AF: Help people. I would hate, I hate the thought of other people going through what we went through … it gives me a lot of pain … I hate the thought of it, when I heard about Shane Tuck, I cried all day. The thought of other families going through what we experienced, what we went through, it will be in my future to try to prevent it as much as I can, and doing whatever is possible in the hope of making a difference.
DB: Trying to help people in the future – how do you cope with that, given you have got, clearly, your own issues with your own family dealing with what happened to you … what is it about you that wants to help others down the track in the same field?
AF: Because if there is any way to stop the pain we went through, I would do it. I don't want it to be for nothing. I don't want it to sound like that, but that incredible sadness and pain we went through, it just can't be for nothing. We have to make something and turn it into helping others. You see it quite often when people have been through trauma, and I understand why now. I am so much more empathetic. I hear things and I feel the pain of what they are going through. If we can get the Danny Frawley Centre up and running and Matt Finnis has been amazing in his support of this whole thing, and his drive all the way through, if we can get in and our whole ethos will be early intervention, trying to get out publicly to people … the statistics are horrifying, nearly one in two are feeling some sort of anxiety or depression symptoms, I know I do, and it's how you deal with it. Give people tools. Don't wait till you get to the point of no return.
DB: From your experiences with it, is it the early detection, is it fostering the mateship, is it another word I have heard you use, destigmatisation of it … are they the key areas?
AF: Definitely. The destigmatisation, Danny had a huge impact on that. I think also the modern world we live in, if you can avoid anxiety or panic attacks, or some sort of mental health issue, you have done well, because I think the society we live in is conducive to creating a lot of our issues. I just think early intervention and getting it out there. It mightn't work for everyone. The signs are there – irritability, staying at home, changing normal patterns of behaviour, not wanting to go for a run or a ride, and just avoidance. If people are more aware of it, and then become more aware of how to act, checking in on people.
DB: Living, as you have now for more than a year, it would never get any easier, I would imagine …
AF: You get glimpses, and most of the time that is when I am with my kids, or my mates, playing golf, I've started golf. Having a laugh, when you are just not thinking about it. At the farm, with the horses, and up there I do feel Danny with me, because of the horses, and I think every one we've got at the moment is named after him, I've got Danny's Boy, Danny St Darcy, Danny Sparkle, Captain Spud.
DB: That's won twice now, hasn't it, Captain Spud?
AF: Yeah, and he actually is like Danny – a big dopey, a gorgeous horse, so laconic, I think I need to stop calling them after him.
DB: Typical with that horse was you tipping it (for) me at its first or second start, and of course it didn't win, because I don't think Danny ever tipped me a winner …
AF: Get on it now. The horses for me are an outlet, but I get sad because they were our future. But the pain never goes away, something triggers it, Shane Tuck, or the coroner's report, take you back to that day, and it is frightening.
DB: We spoke before this conversation today, Anita, and you mentioned that we needed to talk about the suicide aspect of the Danny Frawley story. Are you able to now, and there is absolutely, as we said in advance, no need to if you are not up to it, We won't. But do you want to? You felt you were up to it yesterday when we spoke, you don't need to today …
AF: With suicide, you think of the pain that Danny must have been in to take that step and I have discussed with you I believe a lot of that was the CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the rash decision making. But for him to be in that state, there is no way he would do that, and know the hurt and the pain that he would cause his girls, his mum, his family, his mates, it is just unfeasible that he would do that. If he could see now the pain that is left, the ripple effect, families destroyed, it is just so cruel and so hard. I see his mum and the terrible suffering she is going through. I don't know how to explain it – it is so painful for them what they are going through, but the pain that is left behind is a lifetime of pain. It is there for the rest of your life, it is for me. It is gruelling, I don't see an out, but also the pain that he must have been in, and I don't like to think (about) that too often, because it is too much.
DB: And yet people who know you, Anita, would say you are one of the toughest they know. I would say that about you …
AF: I'm not, nowhere near it, but when you have three beautiful girls who rely on you and look to you for strength, and I think I have done that the whole time from when Danny was sick, tried to be there for the family, but my girls are older now, and especially over the last year and a half they have been there for me. Absolutely amazing with their strength and support. There have been days when I haven't been able to get up out of bed, and I couldn't have got through without them. The one thing I haven't ever talked about, and I'm not sure I want to talk about because I don't want it to be about me, but you talk about the pain, and the day that Danny died, I had to ring Keeley that night at 5 o'clock in America – she was in Portland. I was with Craig Kelly, a close friend of mine and my other daughters, Danielle and Chelsea. We didn't know what was going on and when we finally found out what happened, I had to ring her and tell her her dad had died. And I had a heart attack at the same time. It is called takotsubo, which is broken heart syndrome, I can feel my heart beating now, and ummm ... I went to hospital for four days, and my beautiful girls and their partners all came in with me, they thought they were going to lose their mum on the same day. And it was … I just couldn't believe it, and I just kept thinking to myself, 'Danny, you would not have wanted this to happen'. It was … the pain, the incredible pain, because no-one really expects suicide. When you're dealing with someone, I don't know how you ever expect someone to expect that because it is just not in your realm of thinking. I will watch myself from here on, because it is not great for the heart, Damian, to talk about it. I don’t want it to be a focus on me, I don’t, but I just need people to understand when you hold that pain in, when you are trying to be the carer, and you are suffering, that something gives.
DB: This is not about you, Anita, and anyone listening to this will know it is not, but is that an ongoing issue you have to deal with?
AF: Definitely. I am on medication, and it can happen again with too much stress. But I am under a fantastic doctor.
DB: Your daughters are amazing, and as we speak, Keeley is still in quarantine.
AF: Little Danny. Her coach in America, Mike Meek, is the most beautiful man, and Keeley is so fortunate to have him as her mentor and almost father-like figure in her life. They were playing in NCAAs, trying to get into the championships and this game was on, and she went to him, and said for her mental health she need to be home with her sisters and mum to honour my dad. And he let her go. She has just missed another tournament where they just lost in the grand final, but I just wish everyone could take a leaf out of this man's book, his empathy and his ability to look at Keeley and know what is best for her and her development. He rings her every day. He watches all the videos on the Saints website. He is so proud. Keeley is so strong, she has the exercise bike in the (hotel quarantine) room, like Danny would have had, sweat going everywhere. I am so proud of her, and she will have a special job on the night, nothing I can say about now.
DB: You and the three girls are so tough …
AF: I don't know whether it is tough. I don't know how to explain it, but when you live with someone who is suffering so much, you are so on guard and so watching for them and caring that I think it has become natural for my girls that it is something they want to do now. Danielle is studying psychology, she wants to be a psychologist. Chelsea is working with the Danny Frawley Centre, so it is there for her every day. I worry about that. I ask her, but she says, no, she can disassociate, when I'm there it is Danny but when I'm talking about dad, I can't (disassociate). They're tough, but I am not sure tough is the right word. They are amazing in what they want to achieve.
DB: Again, prior to this chat, you raised the CTE part of the Danny Frawley story, and I know you don’t want to delve too deeply into that, but you do want to talk about it …
AF: It will be my passion down the track. I am probably the most knowledgeable person in Australian on CTE. I have done more research on it, travelled from New York, Mt Sinai, on the back of Danny. There is a lot of research to be done but when you live with someone, you know, you just know, this is more than just mental health issues. I can remember vividly standing in that kitchen and looking out and just saying, 'who is this man?', 'that is not the man I married', 'and what happened?'. He was just so different. The man that would exercise and never be late for an appointment … he knew there was something not right. He was stage two (CTE). Down the track … my girls play footy, they love footy, I love footy, it has been my life, I want to make it safe. The AFL is trying, they have started, but there is a long way to go, and I am watching. I am really determined, and I want to bring it to the grass roots level, because you want to be able to put kids out there with the best chance. You can't make it perfect, nothing is perfect, but take the risk out. Football is different, football back in Danny's day was known about the toughness, and everyone valued it as such a big part of the game, but it isn't now. These boys are so athletic, so skilful, 10 times more than what Danny was back in the day. Let's focus on that. And change the way we talk about it. Oh, he is so brave backing back into a pack. No. It is dangerous. Let's change a few things, and it has to come from the players.
DB: The legacy piece with the Danny Frawley story – it was there long before 18 months ago, what is it now that you can see it being, and what do you want it to be?
AF: His loss, the meaning, with the mental sphere and can he really have an impact, and I think, yes. He was already starting and his legacy will be where hopefully we see the reverse of suicide numbers, hopefully we see more people able to get in to get help from psychologists. The one thing with Danny, and he spoke about it in his podcast but he didn't really nail it, he kept in touch with his psychologist. He was his mentor, his moral guidance. When he was suffering he would guide him through. He lost that as well, he went off his meds and he lost that as well, It was a double whammy. People should be able to get in to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist and not wait six months. The Danny Frawley Centre will be the first community based centre. I would love to see every football club have one. The support groups are just as important as well.
DB: This game, Spud's Game: Time 2 Talk, it is one game in one round of football. The aim is to make it a full round?
AF: I will be pushing for there to be a Time To Talk round. There will be a lot of pressure on that.
DB: The time to talk is always there, but please illustrate again why we need to talk.
AF: Well it is my time to talk today, I haven't been able to and I haven't wanted to because of the pain, but you need to talk. You need to have someone. Danny had to talk, and he had many people to talk to. He took it to the extreme. When he had the extreme breakdown initially, that got him through. I do think we had him for an extra five or six years, after the massive, massive breakdown, where with his mates he was vulnerable and who let him talk about it. It can save lives if you talk. Get out there and talk.
DB: You believe the vulnerability component is a key to this?
AF: I do. Talk about what you are feeling, and don't be scared, because the odds are someone else is not doing so well, too.
DB: Anita, thank you for talking today, and hopefully you will get something out of this, and this week, and the lead up to this match, and now that you are on record that you want this to be a full round next year, not just one game, well, we can back that in.
AF: And donate. I want this to help to get some money in the bank so we can get all these programs up and running so we can give the community the support they need.
> >> Spud's Game: Time 2 Talk is a ground-breaking new initiative designed to tackle mental health issues within the community through a special tribute match in round two, established in honour of the late Danny Frawley.
The initiative aims to encourage greater connection within the community, destigmatise mental health and raise crucial funds to support research-based mental health programs at the Danny Frawley Centre for Health and Wellbeing and Movember's Ahead of the Game program.
>> Lifeline is an Official Charity Partner of the AFL, which provides all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24h crisis support & suicide prevention services. For crisis or suicide prevention support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit http://lifeline.org.au/gethelp