Ronnie O’Sullivan Opens Up About Mental Illness in New Book ‘Running’

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Ronnie O’Sullivan, six-time world champion. It would’ve been lovely. And maybe it will one day come to pass but it wasn’t to be this year.

Last month Ronnie O’Sullivan lost the World Championship snooker final, the first time ever he has lost in the final, meaning that, for now, Ronnie is stuck on five championships ‘only’ – still two short of Hendry’s record.

Only Ronnie was never supposed to lose this match, and certainly not to such an economical player as Mark Selby.

Routinely described as the most gifted snooker player ever to grace the game, Ronnie is adored by snooker fans for playing with a style, a brilliance, that none in the history of the game have come close to matching.

But what surprised many observers this year was, not only the fact that Ronnie lost, but that he didn’t seem to completely fall apart as, sadly for Ronnie, his precocious talent has also come with (maybe inevitably) a profound battle with depression.

Ronnie’s battles with mental illness have been visible at snooker matches before – and not just in the drink, the drugs, the weight gain and the sudden weight loss.

In 2006, Ronnie walked out mid-way through a match against Stephen Hendry (he couldn’t bear how badly he was playing). In 2005 he shaved his head midway through the World Championship, adding that he thought he was “cracking up” and also in 2005, he sat with a towel over his head whenever his opponent (Mark King) was at the table.

Ronnie O'Sullivan plays snooker under a towel

Sadly few in snooker have been sympathetic with Ronnie’s battles, no doubt a reflection on the continuing challenges to getting the wider public to understand mental illness. But for the first time, in his new book Running, Ronnie speaks at length and with remarkable honesty about the grip that his battles with depression have on him.

“People often don’t believe me when I say it’s how I play that’s so much more important than whether or not I win and what I win. But it’s true.”

The book makes for extraordinary reading. It’s almost unheard of for an elite sportsman – Ronnie may well be the most talented sportsman in the world – to be so open about his mental health, especially when he is still playing, and still the best in his respective sport.

Only for Ronnie, he doesn’t view his profound talents in that way.

“At other times I felt I was past my sell-by. This was a new era of players, and I was deluding myself. I questioned the type of game I was playing and whether I was equipped to deal with the new generation. I told myself that even though I thought I was playing an aggressive game, the new players were looking at me thinking, who is this old codger?”

It’s just amazing to hear this as sportsmen are told routinely never to show weakness, to always project an image of composure and strength, even if you’re carrying injuries or doubts.

And in Ronnie’s case, it can seem even more bizarre as the other players don’t mock Ronnie – far from it. Most are in awe of the man. But that’s what happens when you battle depression and mental illness – what others actually think of you is irrelevant as the self-sabotage is unbreakable.

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To address this Ronnie has been working with Dr Steve Peters who has encouraged Ronnie to recognise these negative voices, referring to them as his “chimp” and to work on addressing them.

In Running, Ronnie shares some of his diary extracts on his battles with his “chimp:”

Example 1: “Got up. Felt like the chimp was on me. Telling me I’m over-playing, should be at home with the kids, should be training, running, obsessing about getting fat.”

Example 2: “Woke up, chimp was there. Not as bad as morning before. He was saying, your right hand/arm will lose its accuracy.”

Example 3: “Chimp was telling me after the game that if you play like that you won’t win a tournament. Forget it!! Felt quite panicky in the evening when I got home.”

And even after he’d won his fourth World Championship in 2012, “But, of course, by the beginning of the next season the chimp was back, tapping me on the shoulder or staring me in the face, telling me I was shite.”

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You have to remember, these devastating passages of self-criticism may sound familiar to anyone who battles depression, but these are also the diaries of one of the greatest sportsmen in the world. With this frame of mind, Ronnie has to go out, compete and win.

Breathtaking talent is both a gift and a curse. Ronnie has been no exception. At 25 years of age, well, you’re still young. But in Ronnie’s head, the battles were already well underway.

Ronnie had just won his first World Championship but instead of revelling in this victory, all Ronnie could weigh up was “until then I’d become known as the greatest snooker player never to have won the world championship.”

At 25.

That burden of talent weighed very heavy on Ronnie. It’s well-known his father was in prison for murder and his mother would also serve time for tax fraud. The impact of this with his depression was already being reflected in perceived wild behaviour such as drinking and drugs.

But as Ronnie confides, these weren’t joyous times. “I don’t actually like alcohol. I just like the effect. It obliterates everything nicely for me.”

And when alcohol wasn’t available, there were drugs. “I remember getting to every World Championship and thinking, I can’t wait till this tournament is over ‘cos then there’s no more drug tests, there’s nothing for three months, so I can go out and smash it.”

O'Sullivan shaves off his hair

Ronnie became a regular visitor to the Priory as he tried to find some form of stability. He even tried Sex Anonymous (even though he wasn’t actually addicted to sex) but rather dryly points out that “Sex Anonymous sent me back to drugs.”

Even religion. “I tried Christianity for about three months, but that didn’t do the trick either.”

As you read Running, you don’t feel any joy in this party lifestyle for Ronnie. He admits to being a very shy, solitary person. But beyond all of this, you sense these were attempts by him to handle the impossible responsibilities of his talent.

“I thought, I just don’t give a fuck any more, but at the same time I was desperate to win.”

And the huge pressure of his absent father was also taking its toll. “’Every time you’re on telly, Ron’ he’d say to me “it’s like I’m getting a visit.’ And I thought if my playing snooker is the most important thing in his life, I can’t stop playing because that’s all he’s got to hang on to and all he’s got to look forward to.”

But to fulfil his potential Ronnie had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes he will not play at his best.

Ronnie recounts his time with one-time mentor Ray Reardon who’d tell him, “’you’re unbeatable, Ron. You pot better than anybody and you’ve got the defensive game.’” But as Ronnie adds, “It might have been true theoretically, but if your head’s not screwed on right it doesn’t count for anything.”

And winning ugly, you sense, will always be a battle for Ronnie. “They’ve come to see me play, and if I’ve given the ten 50-minute frame I feel shit, and want to go home and kill myself.”

Ronnie - running

Ronnie won’t even acknowledge that some tournament wins are achievements. “I had no problem with the Premier League. That was a tournament made for me. There’s a stopclock, and you have to play a shot every 25 seconds. But because that so obviously benefitted my natural game I never counted it as a real victory.”

Sadly there are passages in the book that make you feel that Ronnie’s battles with depression, with anxiety, will probably never be fully resolved. “Often I’m so quiet, so withdrawn, that I just turn my phone off for days to get away from everyone and everything. As soon as I switch it on, I see emails and texts and I don’t know how to cope with it.”

Nor will they be resolved in snooker either. “In some ways that’s why I wish I was shit because then I wouldn’t notice all the faults.”

As Barry Hearn has astutely observed, “His biggest weakness is Ronnie O’ Sullivan himself.”

I write all this with an acknowledged bias – I am a huge Ronnie O’Sullivan fan. For me, not even Federer in his pomp was as brilliant at tennis as Ronnie is at snooker. As Stephen Fry tweeted during this year’s Championship: “We are privileged to be living in the Age of O’Sullivan”

Ronnie- Stephen Fry tweet

Indeed we are, Stephen.

That Ronnie should have accomplished as much as he has is amazing. That he has done so whilst also battling a, clearly, crippling depression is extraordinary.

 

Read my latest article on Ronnie and his 2016 Masters win here.

Post your comment

6 comments

  1. Posted by Georgie, at Reply

    Hi Ronnie.

    Wanted to organise a night dedicated to mental health issues in Rileys sports bar in Benfleet, Essex where you could encourage others with your amazing story.
    If this is something that would help you also, please get in touch x

  2. Posted by Simon allsebrook, at Reply

    I’m so sorry to hear all what you have gone through . I though when you have money and a nice family that’s all what people won’t keep holding on to life . You have done well for self

  3. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Thank you

  4. Posted by Cathrtine Armstrong, at Reply

    Ronnie o ‘Sullivan great to watch and I am not a sports person, but your story is sad, but true abd you are out there showing just how amazingly strong you are,
    Drink and drugs mask, and anyone can become involved and addicted as take away such gut wrenching deep pain, but you Ronnie play a dark game really, a lonely game in reality where it is practice more practice and on your own.
    you are so inspiring and a true

  5. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Thanks for your comment. I had only unlocked the comments facility about 48 hours ago hence why no comments, but this has been such a popular article. Huge. So clearly it has hit a chord with people. Thank you

  6. Posted by Daryl Brandi, at Reply

    A lovely read. I have just come across this post after a year and couldnt believe there wasnt a comment about it. I love Ronnie and have followed him religiously since his 2001 world win which made me 15 years old. I had no interest in snooker what so ever before I flicked on the telly one day in April and saw Ronnie play the game in a way I thought snooker couldnt of been played.

    Since that day I was hooked. Every time a tournament was on I would check what day and time Ronnie was on and the tv would be on for him. At first I basically thought Ronnie was the king of this game and no one could touch him. How wrong could I be. As the years progressed and a few titles were won here and there my life began to change and I went through and still am struggling with depression.

    Funny enough one of the things I would look forward to was seeing Ronnie play. I was hooked on weed and only saw the dark for years but it was just the way he played that engaged me. Every time I saw him play the stress and darkness in my life was lifted just for those few hours.

    Him winning a tournament filled me with so much joy I couldnt describe then or now. Seeing him self destruct would also play a big part on my emotions as well. Sometimes I would see him and just think he is unplayable. All his world title wins would back me up on this. And other times I would see him and think what is going on in there today Ronnie. The hendry walkout… the towel over his head…. the ebdon madness….. and only now I have realised the madness the man has gone through in his life must be crazy for anyone to handle let alone a professional sportsman being the leading figure in his sport.

    He has had some crushing defeats in his snooker career. Which would of hurt of him bad I am sure of that. Perfectionism is a big part of his game and I have literally seen thousands of Ronnie frames in my life.

    And when he has a perfect balanced life off the table the results on it are amazing. When his life is unbalanced the madness and imperfections are there for all to see. And his antics in the 2015 worlds after having such success in recent years and being very focused at nearly every tournament he has played in makes me wonder what is happening now in his personal life.

    I can literally write all day about Ronnie as I find him a fascinating person. His career on a snooker table I believe is a reflection of his personal life. Ups and downs and never quite knowing what is going to be around the corner. I hope his personal life is ok but after seeing him self destruct at this years worlds I am not so sure.

    I would just like to thank him so much for playing the way he has done over the years and just giving me hope in some unexplained way. He will always be part of my life and youtube will be there for those dark days when I am feeling bad.

    Ronnie for me truly shows the thin line between a genius and a mad person during his snooker career. And lets be honest true Ronnie fans wouldnt have wanted him any other way.

    I will miss watching him play when he finally does retire and wont watch snooker ever again as no one else appeals to me. I support my football team and wont change ever so why pick another player to follow haha…….

    Mr O’Sullivan thank you very much you have helped me so much over the years and nothing has made me more intrigued like you have playing an old mans boring sport.

    Good luck in your next chapter of life………