Becoming Lance

Becoming Lance

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It could be anyone’s story…

During his 77-game AFL career former Crow, Hawk and Roo Lance Picioane suffered from extreme anxiety and depression.

In his final five years in the game he tried to quit four times. The only thing that kept him going was a fear of what lay outside football. He was trapped in a game he once loved, but he didn’t want help to escape. When the guillotine dropped on his AFL career after one dysfunctional year with North Melbourne, he was completely lost in life.

Seven years later he has come out the other side and is now dedicated to helping others through the youth wellbeing foundation – Love me, Love You.

For the first time, Lance Picioane shares his story but the reality is that it could be anyone’s story; that’s why he wants it told.

The early years

One should never judge a book by its cover, it’s a tired cliché but it couldn’t be more appropriate when looking at Lance Picioane. He has been through the ringer. The golden locks are gone and while he isn’t the ball of muscle people will remember him as during his playing career; he remains extremely physically imposing, threatening even.

It has probably always been this way. But on the inside he is a caring soul, humbled by his past.

Picioane is the son of a Romanian migrant, his father Joe earned one cap for the Socceroos. At 14 years old he was built like a man and a sporting prodigy. Whether it was basketball, athletics or football he was the best – and the most aggressive.

This was when the anxiety started and his anger roared.

But the physical aggression was in complete contrast to what was actually going on inside his head. The pressure to live up to the expectations of his family and maintain the “Picioane brand” was crippling. There was nothing more he feared than letting people down.

“With success comes expectations and I wasn’t mentally or emotionally mature enough. I didn’t know how to cope with it. I dealt with it through anger,” Picioane said.

“It was the tough love of an Eastern European Dad; in one way it drove me, at the other it drove me away. It was always expected of me to be the best,” he said.

“In my eyes I thought only the best is good enough. But speaking to Dad after footy he just wanted the best for me, not to be the best; at the time I didn’t see it from that angle.”

Picioane enjoyed the adulation and respect that came with being the gun footballer, it’s what he came to identify himself with and his emotions became tied to his sporting performance. It made his parents happy but the truth is it didn’t make him happy.

“I was to be a footballer for everyone else. I enjoyed footy but I didn’t love footy. I enjoyed playing with mates. But when I had the pressure and it was a business I didn’t have that passion, and it shone through in my performance and my dedication,” he said.

“I wanted to make my mum and dad happy, that’s why I played. But the expectation of being the best was something I put on myself. In any job I just wanted to be the best.”

The pressure went to a new level when he moved to South Australia via the 1997 National Draft. Away from his family he “probably had too much of a good time” after hours. “I didn’t cope at all”, he said.

Not only did he feel weighed down by the pressures and expectations he also rejected the stereotypes society had about AFL footballers

“The opportunity to play AFL is one of the best things you will ever do, but I didn’t like that fact that when you tell people you are a footballer they think of you in a certain way. I didn’t like that at all,” he said.

The reality is he embodied what people expected him to be. Most people will remember his cocky chest-out on-field demeanour. One radio commentary team didn’t miss his “head wobbling” approach. It was just a part of the alter ego he had developed; it was how he thought people wanted him to be.

“I turned myself into an overconfident fella who thought I was too big for everyone,” he said.

“I turned myself into an overconfident fella who thought I was too big for everyone” – Lance picioane

“I didn’t need to treat people like that, and that got me down a fair bit.”

So much did he want to separate himself from the job title of AFL footballer he would introduce himself as Minna; a childhood nickname. Lance Picioane the footballer was not who he wanted to be.

Anxiety was by Picioane’s side through his entire career. Driving to games he would often pull over and dry retch. Frequently he would be short of breath and while he doesn’t suffer from asthma he would experience similar attacks.

Depression took hold midway through his career. Injuries, a lack of opportunities and poor form were some of the stressors. Playing was his chance to release his anger and frustration. When he wasn’t playing he would drink, when he drank he would get injured.

During this period he tried to quit the game four times. Only the support of a player welfare manager and a bleak outlook on life beyond the boundary kept Picioane in the game.

“I just walked in and said I’m done. I don’t want to play. I don’t want to deal with this anymore…I’d had enough I just wanted to be a normal person,” Picioane said.

“He said ‘What are you going to do? If you walk out of the club right now what are you going to do? What’s going to happen?’ He said you will be better off actually dealing with your issues.

“I’d deal with it and then it would happen again, it was the same cycle over and over again.”

Following a drink driving incident Picioane was traded for a second time, to North Melbourne, but a change of scenery did nothing for his mindset. “I wouldn’t have gone a weekend without drinking” he said.

“I was there because I needed to be on an AFL list and thought that was what I was about.

“I didn’t know anything else.  It was a job. I was given another opportunity. I hoped it would be another five years in the system. It was the only thing I knew, it was about survival. You are never going to play good footy when you are in survival mode.”

His stint at North Melbourne would only last one season.

At 25 years old and after eight years in the AFL he was a lost boy. “I didn’t prepare myself for life after football as well as anyone should and the party hit, I didn’t work for a while. I had no direction,” he said.

“I was out a lot. To escape reality I was out at every opportunity.”

The ability to release his anger and despair on the field was taken away from him and without a career outside football waiting he put all his efforts into numbing his mind with drugs and alcohol. The inevitable flat patches were all too frequent.

“Some days I would sit in my room and stare at the wall all day. Certain days I would sit in my car in a park all day, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of bed and sleep all day. That was it. It went on for a long time,” he said.

“Some days I would sit in my room and stare at the wall all day. Certain days I would sit in my car in a park all day, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of bed and sleep all day. That was it. It went on for a long time,” he said.

“It got pretty deep.

“I was being the person I thought everyone wanted me to be; a party boy. But really I was just an angry fella who knew how to have fun. I was always down. I was living a big lie with where I was going and what I was doing. I kept dodging things,” he said.

Rock bottom came two years ago when he badly injured his knee playing local football. He couldn’t work as a personal trainer and spent six months sitting on the couch. “Footy was taken away from me again, being laid-up on the couch for a long time and spending time by myself didn’t help,” he said.

“My fiancé said to me one day stop being something that you are not, be what you are and realise what you want to do and where you want to go.

“It made me look in the mirror, it didn’t happen with the click of my fingers; it took me a while to learn what that meant.

“I had to change my life because what I had been doing with my life for the last ten years wasn’t working.

“From that point on I have put all my focus into the foundation.”

The renaissance

Picioane partnered with his mother Glenda and former AFL players Luke Livingstone, Brodie Holland and friend Matthew Pillios to start Love Me Love You. The foundation aims to help young people build emotional intelligence and increase awareness and remove the stigma associated with youth disorders such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and eating disorders. The foundation has partnered with specialist organisations to help people get back to what they love doing the most.

“100 per cent of people have been directly or indirectly affected by one of these issues,” Picioane said.

“The gap between someone recognising they have a problem and actually seeking help is ten years, we want to close that gap.”

Picioane believes there is still a stigma associated with mental illness and one of the goals of the foundation is to break this down.

“As socially acceptable as it is, it’s not socially accepted. People speak about it as a whole. But to speak about it one on one with someone; it doesn’t happen. People who don’t have it don’t want to deal with it,” he said.

When he was playing and he heard of people suffering from mental illness his immediate response was to say they should “harden up”.

“I was hiding away from the fact that I was one of them,” he said.

“My depression was masked by alcohol and violence.

“I used to escape the reality of what was happening. I created this persona of being above it and not having this issue. But my inner circle knew I had issues because they saw me at my most vulnerable.”

Now Picioane describes Simon Hogan’s admission of his battle with mental illness as “very courageous”, but during his time playing he didn’t feel comfortable talking to his teammates about his own issues.

Despite the abundance of support systems available through his clubs and the AFL Players’ Association, Picioane says he “didn’t want help.”

“At the time you don’t want to hear the truth, you don’t want to hear what the problem is and finding that person you have the trust in to have those conversations is difficult.”

Picioane says the turning point was deciding he wanted help. He now takes daily medication and regularly talks with a confidant who is able to provide him with guidance and perspective. His dedication with Love Me Love You is as therapeutic as it is rewarding and the “tingle down the spine” he gets from winning the little battles keep him on track.

Life is good at the moment; next year he will marry his fiancée Emma, who along with his mum, he credits with being his rock through his darkest times. But not before he walks from Melbourne to Sydney in March to raise awareness for the foundation.

Little dog Frankie puts a smile on his face every day but Picioane acknowledges there is more fighting to do.

“You don’t get rid of depression; mental illness is not something you can say ‘ok now I am sweet’. It’s a day-to-day issue that people learn how to cope with. You learn about yourself, you learn what triggers you, what gets you down and what makes you feel up,” he said.

“You don’t let yourself get too high or get too low.”

There was once a time when he feared being identified as an AFL footballer, he would use a nick name rather than introduce himself as Lance Picioane, AFL footballer. But now he is using his profile to help others.

“Now it’s straight out Lance.”

For more information visit lovemeloveyou.org.au or contact lifeline on 131-114 or headspace.org.au

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