I hid away and tried to pretend that football no longer existed

Sporting passion: Caroline Elwood-Stokes slumped   into years of  depression  after teenage pregnancy spelled the end of her football career.          PICTURE: STEVE PARKIN
Sporting passion: Caroline Elwood-Stokes slumped into years of depression after teenage pregnancy spelled the end of her football career. PICTURE: STEVE PARKIN
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FOOTBALL was once Caroline Elwood-Stokes’ greatest love.

But now, the 33-year-old cannot bear to even watch a match, let alone take to the pitch herself, after crippling depression struck when her promising sporting career slipped through her fingers.

As a teenager Caroline played seven days a week, and later started training for the England youth team.

However, at the age of 15 the mum-of-four fell pregnant with her first child - spelling the end of her footballing days.

Years of depression followed, with Caroline resorting to self-harm, drugs and drink. At her lowest point, she considered taking her own life.

But following a long course of counselling and the right medication she is ready to return to football again - but instead of coaching or playing, she has turned her attention to raising awareness of the importance of good mental health among sportsmen and women.

Caroline has set up an organisation called FAD FC - Football’s Awareness of Depression Football Community - as well as penning a book called A Guide To Positive Mental Health, which deals with what she describes as a ‘taboo subject’.

She is also speaking out at the start of Depression Awareness Week, which encourages greater understanding of a condition which affects more than 60,000 people living in Sheffield, according to NHS figures.

“After suddenly losing my own playing career, I went into a massive spiral of self destruction,” said Caroline, from Lowedges, Sheffield.

“I began self harming, drinking, and taking overdoses - maybe it was a cry for help. But 17 years ago, I don’t think there were places to get appropriate help regarding football and mental health, and although I tried to return to the game several times, I couldn’t focus.

“I hid away, trying to pretend that football didn’t even exist. Writing about it is my own way of coping with the loss of my own career. I want to help players, or even coaches and managers, and give them a place where they can talk and open up about their own struggle with mental health issues.”

Caroline says former Blades manager Gary Speed - who hanged himself in 2011 - and perennially troubled Paul Gascoigne are examples of players who could have benefited from a group such as FAD FC.

“If this guide helps just one club, then my battle with depression was worth it,” she added.

Caroline’s sporting passion started in 1990, when she watched an England game on TV.

“I remember seeing Gary Lineker, and said to my sister ‘Wow, he’s amazing, I want to be just like him’. The very next day I walked to Sheffield Wednesday and explained to the receptionist that I wanted to play.

“She said there were matches every Wednesday at six o’clock at Loxley College and that’s how my career began.”

Caroline played for the Owls Ladies’ U14 team from the age of 10, then moved to Sheffield United, and later Kilnhurst Ladies.

“I had played to an almost professional level, I even began on the ladder for an England career,” she said.

“In hindsight, it was my obsession. Monday to Friday, 3:30pm to 9pm, I would train on the local field. Saturdays I would train 9am to 9pm, and Sundays I would play in a match, come home, then go straight to the field and train more.

“Every single opportunity I had I would train. I just loved playing, being out there with a ball.

“Then it happened - I found out I was pregnant at 15 years old.”

She continued: “My career ended abruptly, I was devastated. I could no longer play football and that’s when my life might as well have ended too. The father of the baby had left me and so I knew I couldn’t return to football and have a baby as well.”

Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Gabrielle, now 17, and also has three other children aged 14, 12 and 16 months.

In 1996, Caroline studied sport at college and qualified as a football coach, and attempted to set up her own soccer school in 2009, but neither venture proved a cure for her bleak outlook on life.

“I couldn’t bear the word football, just hearing that word made me cry. I couldn’t go outside, I was too scared of seeing kids playing football on the street.

“Now though, after 17 years of literally hiding away, and several years of taking anti-depressants and having bereavement counselling, I now feel ready enough to talk about it and help other people suffering like I did and, in a smaller way, still am.

“I still have days where football upsets me, but I know what triggers that off and so I avoid those situations at the moment.

“The day will come when I can watch the England women’s team on TV, and when that day comes, I know I will be fully recovered.

A Guide To Positive Mental Health will be published in June. Visit www.fadfc.weebly.com to buy a copy, priced £7.99.