A sporting chance

On his retirement from Change Grow Live, Chris Bruce reflects on the impact of trauma and the power of sport as a recovery tool.

At 66 it was time to go. After emerging from detox in 1980 I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams what an incredible journey it has been, but in this article I wish to concentrate on two themes – trauma and how it affected me, and sport as a recovery tool.

In 1969 my father, a consultant physician, committed suicide. At the time I was at a boarding school in Sussex. This did not immediately lead me to start misusing drugs and alcohol, but it did have a severe impact on my outlook on life and on my fellow human beings. No one spoke to me about the ‘event’ –even the family remained silent. Friends stayed away and psychologically my view of people and life changed.

A serious injury at school kept me out of sports for a year and my elevation to the 1st XI football team was halted. Going up to London in 1972 on the outside I presented as ‘cool’ and ‘laidback’ but on the inside I was rudderless and angry. Searching for a father figure with my trust blown away, getting stoned and having fun. That’s where I wanted to be. In the end of this particular downward journey I ended up with six years of addiction to diazepam after being prescribed them by a GP when complaining that I was unable to sleep coming up to college exams. The irony of it now seems incredible – a drug that slowed me down and eventually emptied me out, leaving me a paranoid wreck. Working through this ‘residue’ has taken time. AA plus NA and counselling and ten years of abstinence after my detox allowed my brain to start a healing process. It has been challenging at times. And on it goes.

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best job For not only my introduction to working with probation clients but also helping me to achieve so many things in my own life: The WYSCA 1993-96 Team. From left to right: John Wheeler (Manager), Paul Kendall (sports leader), Marion Oldham (secretary), (the late) Mark Milner, Adrian Tolan and Chris Bruce (sports leaders)



Sport growing up was at the centre of my life. I was fortunate to be good at most that were on offer. My eye for a moving object was excellent. Football and tennis were my top two games, especially football. One of my great humiliations was being sacked from my college team in 1974 for turning up to a match still high from the night before. In 1980 prior to going into detox, when I lay in a snow drift in Yorkshire simply wishing for it all to end – most certainly my final rock bottom – I was mentally and physically gone. Then as I remember clearly to this day into my head came a powerful light with a question attached to it: What happened to the person who won his school colours? Where was the fighting spirit? On the first day in hospital I signed up for the gym and vowed I would play football again.

In 1991 I completed a three-year BA in sports and American studies, played football again for the college team and captained the tennis team, even winning an international tournament. On a personal level I was back, but the mental recovery was still ongoing.

At college I attended many sessions with the college counsellor, and my first job was a sports-focused one with West Yorkshire Sports Counselling Association. I was one of four sports leaders, supporting clients on probation to engage in sport as a way out of their offending behaviour. One of my clients fancied getting some proper coaching at badminton and every week we met at the sports centre – he became a good player, improving week by week, and his motivation and self-worth improved. Time and again I saw for myself the positive outcomes for those who were signed up to our service.

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Proudest moment The then ex prime minister John Major presenting me with my Winston Churchill Fellowship medallion at the Guildhall, Westminster in 1999. He said the ‘normal’ congratulations text to me, then I asked him if he thought Michael Owen would start for England.

In 1997 I won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to the US, and the research I carried out was ‘can positive strategies help divert drug abuse and offending behaviour?’. This too focused on sports as a way of re-engaging individuals in society through positive activities. When I returned, highly motivated, I took up the post of day care co-ordinator at Harrogate Alcohol and Drugs Agency, where I arranged outdoor activities, including hiking and football, for our service users. So a circle had been completed – I was now giving back because of something I had experienced for myself. Seeing it work for others was what inspired me to continue to deliver sports activities to my service users throughout my working life.

And as part of the other healing circle, three years ago I met an amazing individual Dr Sharon McDonnell giving a presentation around the issue of bereavement. She now runs Suicide Bereavement UK based at Manchester University, and asked me to take part in their study on the effect of suicide on children, which is due for publication soon. Attending the Suicide Bereavement UK conference in 2019 was an incredible and moving experience for me – there are so many wonderful projects out there. One basic message from the day was ‘just let someone know you care’. This resounded massively with me.

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Most Bizarre moment Wimbledon 2015 – My brush with fame! Daily Mirror picture of me sat with a certain David Beckham and son (he sat down with me by the way!). Seeing all the cameras focused on him as he sat down was something I shall always remember. Now I know what fame feels like! I was asking whether his son played tennis.

For the last two years I have been running a community sports session at the Lytham YMCA, which has attracted ages from 35 to 83. Everyone attending has loved the variety of activities on offer, and I’ve witnessed people taking up something new and developing their skills. Now that we are (hopefully) coming out of the worst of COVID, there is going to be an even greater call for activity community groups, and improving mental health is also going to fall within this remit.

I was so pleased in my latter days with Change Grow Live that I saw them recognise the importance of offering all kinds of outside interventions including sport with the Community Sports Initiative (CSI), and the massive move forward in seeing trauma as a major cause of ‘meltdown’ in many people’s lives leading to alcohol or drug misuse.

In ‘retirement’ I’m going to continue with my sports groups and have other project ideas on the go. And finally, quoting from one of my favourite bands, the mighty Black Sabbath: ‘Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? We will see.

If anyone out there would like to contact me please email: Bruce.C2@sky.com

To contact Sharon McDonnell: www.suicidebereavementuk.com

For more on the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship: www.wcmt.org.uk

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