On first impressions when England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor met me on a busy southwest London road, she emanated a bubbly confidence.
So, it surprised me when she told me later during the interview she had been feeling anxious about our meeting.
Her friendly nature was infectious. She insisted on carrying a rather large suitcase I had in tow and invited me and my small dog into her home.
The sunshine lit it up as she offered me a steaming cup of tea and a rather delicious chocolate orange cookie, and we both kicked off our shoes and settled on her sofa.
It was no surprise Taylor opted out of this year’s tour of India after her last tour there sent her anxiety condition soaring, and eventually led to her decision to take a year off to deal with it.
During the T20 World Cup in India, Taylor had to deal with cricket games in an oppressive, inescapable, sticky heat. Also, the length of the tour was a problem for her. The isolation she felt in a country she didn’t know was unnerving. The pressure of the professional game weighed on her mind.
One flight from Mumbai to Dharmsala, mixed with an undiagnosed anxiety condition, finally ended up contributing to ten hours of missing memory for Taylor.
She said: “The point where I turned around and said something’s wrong was when we [the England team] were in India for the T20 World Cup.
“We ended up going on some horrendous flight from somewhere in India, which is just near the Dalai Lama, I think – the Himalaya’s basically. It was one of the worst flights I had been on.
“My heart was going, I was sweating, like I literally felt my heart was going to come out of my chest, and I was like: ‘What is going on? This is not okay.’
“I had a massively physical reaction – I couldn’t rationalise anything.”
Taylor talked openly and calmly about the moment she realised she needed help. She continued: “I was like what is this? But then, at the same time I was thinking: ‘I’ve had this before. This is new to me but actually it’s not.’
“I then got to a hotel, which was at the top of this mountain accessed by one of the windiest and bumpiest roads, which did not help the situation. I remember getting to the hotel and someone giving me my room key, and then they looked at me. I had to ask them to help me get to my hotel room.
“I just don’t remember the next ten hours. I just completely wiped out.”
Despite the severity of Taylor’s reaction, she put the incident down to an ‘off day’. The travel, the heat, the new environment could have all been to blame in her mind.
It wasn’t until the next game when she was stood in forty-degree heat singing the national anthem, she realised she needed someone to help her.
“It was absolutely boiling,” she says. “I was stood there in front of everyone singing the anthem thinking I’m going to pass out. It’s so hot, I’m going to pass out.”
“What I didn’t realise at the time was I was shutting everyone out. I wasn’t going out for anything.
“It took my coach [Mark Robinson] to come to me and say, ‘Is everything alright? [to make me begin to reach out].’
“I got through that tour. I don’t know how I got through that tour, but I got through it. I think it was maybe one day before our first county game, and I just broke. I just kind of hit a switch and I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want to play cricket; I don’t want the responsibility. I don’t want the stress.”
Taylor knew she needed time out, but she worried about losing her contract, her car, her mortgage. She worried about loosing her identity or being forgotten. So, it was a huge relief when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) supported her and secured her contract. She physically sighed with relief when recounting the moment.
She explained: “Luckily they were amazing. They were genuinely amazing. They were like: ‘Your contract’s not going anywhere.’
“Our head coach sort of said: ‘Look don’t worry’. I think at the time if you have a look at women’s cricket contracts, there’s nothing in there about mental health.
“He said: ‘That’s the least of your worries.’ – Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
“My car is through my cricket, so you think about if I’m going to lose my car.”
She continued: “I’m going to lose that, I won’t be able to pay my rent, I won’t be able to pay my mortgage. All of that goes into your mind. So that’s probably what kept me playing cricket for so long.
“Because of all those fears, you think: ‘Do I really want to play cricket? Is this for me? Do I want all these fears? Maybe I should walk away and then try and figure out how to a get a car on my own.
“If I stop what I’m doing even though I need a break, will I lose all of that? Will I still get in the side? Will they still want me?
“You’ve got to weigh up, am I worth it? Is my cricket worth it? Are my skills worth it?”
Taylor said the questions spinning in her head, the worry, and the love for playing cricket but the need for a break eventually made her implode. She called her go-to agony aunt, the team’s physiotherapist Susan Dale, who said in response to her cry for help: “Perfect – we’ve been waiting for that, thank you.”
After hanging up, Taylor was left confused as to why someone hadn’t reached out to her if they knew something was up. She wouldn’t have had to cope with all those worries and questions alone for so long.
In the team, there are sport psychologists who help the cricketers deal with worries surrounding the sport, such as dealing with having hit a bad shot.
They don’t have experts on tour or at home to spot signs of anxiety other mental health issues.
Taylor explains: “I look back at it, and I remember asking to leave on one of the tours, but I didn’t understand why I wanted to.”
She remembered being told she would be alright, and not to worry about it: “When I look back at it, God I was miserable. I needed to go home – they needed to let me home, but I had no legitimate reason – I probably did, but I didn’t know what it was.
“So, if I turned around to a clinical psychologist and said I’m really struggling but don’t know why, they could probably have asked the right questions.”
The wicketkeeper’s road to recovery started with seeing the right person to help her understand her anxiety and where it stemmed from. She spent months unable to leave her home, stuck in her bedroom – held there by the grips of anxiety. She had to get worse before she got better.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helped, addressing the problem helped, and so did a dog.
“I grew up in a house where failure’s not great,” she recalls. “Not in a horrible way – God you see some horrendous films where parents are awful, and my parents weren’t like that.
“I was always like: ‘I can’t fail. I have to succeed. I can’t be seen to look bad. I can’t be seen to do the wrong thing ever, say the wrong thing ever.”
Taylor put a lot of pressure on herself to always be the best she could be and spent a lot of time mulling over past happenings and worrying about things said or done.
“I remember when I was at my worst,” she says. “Sometimes thinking about things when I was about 12 and you think: ‘Oh I did something stupid then, but what does it matter? What am I doing to myself [by mulling this over]?’ You are genuinely making yourself miserable on purpose and it’s the most bizarre situation.”
Taylor struggled with her identity during the year she took off wondering if she was a cricketer and what she gave to the world.
“Initially my first six months of CBT was just me getting out of bed and going for a walk. That was massive.
“Weirdly enough, I ended up getting a dog to get me out the house. All of a sudden this little thing needs some responsibility and you have that responsibility – going out and getting dog food was massive.”
Anxiety still affects Taylor even though she’s playing cricket again. It is an ongoing condition and it’s the little things that affect her.
“Sarah [Taylor’s partner] wanted to wear my coat tonight, but that’s my coat and that’s one I’m really comfortable in. So, all of a sudden, when I was meeting you, I was like: ‘well my comfort coat’s gone.’
“She suggested I wear hers but I was like: ‘I’m not comfortable in your coat. That’s going to make me anxious.’
“It’s so irrational.”
Taylor may have decided not to go on the latest tour to India with the rest of the team, but she’s positive about the future. The team have unified to deal with mental health issues openly, so the women can share their feelings and support each other.
“The coaches and girls will openly admit that since I’ve come out and said: ‘look, I’m struggling’ that actually the girls are now open. So, it just takes one to go, actually it’s okay to be vulnerable.
“We’ve had meetings with groups and massive circles like the circle of truth, and you’ve got to kind of say: ‘right girls, I struggle when this happens. This is what happens when I’m struggling, and this is what I need.’
“Sometimes I’ll start mulling things over for about three weeks and it [the issue and anxiety] won’t hit me until the end of tour. Sometimes it will hit me straight away and I can’t deal with it, sometimes I’ll have a massive panic attack, and sometimes I’ll just have a shit day.”
As we were sat there on Taylor’s grey sofa chatting about the ups and downs of cricket she told me about how the anxiety caused her to miss some training sessions.
Before the team knew about her condition, they would judge her, but now they want to help, so speaking out has removed pressure and guilt, and has also helped others feel they don’t need to be strong all the time. She said people, especially the juniors now know it’s okay to not be okay.
Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons