‘I felt my heart was going to come out of my chest’

England cricketer Sarah Taylor tells The Mixed Zone’s Emily Victoria about her ongoing fight with anxiety and why she has opted out of the tour to India, which started this week

On first impressions, when she met me on a busy road in south-west London, England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor emanated a bubbly confidence. So, it was surprising when she said later during the interview that 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 a steaming cup of tea and a rather delicious chocolate orange cookie, and we both kicked off our shoes and settled on her sofa.

However, 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 from playing to deal with it.

During the T20 World Cup in 2013, the then 23-year-old Taylor had to deal with matches in an oppressive, inescapable, sticky heat. The length of the tour was also a problem. The isolation she felt in a country she didn’t know was unnerving. The pressure of the professional game weighed on her mind.

One ‘horrendous’ flight from Mumbai to Dharamsala in the Himalayas, mixed with an as yet undiagnosed anxiety condition, ended up contributing to ten hours of missing memory for Taylor. She recalled: “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 OK’. I had a massively physical reaction. I couldn’t rationalise anything.”

Five years on, Taylor talks 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 the hotel, which was at the top of a 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 – I don’t know – ten hours. I just completely wiped out.”

Despite the severity of Taylor’s reaction, she put the incident down to an ‘off day’. In her mind, the travel, the heat, the new environment could all have been to blame. It wasn’t until the next game, while standing in 40-degree heat singing the National Anthem, that she realised she needed someone to help her.

“It was absolutely boiling, and I was 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 all right? [to make me begin to reach out]’.

“I got through that tour. I don’t know how I got through it, 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 England contract, her car, her mortgage. She worried about losing 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 sighed physically with relief when recounting the moment.

“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 if you have a look at women’s cricket contracts at the time, 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, ‘Am I going to lose my car? If I lose my contract, 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 of 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 responded to her cry for help by saying: “Perfect. We’ve been waiting for that, thank you.”

After hanging up, Taylor was left confused about 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. The team’s support staff includes specialist psychologists who help the players deal with worries surrounding the sport, such as if they’ve hit a bad shot. But they don’t have experts, either on tour or at home, to spot signs of anxiety or 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 remembers being told she would be all right, 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 captive by the grip of anxiety. She had to get worse before she got better. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helped, addressing the problem, too. And so did a dog.

“I grew up in a house where failure’s not great. 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 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, 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 has decided not to go on the latest tour to India with the rest of the England team, but she is 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 OK 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 sat on Taylor’s grey sofa chatting about the ups and downs of cricket, she admitted that 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. Now, she says, people know it’s OK to not be OK.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Victoria is a freelance sports broadcaster with a passion for women’s sports. She recently moved back from Dubai after a stint working for topical radio station Dubai Eye. Most recently she has worked with Haymarket Media. Emily is currently doing an MA in Sports Journalism, and in her spare time is producing a documentary about sport in prison – shooting the whole film using her phone. You can find Emily cheering on AFC Bournemouth, taking games on the netball court far too seriously or knocking around a football with her young son, Jude. Emily’s latest articles.

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