Interview: Donnie Macfadyen learning how to tackle a life more ordinary

THE peaks and troughs of an international rugby career are quite removed from the usual existence most of us lesser sporting mortals enjoy, but when Donnie Macfadyen moved from one life to another the journey brought trauma that few could imagine.

He is now approaching the two-year anniversary of his retirement from professional sport, and only now feels sufficiently free of the claustrophobia, desolation and utter disillusionment that comes with depression not only to see the world in colour again, but to bring himself to speak about what he has faced.

Macfadyen is just 30 years old, married to Rosie with a three-year-old daughter, but has experienced more pain than most. What makes his story so surprising is that it all stemmed from reaching what many would view as the pinnacle of a Scotsman's life, representing his country in international sport.

After a good catch-up on how his new business venture is moving along, we tackle the reality of the time after he hung up his boots. Candidly, Macfadyen reveals that most of the first 18 months after retiring from rugby were "miserable" and it ended up with him being treated for depression.

"It was really horrible," he says. "It got continually worse and even when I was diagnosed it took a long time to finally work itself out. It has been pretty horrific. And in a first year of marriage as well, it wasn't easy. Rosie came to me after six months or so and said 'Since we've been married you've not smiled or laughed; you've been almost like a ghost in our house'. That just broke my heart. It was horrific and still now it's difficult to speak about it. I lost interest in everything, couldn't sustain the concentration to read books or listen to music, and there are other aspects of it I just can't re-tell, that are embarrassing or just too upsetting.

"But I do feel I need to speak about it. For a long time, six or seven months, when it was really starting to manifest itself, I thought it was just me who was struggling with this. But since then I have had chats with a number of former players and been pretty shocked about how many other ex-professionals have struggled or are struggling as well."

Macfadyen was one of a new generation of Scottish rugby players that stepped into the sport just over a decade ago, as rugby grew as a professional sport and Scotland had to produce athletes able to compete again with the world's best. It was an intense, laborious and fascinating challenge and centred on improving the physicality of traditionally lightweight Scots. Macfadyen relished it.

He had left Edinburgh Academy to study at Brunel University in London, played for London Scottish and just missed out on a pro contract there when the Richmond club lurched into administration. He returned north, signed by Glasgow Caledonians as they were, and proceeded to become a role model for Scottish rugby players.

No-one could fault his commitment, energy and drive to make the most of himself, and though quiet-spoken his easy-going and humorous personality made him a popular figure across the game. His coaches regularly spoke of wishing they had 15 Donnies.

And yet, the flanker seemed almost from a previous era, in the sense that at just 5ft 10in tall, the sport's shift to a more physical, megalithic style seemed to be leaving behind his size of flanker. But he made the breakthrough to the Test arena in 2002 and became a fixture in Matt Williams' spell in charge of Scotland, playing in the last seven internationals of 2004 before injury forced him out of the game for a year.

Macfadyen worked his way back to the top in 2006, scored a try against South Africa in Port Elizabeth as Scotland came so close to a first-ever win over the Springboks on their own turf, and then was floored by another serious knee injury. He returned to the rehab treadmill and became known as Scotland's foremost 'gym monkey', the size of the weights he lifted rising in tandem with extraordinary biceps and quad muscles.

It was all part of the battle to return to the top of the sport, where he was having to run faster, literally, to keep pace with an ever-growing world of pumped-up rugby specimens, one that shows little sign of abating. It was a battle he would lose, as further appearances for Glasgow failed to bring the consistency he needed to earn another cap chance, and he decided to quit when fit again, aged just 28.

Even those with only a fleeting appreciation of depression would, therefore, detect enough reason for Macfadyen to find life tough thereafter.

Add to that the fact his father, Lord Macfadyen, the pre-eminent Scottish judge but, more importantly, a great presence and inspiration in Donnie's life, died from cancer at 62 a month before his rugby career ended, with marriage following a month after, and the idea that he might enjoy a peaceful retirement begins to seem plain ludicrous. That was the view of Macfadyen's doctor and he now agrees.

"Oh yes, there was enough there," he says, with an accepting shrug. "I only had one year really – 2004 – where I didn't suffer a major injury, but, sadly, that is not too uncommon in the modern game.

"Reflection brings perspective. I know what made me an international player was my speed.

But with serious knee injuries you lose speed, and even a little can be the difference between being the international player you can be and not. Looking back now, from the cartilage reconstruction I had in 2006, I was battling to regain speed that ultimately I was never going to get.

"But as a professional sportsman playing at that level, pushing yourself to get back to the top becomes everything in your life. And when you're getting injured, I don't know if it's right to say you lose your bottle, but I know I started to spend time before matches worrying if I would get injured again in this one.

"At openside flanker, you need a recklessness, a complete disregard for your body, and once you start thinking … well, it makes it tougher.

"I had four years of driving myself into the ground trying to get back but without that speed suddenly I was just 5ft 10in and 14-and-a-half stones; with the speed the size hadn't mattered.

"When I retired Gerry Haggerty, the Glasgow doctor, gave me my medical notes and it was just ridiculous – it was this big (he holds his hands about two feet apart].

"From shoulder operations to knees, torn groin to a hamstring tendon ripped off the bone, an infected scar that lasted months … it went on and on, and I'm not much different to others.

"I never suffered from depression when I was playing, because I always had a focus. I pushed myself to the brink, and it began to define me, that commitment. When I retired the coaches said they would really miss me in the gym, the example I set, but then you come away from that, walk away from rugby, and realise that all of it means absolutely nothing in the real world.

"I remember finding myself in the gym six months later trying to do the kind of session I did when I was playing and suddenly going 'Why am I doing this?'

"All these strength scores and fitness results suddenly meant nothing any more, and all your purpose, your reason for being, was gone." As much as our discussion is centred on depression, it is punctuated by those regular mentions of serious injury. It was there from the start, Macfadyen replacing Andrew Mower in Scotland's No 7 jersey due to Mower suffering a knee injury that was ultimately to end his career, and his great try-scoring moment in South Africa in 2006 coming in a game that left his opposite number, Schalk Burger, in hospital the next day with a neck injury.

"I read an article once where the writer said about rugby, 'We are conducting a completely uncontrolled experiment on these young men and have absolutely no idea what kind of state it is going to leave them in'.

"The first few years of my rugby career wasn't like that. It was only starting to creep in, the gym culture and protein shakes to drink. But it has gone beyond that now and you wonder who is monitoring each stage and what it will mean for players later in life. No-one is because no-one can. In professional sport most people are thinking only about the 'now'; not many are thinking ten years down the line. In Scottish rugby we're extremely fortunate with the medics we have, because they do say 'wait a second, you can't have another steroid injection in your knee because you've had two, and that's as many as I'm prepared to do because your knee will eventually disintegrate'."

Injuries have played a big part in Macfadyen's life, but it is impossible to escape the feeling that for all rugby's talk of still being a game open to all shapes and sizes, some of what he has gone through in the past two years stems from a futility at trying to cope with the modern, outsized shape of professional rugby. But Macfadyen is not comfortable with sympathy and rejects the suggestion that he has suffered mentally because of a unique career with unique challenges.

"Sadly, it's not just me, I am discovering," he says. "I know the whole 'Ex-pro sportsman struggles in the real world' is something people have heard a million times before, but because rugby is such a young professional sport my generation are the first to come through it and retire having known nothing else.

"When I started the older guys around me all had careers – solicitors, teachers, butchers whatever – but I went straight from school into ten years of rugby, and then out, and it's a huge culture shock.

"What happened to me was particularly intense because I battled injury for the last four years and then my dad died at the same time as I retired, and, when I sat down with my GP, he said all of that would have floored anyone.

"So, what happened to me might have been an extreme example, but there is a real issue here. I bump into players now and ask how they're getting on and it's been a surprise to hear there are quite a few guys finding life really tough.

"I had some standing in the game, and was known for being quite level-headed if you like, and for me to get in as much of a mess as I did I think highlights that there isn't the support once you retire.

"I've been through the five stages of grief if you like, the denial, the anger, the bitterness, and all that sort of stuff. The GP said to me I was grieving for the loss of my father, but also grieving for the loss of my career, and an end that wasn't what I'd hoped it would be.

"But it is more prevalent than most realise. There are many examples in sport but people are reluctant to talk about it so the extent is not known. I read about Neil Lennon's depression and what he went through and there were comments like 'what has he got to be depressed about?' That's why I feel I need to speak about it, because people do not understand."

The passion for the cause clear in his voice, he continues: "I don't think you can understand what depression is like unless you have gone through it.

"I realise that this is not necessarily an interview that is going to garner much sympathy. We are well compensated for what we do in sport, but it can be a strange existence, for ten years being told what to wear, what to eat, what to do, where to be and at what time, all that structure, and within an incredibly intense male environment, and then one day, overnight, you're out on your own in the real world, and the whole support system you lived with for the past ten years is gone.

"And because no-one, especially rugby players, will talk about struggles you just imagine it's fine; you get used to it. But many don't and I want to tell people exactly what I went through because it needs to be addressed before something really bad happens; it goes too far down the line if you like."

Like many players, Macfadyen attempted to stay in rugby after he finished playing, taking on his love of strength and conditioning to work as an amateur coach with Watsonians and Edinburgh, but he believes now that only made the depression worse.

Now, however, he is a clearly happier individual. Supported by his wife, a doctor, and wider family, he has pursued a business idea that marries his love of art and fashion, designing clothes with a modern twist on vintage styles, and his unique garments are selling through Edinburgh shops to the extent that he is now studying dressmaking skills in order to play a greater role in the making as well as the designing of clothes.

But he looks back with angst still. The journey he has taken, he hopes others will not follow.

"Myself and a few other ex-pros, and some guys still in the game, are speaking to the SRU about it now and they are being very receptive," he says.

"There is a lot of focus on helping players with career advice, but what I feel very passionate about is more on the mental support, and medical. We have picked up some pretty crazy injuries that don't just go away when you retire. I retired at 28 with knees that are still sore walking down the stairs in the morning; not ideal at just 30 years old with a young family. But that is not uncommon among players.

"I don't know what role I could take going forward; maybe it's just speaking to guys and making them aware there can be problems. I've been nervous about speaking publicly about what I've gone through, but I feel it's important to try and help others who could face the same."

The interview itself has brought emotional moments, but Macfadyen's desire to turn his own suffering into something worthwhile for others who have put their bodies on the line in the name of representing Scotland on the rugby field, shines through.

He concludes: "I've used the phrase 'back to my old self again' too many times, and I think I'm realising that I'll never be the person I was.

"But the important thing is that I've come through it. The business has helped provide an exciting new focus, and I also can contemplate playing rugby with friends for fun again, which I just could not bear the thought of. I just would not like to think of others going through what I have. They shouldn't need to."