Cut off from the team environment during the COVID-19 lockdown, Tim Lafai struggled. It got so bad that it eventually led to a breakdown. Ahead of his NRL return, the 29-year-old reveals his emotional story.
Publicly Tim Lafai’s breaking point was blood-soaked knuckles and an arrest.
But the truth is that moment seemed inevitable. If not that, then something far worse.
Lafai speaks to Michael Carayannis about that fateful day in April and how he has set about rebuilding his life after sinking to the lowest of lows.
Tim Lafai can’t remember exactly what happened before his Good Friday arrest at his south Wollongong home. He punched walls and damaged other property with his young family at home before police were called.
Lafai said he “blacked out”. The physical damage was evident. But what he had been hiding was the mental anguish he had been carrying for years.
It got to the point where he considered ending it all.
“There was a moment there I thought there is no more footy, no more career,” Lafai said.
“I started to doubt if I should be on this earth. I could feel myself thinking some dark thoughts.”
Lafai has suppressed mental demons for as long as he can remember. It has become an all too familiar story – the star sportsman who is invincible on the field but tried to mask how they were feeling off it. In his own words Lafai said he had a “mental breakdown”.
“It’s something that’s been building for a couple of years,” Lafai said.
“As much as we’re in the spotlight, we are still human beings. For years I’ve been brushing it off thinking ‘I’m a bloke, I’ll sweep it under the carpet and I’ll be fine’. I’d go onto the next week, the next month or the next year. I had no idea what I was doing to myself mentally. I was trying to close the lid on a hot pot and before you know it, it blows off.”
Lafai believed the attack – where no charges were laid – was sparked by the statewide lockdown. The future of the NRL was unknown. Off-contract at seasons’s end and despite playing in St George Illawarra’s opening two games Lafai doubted his place in the game. Cut off from the team environment, he struggled.
“Not knowing what the future held started playing on my mind,” Lafai said.
“A bit of anxiety starts kicking in. Before you know it, you have an anxiety attack. It was crazy you think you have everything under control.
“It was all a blur. I just blacked out. The next thing I realised I was in hospital. When I came out something didn’t feel right mentality and that morning I told my wife, Jacqui, that I needed to go back.”
Lafai checked himself into the south coast Private Mental Health hospital in Wollongong. He spent a week there while Jacquie looked after their four young children.
“I’d been holding back so much and it was all coming out the wrong way,” Lafai said.
“It was a long time coming but it worked out perfect, it made me take that step to get professional help. I would do everything all again.
“My wife’s family, my family and my agent Dave Rawlings have been so supportive. They were the ones who called the ambulance when the mental breakdown happened. My wife was so selfless. She put mine and our children’s needs before hers.
“Our partners and our close friends are just one chat away. It’s important for us blokes to remember that. They want us to open up. It lifts all the weight off your shoulders. You can only hold so much in before it comes out at some stage. I’m still a work in progress but I’m way ahead of where I was back then. I’m definitely proud.”
Lafai sees a psychologist once a week declaring “it has made a huge difference in my relationship”.
Just four months after that incident he will again play first grade. It will be in a different but familiar jersey for Lafai after exiting the Dragons to link up Canterbury ahead of their clash with Parramatta on Sunday. He made his NRL debut at the Bulldogs playing 74 games from 2011-2015.
“I’ll be nervous and excited at the same,” Lafai said.
“To get the opportunity to put the blue and white jersey on is an opportunity I don’t like lightly. It’s great to be back where it all started for me.”
The 29-year-olds on-field future beyond this year is unknown. He knows he needs to impress in his comeback games if he is a chance of extending his decade long career.
Regardless his long-term future is looking brighter than ever.
“I have a more positive perspective,” Lafai said.
“Footy isn’t around forever. Eventually it does come to an end. I’ve got my head around that. My family is everything. Everything I do impacts them. At the end of the day they are the ones that are going to be around me forever.”