Uncompromising former Warriors, New Zealand, Hull and Wigan forward Epalahame Lauaki has fought some ferocious battles on the field in his stellar career. None, however, compare to the battles he’s had to face off the field in recent years.
The hard-running prop or second-rower, best remembered for his take-no-prisoners charges at the defensive line in the Warriors strip from 2004 to 2008, wants the rugby league world to know even the hardest players can easily be brought to their knees. And he wants his struggle to overcome his own mental demons to be an example for others, particularly those of similar backgrounds.
“Sitting back and seeing guys like Reni Maitua come out, it takes a lot to come out and talk about [depression],” Lauaki, who played for Manly’s VB NSW Cup side this year, tells NSWRL.com.au.
“Polynesians also go through a lot of that stuff and to go through it at a young age, I didn’t know what it was.
“I was depressed and I got diagnosed.”
The softly-spoken Lauaki, who represented the Kiwis twice before pledging allegiance to his native Tonga, first realised he had unresolved mental issues when he moved away from Auckland to Hull – and away from most of his support network in 2009. He labels the experience as “haunting”.
“Being in England you sort of live by yourself and miss family and it certainly takes its toll on people. You don’t have people to fall back on – it does take its toll playing in England. That’s why I wanted to return… to have people to fall back on when times are tough,” Lauaki, now 30, says.
“It was tough for me to be over there, I fell into a deep, dark spot in my life. I was haunted by it. The issues got worse when I was injured during pre-season training and I fell to the darkest place ever with doubting myself especially when I got injured at Wigan. Thankfully I had the support of my wife over there, just to pull the plug and leave England and that dark spot…”
Following his diagnosis, treatment and a return to the Southern Hemisphere at his new home at Manly with the Sea Eagles, Lauaki believes he has turned the corner. He credits his partner Renee and his sister, a nurse for a Maori mental health service, for helping him recover and learn to love life once again.
“I got a lot of help with it there from family my sister Paenga who works for Moko Services under Waitemata District Health Board,” Lauaki, who has two boys, Kepu, aged four, and Manaia, two, says.
“I saw a doctor in England and they said I could stay and get help but returning closer to home and getting help and using the support of family would be a better option.
“I gave the letter to my sister, she knew a doctor who could help me and it’s been awesome now. She saw the signs and she’s been a big help.
“I got a lot of help from doctor Sara Weeks at Lotofale Pasifika Mental Health Auckland District Health Board.
“I admire a lot of players now and how tough the sport can get but it’s not the end of the world. [With depression] there’s always a lot of help that’s around. For players and coaches now, a lot of people pick up on others feeling down and it’s something I look out for now too.”
Epalahame, or ‘Hame’ as he prefers, wants his struggle with depression to encourage others who are battling similar situations to seek help. He wants others – footballers or otherwise – to know assistance is out there. He knows if he hadn’t sought help himself that he would’ve been in a different place altogether. He knows he wouldn’t be on the footy field, running around happy, hungry for success and showcasing a few extra skills he’s added to his game over the past few years.
“I feel on top of the world now and I wake up with a smile on my face now every day. Another day, another challenge, I love every day being able to challenge myself at training to become a better player, then return home to my kids and seeing them happy,” Lauaki, off contract at the end of the year, says.
“I sort of hated the game before I came home but when I returned home I rediscovered my love for it and I’m enjoying every minute of footy at the moment.
“Everyone has a goal of playing first grade but I feel incredibly blessed to get another crack [at first grade through the NSW Cup], especially at a big club like Manly. I’ll push what I can do and see where I can go but seeing the young people around me and helping them become better, even just by rubbing shoulders with them at training, I see that as a win, man.
“God’s blessed us in many ways and to be here at Manly, playing for a club I used to love playing against, it’s just an eye opener. I’m enjoying every minute of it. It is a big difference. I’m just happy to be back.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 44 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
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