This article was originally published in March, 2016.
STEVEN Febey was in a dark place nine months ago.
Drinking heavily, drawn into a routine of drug use, he was unhappy and overweight. His financial affairs were in disarray and some of the most meaningful relationships in his life lay behind him in tatters.
He knew he had to take some steps to get his life in order. So he did.
And today he is certain, that after years of talking about it, he has come out the other side.
FEBEY PLAYED 258 games — two of them Grand Finals — for Melbourne over a 15-year career that began after he and twin brother Matthew were drafted from Devonport, Tasmania, in the first National Draft in 1986.
Gazing wistfully from the old grandstand at the Junction Oval, which was the Demons’ training base throughout his AFL passage, Febey now talks about being proud of his football career but content with where it sits in his past.
“It’s one step in your whole life, but it’s done and dusted,’’ the 46-year-old says.
After injuries kept him to a handful of reserves games in his final season, Febey was determined to leave the game in style and was the self-proclaimed ringleader of the Demons’ football trip to Bali at the end of 2002.
It would change his life forever.
On their final night together on the Kuta Beach party strip, the Melbourne footballers slipped some cash to a bouncer to make sure they were the last to leave the Sari nightclub. When the gates clanged behind them in the early hours of the morning, they were closing for the last time.
Most of the Demons headed to the airport the next day, but Febey stayed on with his best mate Mark Andrews, and Melbourne teammates Steven Armstrong and David Robbins. Hungover and tired, the four of them delayed heading out that night, instead lounging in their room at the Hard Rock Hotel, watching a video, “and then instead of catching a cab to the Sari Club, we walked, and that probably might have been the saviour in essence because instead of being in the club when the bombs went off we were just walking in’’.
Terrorists had exploded a bomb at the nearby Paddy’s Bar, throwing Febey across the street against a wall next to the Sari Club. In the confusion as he focused on getting to his feet and scanning around him to find out what had happened to his mates, an even bigger blast went off launching him back to where the first bomb had exploded.
“Your ears are blown, the adrenaline’s pumping through you … I checked my hands, my fingers, toes to see if everything was there — and they were — and then unfortunately the first image I see is looking down on the ground and seeing a gentleman with his hand up saying ‘can you help me?’
“Now, I look down and what I saw really blew my mind (because) he had no legs. His legs were completely gone.
“That’s a really lasting image. To this day I still have that image.’’
Febey was in a trance as he wandered through the debris alone, lifting sheets of corrugated iron trying to find his mates, surrounded by “dead bodies, arms and limbs and the smell of burning flesh’’.
He began to help others, sometimes prevented from reaching those in need by the sheer heat of the fire. Eventually he found his friends in a nearby hospital and “it wasn’t really until hours later that it really started to affect me and (it began to sink in) what I’d seen and experienced’’.
Rather than go back to his hotel room he lingered in the foyer “because I was by myself and it was as scary as all hell’’.
When he eventually headed back to his room and looked in the bathroom mirror he “didn’t recognise myself … I just saw someone who was covered in blood and guts and dirt, but I didn’t see me’’.
Rather than physical burns and wounds, Febey returned to Australia with lasting mental scars.
There would not be the difficult adjustment that many footballers experienced upon retiring from elite sport, “instead I went through more post-traumatic stress’’.
REMARKABLY, DESPITE the trauma, Febey felt he then settled relatively smoothly into the life of a past player.
There was six months in a moon boot after surgery on a chronic ankle injury — his 21st footy-related operation.
At times he struggled with sleepless nights and haunting flashbacks of Bali. But he was excited about “the next chapter of my life’’: he thrived in his full-time sales job at a telco and enjoyed the guilt-free lure of a quiet beer after knocking off of an evening.
“It wasn’t really until a little bit later on that things started to unravel,’’ he said.
Febey believes that the absence of the structure, camaraderie and discipline that came with playing AFL football eventually led him to drift into a destructive pattern of being the life of the party.
In 2008, his seven-year marriage to Hockeyroos gold medallist Louise Dobson fell apart.
While many of the teammates who were steadying influences from his football days settled down with young families or moved interstate, “I was back being single at 37, 38 years of age and I was looking for something. Going out and drinking and carrying on was certainly one of those things.
“I would just put my head in the sand and continue to drink and carry on.”
“It was a bit of escapism. I didn’t have to answer to anyone, I was on my own terms. (But) essentially I wasn’t happy … the late nights, the big weekends, and then some poor decisions that I made in terms of business, property, trusting friendships, lending money, all became too common and before I knew it I was getting further and further behind financially.
“Because I was a social person I was getting further and further into that scene of drinking and carrying on, and I then started making some decisions that were just out of character. Lending money, getting involved in businesses that I didn’t know anything about, spending money willy nilly.
“I just rolled on like that for a number of years and was increasingly getting grumpier and crankier and less sociable but more rowdy when I was out. At the time I couldn’t see it happening, I was just living day to day. I couldn’t concentrate on work but I would just put my head in the sand and continue to drink and carry on.’’
In the background, his parents Neil and Pat were struggling with illnesses and he began to feel the strain of caring for them, although he still harbours regrets that he could have done more.
“Any energy I had for caring I spent on my parents,’’ he said. “I only just had enough for them. I wasn’t doing anything for myself except spiralling deeper and deeper out of control.’’
LATE 2012 was when Febey felt he began to totally spiral out of control.
He was frauded out of significant amounts, lost thousands on bad investments and had to sell the house he was living in. The 10-year anniversary of Bali bombings “reignited a few memories’’. He was also surprised to learn from a friend that Dobson had moved on with her life and started a family of her own with a new partner.
It all left him feeling empty and he sought to fill the void by partying hard.
“I was going out, drinking, sleeping in my car, borrowing money, doing crazy stuff like walking down the street in daylight and looking for my next drink and then trying to justify it by all these events that had happened.
“I was kidding myself thinking it’s OK to do this because all of this bad stuff’s happened.
“And that lasted three years, I suppose. It was constant, constant weekend after weekend. Midweek on any occasion that someone would open a drink, I’d drink.’’
Febey said he would thrive on the challenge of going out on Thursday evenings and outlasting one group of friends “and then I would be going out with Friday friends and then Saturday friends, Sunday friends and the one constant would be me going out every night.
“The reason I would keep going was that I didn’t want to be alone … I just wanted to surround myself with something, even though it probably wasn’t a good thing.’’
In a bid to drink and party through four-day weekends he turned to drugs. “Substance abuse was certainly there. It was almost a competition with myself to see if I could stay up that long.
“Drugs certainly played a part in that and I’m not proud of it, but I was escaping, living a lie and thinking what I was doing was a bit of fun and games until it started to impact on my life financially, family-wise, friendship-wise, health-wise.
“It certainly got to a stage where it was week-in week-out spending thousands of dollars, whittling away a livelihood that I’d set up from football.’’
His preferred drug was cocaine. “It was just like an energy pill for me, a thing to straighten me up and keep me going. Then what happens over time is that keep doing it and doing it and you need more of it. And the scene and the people that you’re around, it’s pretty prevalent and it’s there everywhere you go, to the point where you couldn’t go out without it.’’
Febey got to the point where, in the days after his benders, the come-downs were crippling. “I’d be walking my dog on a shiny sunny day when you should have a smile on your face and be happy as Larry and I’d find myself crying, because of this overwhelming feeling that ‘this is my life, and I’m not happy with this life’.’’
Suicidal thoughts would drift through his mind, although he never sought to act on them.
He tentatively tried to get his life in order a few times but found “the littlest things would tick me off and I’d go on a bender’’.
STEVEN FEBEY knew he could not keep living that life. For a few months he dabbled in talking to counsellors, but his “bloke mentality’’ kept him away from any treatment through medication.
It was only midway through 2015 that he began to get serious about changing his ways.
“My ex-captain, David Neitz, helped push me towards the AFL Players’ Association in terms of talking to someone and getting the ball rolling and really taking charge and getting back control of my life.’’
Once again, he stared in the mirror and did not see himself. Staring back at him was a man who was 25 kilograms heavier.
“I certainly wasn’t fit, I certainly wasn’t financial and I certainly wasn’t happy.
“When you can’t function day to day — opening the mail, answering the phone — even things in life that should make you smile and you’re frowning. There was no enjoyment, no joy, no excitement.’’
It took several months to start turning around the ocean liner that was life and “it’s only six or seven months ago that I really seriously took on some advice and took some action’’.
With the help of an AFL Players’ Association case worker, Febey progressed one step at a time “addressing some issues that I just couldn’t think of doing: paying my health insurance, bills, parking fines, credit card debts. To me at the time all of that seemed so overwhelming.”
He began talking to a psychologist and took a course of anti-depressants, “but most importantly it was being honest with myself and addressing the issues that were ruining my life’’.
He checked himself in to a facility on the Sunshine Coast to help break the vicious cycle of alcohol and substance abuse and close friend Ash Good introduced him to a nutritional program, Isagenix, that helped him stick to a structure around his diet. He gradually began exercising again, initially just going for walks, later cycling and working out in the gym. Gradually he regained “some clarity, some vitality, some concentration’’ as well as dropping from 99 to 75 kilograms.
“Right as I sit here now I couldn’t be any more content and thrilled with life, purely from taking those steps that the AFLPA helped me do,’’ he said.
He hopes his own experiences will prove a cautionary tale for those caught in their own dark place, and is so driven to help others that he has registered the domain name thegoodfebeyguide.
“If you can, take the advice of others. Hear my story, other stories. Post-sport depression, depression, anxiety, addiction, it’s very, very real and at the time when I was suffering it, life just went on. But there are some support mechanisms there that when you are having issues in your personal life … that you can seek some help.
“Thank goodness I did because I regret that I’ve already wasted a lot of time doing something that was fake, but when it does come down to it you’ve got to be ready to do it.’’
The most difficult part was to take the first step. Now he thrives on the challenge of taking another step each day, each week.
“I’m still a work in progress, but what I want people to take out of this story is that, one, there is help there for you and, two, you’re not alone, there are lots of people going through similar experiences and feeling. And, thirdly, reach out and get assistance.
“I feel like I’ve made a change forever. We’ve only got one life, and we need to make the most of it.’’
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