Keith Earls: ‘I have a lot more good days than bad days’

The Munster wing admits dark side of character still pops up but is coping well

 

“Hank has popped up every now and then,” Keith Earls says with a wry smile when I ask if he is still haunted by the dark side of his character. Earls has won 96 caps for Ireland but his fiercest battle as a rugby player has been with bipolar disorder. The 34-year-old, who has played 186 games for Munster since his debut in 2007, calls his destructive alter-ego “Hank”. It echoes the way in which, in Me, Myself & Irene, Jim Carrey played the part of a state trooper who, after a mental breakdown, developed a different personality called Hank.

“But I have a lot more good days than bad days,” Earls says at home in Limerick. “A couple of years ago I probably had one good day a month. Bipolar could affect me for weeks but now it’s one or two bad days every few months. But sometimes I get confident and say: ‘Look, I’m better. It’s all OK now.’ I fall into bad habits and all of a sudden your man Hank is back again.

“This season I opened a coffee roaster business in Limerick and I don’t like too much going on in my head. It can create havoc. So, setting that up, I found it tough. Now it’s important because the coffee business helps me relax and I know there’s something for me after rugby. But Hank pops up whenever my mind is cluttered or I’m knocked out of my routine.”

Earls is open and brave and he admits that “Hank the bastard is still lurking around, always looking to become a lodger in my head again.”

That arresting line comes from his compelling autobiography which paints a vivid picture of all the obstacles Earls has overcome. He grew up in Limerick’s close-knit but sometimes dangerous neighbourhood of Moyross. As a working-class man it has taken him years to adjust to rugby’s privileged world. He felt embarrassed by his ignorance of the shallow niceties of etiquette and by a deeper struggle to read and write. Hank preyed on those insecurities as he turned Earls into a deeply negative, depressed and angry person with no self-esteem.

Earls had played only twice for Ireland when Ian McGeechan chose him for the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009. McGeechan was smitten by the then 21-year-old’s skill and pace. But no one understood how psychologically unprepared he was for the Lions. He played five games, and scored two tries, but his performances were so error-strewn it took years to rebuild his shattered confidence.

He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years later, but did he sense the presence of Hank in South Africa? “Hank was always there but he really came out after that tour. Rugby was my thing to get away from life. But after the Lions, particularly that first game [where he was traumatised by self-doubt], Hank started to take over. I got to a stage where I hated rugby. The one thing I enjoyed now made me feel like shit. That Lions tour is the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Earls still managed to perform for Munster and Ireland but his mental health plummeted. In 2013, feeling desperate, he finally looked for help. “I spoke with the doctor in the Irish camp because my first daughter, Ella May, was born with a rare heart condition. I went down a deep rabbit hole. My head was gone and I had anxiety about everything.

“The doctor sent me to a [psychiatrist]in Cork who said: ‘I think you are bipolar so keep an eye on your emotions and come back in a few weeks.’ But I was so fed up I told him I wasn’t leaving his office until he fixed me – or gave me a pill because I was so sick and tired and exhausted. He decided to start me on tablets. I was delighted with the diagnosis and to know it was more common than I had thought.”

Earls was still ravaged by worry and class-driven uncertainty. When he first attended post-match banquets with Ireland he had no idea which cutlery to use. He also remembers being mortified when he misheard his teammates requesting horseradish at their five-star hotel. There were howls of laughter when Earls asked for some of that “horse hummus”.

In his 30s, and with over 70 caps to his name, he still felt like a misfit. In 2020 Earls opened up to Andy Farrell, Ireland’s coach who had grown up in working-class Wigan playing rugby league. “We were on a camp in Portugal and Andy had one-on-ones with all of us. He asked what I was going to do after rugby. I said: ‘I don’t know. I obviously like the coffee business but I’m embarrassed. I can’t read that well, I can’t spell, I can’t write well.’ He was brilliant. He knows a lot of people, even himself, who aren’t good spellers. He said learn from predictive text and get into good habits.

“A couple of weeks later we were in a Six Nations camp. We do things to have a craic and break up meetings so Simon Easterby decided we’d have a spelling competition, backs against forwards. Get three backs up, three forwards up. I was sitting at the front thinking: ‘Oh God, don’t pick me.’ It went to a tie-break and I was called up. In the rugby world you can’t get away with not doing anything. But I said: ‘I’m not getting up.’ It was getting awkward and then Andy just stood up and said: ‘Earlsy doesn’t do spelling competitions.’ He picked someone else and defused the whole situation.

Earls says that Andy Farrell has been very understanding when he has opened up to him, particuarly on Earls’ struggles with spelling. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Earls says that Andy Farrell has been very understanding when he has opened up to him, particuarly on Earls’ struggles with spelling. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“Simon apologised a few days later. I was like: ‘No. I should have just said I can’t spell.’ I’m not embarrassed now and I’m thinking about getting tested. I think I struggle with dyslexia.”

Earls and I had swapped texts before the interview and his spelling had been perfect. Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. “Exactly,” he says. “I keep working on it but it’s tough when your 10-year-old daughter is asking you to spell stuff for homework and I can’t do it. But I’ll keep working on it and, as you said, there are different forms of intelligence. Some of the least educated people can do lots of things and then you have the most intelligent people who don’t get on so well in real life. You need to be comfortable with yourself and not be frightened to ask for help.”

He recently won Ireland’s Sports Book of the Year, and, while much is down to the skill of his ghostwriter, Tommy Conlon, Earls’s vision and emotion shaped his autobiography. “I had sleepless nights before the book came out. I exposed a lot but I’m quite a private person. Even though the book has been a success I still sometimes think: ‘Jeez, we shouldn’t tell anyone about this.’ But the response has been unbelievable. It’s reached men, women, kids of all ages in different countries. I’m proud of that.”

Earls’, book which he wrote with Tommy Conlon, won the Irish sports book of the year. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Earls’, book which he wrote with Tommy Conlon, won the Irish sports book of the year. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Earls was concerned most about the reaction of people in Moyross. “It’s been phenomenal,” he says. “My parents are still on that side of the city and so many people have said to them they’re proud of me and Moyross. I wanted to tell the truth that it was a dangerous place and some turn to crime and drugs. But 95 per cent of people there are of fine integrity and have great families.”

He and his wife, Edel, have been together for 21 years, since they were 13-year-old schoolkids. “One of the Moyross lads who I used to hang around set myself and Edel up. When you’re young and shy it’s hard to ask a girl for a date so he did that for me and that’s where it all started for me and Edel. When we had Ella May in 2012 we walked out of a restaurant in Limerick and this same lad was sitting outside [begging]. He had gone down one route and I went down another. He’d experimented with heroin and had a rough time. It showed how close the two roads are.”

Earls and his wife talked to their old friend and gave him some money. He says now: “Thankfully, I saw him a few weeks ago and he was strolling along with a kid in a buggy. He looked fresh and so much better. I know he does relapse sometimes as heroin is highly addictive. But he looks in a good position now.”

The Munster wing also feels in a good position after he solved a worrying physical problem which meant that, from 2017 to 2020, his lungs operated at only 50 per cent of their usual capacity. “I’d be training, playing matches and going into spasm. I couldn’t breathe. It nearly drove me to retirement. In the [2020]Autumn Nations Cup against Wales, I was on the bench but, warming up, I said: ‘For f*ck’s sake, I can’t breathe.’

“We played England the following week and Andy picked me to start. I was like: ‘There’s no way I can play.’ But Phil Glasgow, the physio, knew some respiratory specialists in London. We landed in London, got straight into a taxi and went to a hospital to get special MRIs and see a breathing specialist. They came to the conclusion my liver was floating up into my chest cavity and pressing on my diaphragm which was sending everything into spasm. He came up with a simple solution of trying to tape my liver down. I went out two days later and played 80 minutes for the first time in 10 weeks and felt amazing. I haven’t looked back.”

Does he tape up his torso before every game? “Yes. It’s like wearing a corset, everything held in place.”

This season has been difficult as Covid and postponements mean that Earls has played less than usual. But he started three of Munster’s four European games and only missed Sunday’s victory over Wasps following a late withdrawal owing to a strain. Munster are now in the last 16 of the European Champions Cup and last week he was included in Ireland’s Six Nations squad. Has he allowed himself to imagine winning his 100th cap?

“Yes. It would be great. I’m happy with 96, it’s a big number, but everyone’s saying: ‘You have to get to a hundred.’ If I am fit and well I don’t doubt that 100 caps would come. But if it doesn’t, so be it.”

That philosophical approach has calmed Earls. It has taken him many years but, with the help of “behavioural therapy”, writing a journal and talking openly, Earls keeps Hank at bay. He smiles as, in the room next door, his three daughters kick up a happy racket.

Hank won’t like it – but Earls looks at peace. “I definitely am getting there. I spent a lot of years not being myself because I was embarrassed. I always thought other people were better than me and I’d try and be like them. But I’ve finally become comfortable with who I am. I understand what I stand for as a person and a rugby player. I definitely have the right balance in my life now.”

- Guardian

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