Do you remember the television programme Big Brother?
They would gather a bunch of people in a house, put cameras in the corners and film everything that went on. Some viewers would spend all day watching the live feed, but the majority would check the highlights on Channel 4 in the evening. That was when you got to see the best parts, the stuff that everybody ended up talking about.
So, you know, most people would form their opinion of the contestants based on those highlights. But they would miss everything that was going on in between — the generic, boring stuff.
And basically, that is how I’d sum up my life.
Everybody knows about the headlines.
Almost nobody knows about the stuff that happens day to day.
To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not too bothered about it. What matters to me is that my four kids think I’m a good dad. But I do think that the small gestures in everyday life have never been more important. Stuff like remembering someone’s birthday, or asking if someone is O.K. Sometimes I feel as if our society has become just about chasing perfection. We’re on Instagram to see who’s got the best watch or the best car. It’s all about the end goal, not the hard work or the disappointments or the bad days, if that makes sense. And that saddens me and scares me, because we’re giving a false impression to people, especially to kids, about what is actually real. And that in turn shapes how we think about others — and about ourselves.
Last Saturday was World Mental Health Day. In case you don’t know, I have been seeing a psychologist for about five years now. We all have certain mental health issues in some way, shape or form. They’re just caused by different things and come in different degrees of severity. So it’s important to remember that it’s O.K. to not be O.K. It happens to everybody.
In my case, I have spent a long time dealing with unresolved issues. I used to cope with them by drinking. I’d push down the pain. Actually, I used to think that it was normal to feel bad, like, Doesn’t everybody feel like this? It was only when my drinking really got out of control that people went, “Troy, you need to see somebody.”
When I began to talk about my past, my psychologist would say, “So have you actually dealt with that situation?” And I would be like, “Oh, no. I haven’t, actually.” And this is the thing: It doesn’t help to just say that you have mental health issues. You have to work through them day by day. Only then can you truly understand who you actually are and what you actually want to do.
Humans are like onions, with many layers that we can peel back to get to the core of who we are. And so you begin to work through the problems. And what you find is that a lot of who you are and what you have become is down to your childhood. Certainly when I was a kid, in the early ’90s, men couldn’t show weakness. It was very much a case of suppressing pain and getting on with it. I remember when I was six years old, I was playing football with kids who were three years older when, one day, I fell over and began to cry. And my dad was like, “Don’t ever let someone see you cry.”
During therapy I have realised that my work ethic comes from my mum, Emma. She used to work two or three jobs at a time to keep food on the table in our council flat in Birmingham. She taught me to stay disciplined, to go to Sunday school, all those things. My aggression, my desire to win, my hotheadedness, all that comes from my dad, Paul Anthony Burke. When I was a kid, he was my king, my superhero — he was Superman, Godzilla and Batman all in one. He was the guy who fixed everything. He was tall, very muscular, the life and soul of every party. But he was also … well, there’s no other way to put it: He was a criminal.
He was in and out of jail all the time. But it took me a long time to understand it. One time, when I was eight, me and my younger brother, Ellis, were asleep in our bunk beds when the front door came off its hinges. It was Dad, and he was fighting with two police officers. We jumped up. While the officers were trying to arrest him, he was telling us, “Don’t worry, Dad’s just playing with his mates. Go back to sleep.” Then they carted him off. When we woke up again, we were like, “Mum, where’s Dad?”
She’d say, “Ah, he’s just gone to play football with his mates. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
And we just went. “Oh, O.K.”
Maybe we look stupid now because we believed her, but stuff like that had become so normal that we never gave it much further thought. My dad was creative with his explanations as well, I’ll give him that. When he was in jail, he would send us postcards from … Singapore. Yeah. I know people are going to go like, “Troy, you are so stupid.” But we genuinely thought, “Oh, he’s at work.” Mum would say, “He’s gone on a business trip.” And we’d go, “O.K, no problem.” When he came back he’d have money with him as well, so we were like, O.K, he went away and came back with money. He must have done something right then.
My perception of my dad only changed when I was 10 years old. I still remember it all. My mum had left my dad. She’d had enough of all the trouble. And since my dad was a somebody in the area — for all the wrong reasons — he really didn’t like being embarrassed like that. So this one day he picked up Ellis, my little sister, Sasha, and me from our auntie’s house. Our mum had moved to a separate house, a maisonette, because it wasn’t safe for her to be around him. When we got into the car, my dad had this look in his eyes that I’d never seen before. He just kept saying, “Take me to your house. I need to see your mum. Take me to your house.”
We didn’t want to tell him the way, but we had no choice. When we got there, he kicked the door open and found my mum sitting in an armchair. He kept telling her that she needed to come home. She said, “No.” And every time she did, he would punch her. I kept jumping in front of him, trying to make him stop, only to take a punch myself and fall to the floor. Then I’d get back up and take another punch.
Fortunately, a friend of mine who’d heard the commotion told his mum about what was happening, and she called the police. That’s what saved us. Because who knows? My dad hadn’t shown any sign of stopping at that point. Two riot cars and four police cars later, they got him out.
I can barely remember anything of what happened later that day. All that stays with me is the trauma. And it broke a part of me. Although I still had massive admiration for my dad, he was no longer this superhero. He went back to jail for that offence, and I’d start to get visits from social workers and things of that nature. I remember my teacher telling me that if my dad came to the school, I would not be allowed out of the room. That kind of thing.
So yeah, that took another layer off the onion and exposed me to the world as it actually was. Until that day I had never actually seen violence, even though it was common in my area. But soon, I began to get in trouble myself. When I was 11, I got kicked off a shed and broke my left arm when I hit the ground. I had to go back to school with this huge cast. Then one day this kid tripped me over, and suddenly I felt like the victim again. I remember jumping straight back up — I don’t think my bum had touched the floor — and just hitting the kid as hard as I could. That was me going, I will never be a victim again.
One of the most important things I’ve realised is that parents don’t always know everything. As kids, we put them on a pedestal. Ah, my mum told me this so it must be true. But in my case, when I look back and take myself out of the situation, I remember that she had me when she was 19 years old. She was pretty much a baby herself, learning along the way. When you start breaking things down that way, you see the situation for what it really is.
As for my dad, I admired him so much that it changed my perception of reality. Even after the horrible way he treated my mum, we were still close. We never had those typical father-and-son conversations. Like he was never the type of dad who sat in the armchair smoking a pipe with his slippers on. He was very much out and about, doing his thing. So we were more like best mates, in the sense that we’d go for a beer, that kind of thing.
One day in February 2012, when I was 23, he asked me to take him to the hospital. He felt sick. The doctors there told him that he had cancer of the oesophagus.
The second Dad found out, he was like, “Alright, cool. Troy, drop me off by the pub.” Because we had this pub that we always used to go to.
I was like, “Dad, come on. You just heard this, you got to figure it out.”
He was like, “No, no, because if I’m not in the pub by two o’clock, my mates will know something’s up.”
Again, showing weakness was not allowed.
My dad would only live until May. During the last two weeks he refused to go to hospital because he wanted to spend his last days in a comfortable place. So his sister, a very religious lady, asked if she could stay with him. And she had a priest come over to his house. Toward the end everybody was allowed to have their 10 minutes with my dad.
When I went to see him a few days before he died, we both knew that we were probably having our last conversation, which turned out to be the case. It felt so strange to see my hero looking so weak. He used to be tall. He used to be strong. He used to be Superman. And now he was gasping for air.
And I remember that as we spoke, he was actually regretful.
He said, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I’m sorry that I’m not going to be around for everything.”
I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of everyone.”
That was the only time he ever said sorry to me.
A few days later, I realised just how much I had admired him. I’d always thought that he was taller than me. Only when I buried him did I realise that we were actually the same height.
Someone also told me that he had never had a passport in his life.
I was like, “But wait, he sent us postcards from Singapore.”
“No, no, he was in jail then.”
At some point I asked myself whether my whole childhood had just been a lie … but you start to realise what parents will do to protect their kids, I suppose.
Had I been better at dealing with my emotions, I might have coped with my dad’s illness in a better way. Instead, I went to jail. I don’t like to talk too much about it, because there’s a victim, and because I don’t want to glamorise it in any way. Nor do I want to make any excuse for what I did. To be brief, it was the day after we had found out about my dad’s cancer. My nana, one of the people who’d helped raise me, had just died. So I was not in a good place. And I coped with it by going out drinking with a bunch of mates in Birmingham. Late that night someone told me that my brother was in a fight. So I went looking for him in a drunken haze, and I ended up kicking a person in the face and knocking him out. I can only say sorry and promise that it will never happen again.
I’ll never forget when I was sentenced to jail. My mum used to work at the train station, and she would always tell her colleagues about how proud she was of her two sons who played football. All the trains had a free newspaper called the Metro. One morning the headline read something like FOOTBALL THUG SENTENCED TO 10 MONTHS IN JAIL. And on the cover was a picture of me and my brother.
How did it make me feel? Lower than low, like a worm on the ground. I was supposed to be the person who protected my mum and provided for her. Now I was dragging her family name through the dirt. Embarrassment doesn’t do it justice. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. You claim to be a man and that’s what you do? You can only own up to it and apologise, but it’ll never be enough.
I was supposed to be the person who protected my mum and provided for her. Now I was dragging her family name through the dirt.
Three days before going to jail, I buried my dad. So yeah, I didn’t really have time to deal with that either.
One of the few positive parts about going to jail was that I had to do an alcohol course and see a counsellor. I didn’t get that much out of it, if I’m being totally honest, but at least it put me on the path to talking about things.
Still, it took me several years to realise that I could benefit from therapy. Obviously after I got out of jail I continued to play football for Watford. Everybody talks about how kids emerge from a working-class area to become professionals. The ultimate dream. But what about what comes after that?
Think about it: You’ve come out of a low-income housing area, and suddenly someone goes, “Here’s a massive amount of money. You can have everything you want. Girls left, right and centre. You can go to all the best places. Figure that out.”
I mean … what the fuck do you do?
I had nowhere to turn for advice. My dad had died. My grandad had also died, in November 2010, so I didn’t have an elder statesman there to tell me, “Slow down. Put some money aside. Buy a house.” It was all me and my mates going, “Whoo! We’re untouchable! Let’s keep going, let’s keep going, let’s keep going!”
Then, before you know it, you end up like the Tasmanian Devil, spinning out of control. And then you sit there afterwards with your hands on your head going, What happened?
So, yeah, I made a lot of mistakes, sometimes without knowing. For instance, 9 March is my dad’s birthday, so I used to get bladdered all through that month. Absolutely drink every day. Then I’d slow down towards the end of the month. I never even realised I was doing it until someone went, “Well, you do know it’s your dad’s birthday coming up?” And I was like, Ah. Yes.
Just being aware of issues like that helps a lot. Talking about them helps, too. Therapy has relieved a lot of stress and removed a lot of baggage. I still blame myself for certain things, but I’m more at ease with who I am. I have become used to dealing with the scars, and the fact that I’m not going to get it right all the time. I still feel a bit depressed on certain days, like in March. But now that I actively think about why I feel that way, I can make sure not to drink when it happens. I can make a conscious effort to work out that day and boost my adrenaline. And if I do feel down for a few hours, I’m going to be O.K with it.
I think we have come to a point now where most people acknowledge that mental health issues are normal. You are not weak if you talk about them. Tyson Fury is the heavyweight world champion and can punch anyone’s head in. When he comes out and says he has mental health issues, you cannot stand there and say, “Oh, he’s a softie.” You get what I mean?
I hope I can contribute to that by pushing the same message, and by setting an example day by day. I think the biggest questions we can ask with sincerity are, “How are you? How’s your day?” Generally when you ask people how they are doing, you tend to get the same generic responses because everybody wants to be polite. But if you genuinely stop someone and say, “You alright today, mate? How are things? How are the kids?” It makes people go, Oh, he actually cares. So ask, say, three to five people, even if they are strangers, “How are you? You O.K?” And then you never know, you might actually change someone’s life.
I’ve had occasions where I’ve replied to people’s direct messages on Instagram. They might say, “I’m having a tough time,” and every now and again I’ll reply to one like, “Hi, mate. How are you doing?” I’ve had a few that have come back and said like, “Speaking to you has genuinely made my year.” It takes me 10 seconds to respond. You don’t have to continue the dialogue forever. But just, “How are you? You alright?” It’s so simple, but we all take it for granted.
I do try to carry this over into the workplace, as well — and I’m not talking about football. I’m talking about asking the ladies in the club canteen every morning whether they’re alright. Or making sure that the club sends flowers when it’s somebody’s birthday. Things that should be normal but aren’t. I know people may or may not like me as a player, and that’s fine. But one day, far down the line, I would like people to say, “Do you know what? For all the aggression and all the outbursts, he actually had a genuine care inside.” That’s what I’d like people to remember me for. The real Troy, I suppose.
I’m still fighting to keep up that respect for other people, to be the best version of myself. Every day I fear falling into old habits. Every day. And when you have days when life’s been a bit rough, and you just want to phone your dad, and you haven’t got a dad to phone … it’s hard, man. It’s hard. But I do feel as if my dad is still watching me. I’ve got a tattoo of him on my arm. He’s there, chilling. And sometimes I can hear his voice inside my head guiding me through life. “Don’t go that way. Go that way.” When I plan to do something, but for some reason I do something completely different and it pays off. That’s my dad.
I still want to make my dad proud, which is what I’m working on in therapy at the moment. I know my achievements in football should already do that, but my dad and my granddad never got to see any of my real success. They never saw me play in the Premier League. In the case of my dad, I could never send him on a holiday or get him a passport. So I have never gotten that, “Well done, son,” that tap on the shoulder.
I think that’s why I struggle to deal with success. I like the challenge of trying to get success, but it’s hard to accept that I’ve done O.K. I’m never comfortable with what’s happening right now. I always want the next thing.
It’s the same with my career after football. What happens when you can’t chase that ball, that goal, that win? What are you working towards? These are all things that I’m trying to work through.
The only thing I do know for sure is that I’m going to take care of everyone, like I promised Dad before he died. Would he be proud of me? Thinking logically, I know he would.
But my head doesn’t really work like that. I’ll always be chasing that, “Well done, son.”
Even though it’s never going to come until, hopefully, we meet again.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, visit Young Minds to find out what support is available to you.