'I was warned I'd end up in jail or dead' - Non Evans on lockdown mental health battle

  • 'I was in such a state - a friend said she thought the next time she saw me would be in a box'

Welsh athlete Non Evans MBE has spoken publicly for the first time about her mental health battle during the coronavirus pandemic, when she was warned she could end up in jail or dead.

The 47-year-old said a struggle to accept her retirement from sport, combined with lockdown loneliness, led to an 'all-time low' of alcohol misuse and a criminal conviction.

Non - the first ever female rugby player to receive an MBE for services to sport - is one of Wales' most capped women, and has also represented her country in weightlifting, judo and wrestling.

She spoke about her battle as part of an ITV Cymru Wales documentary exploring how the pandemic has affected people's mental health.

The hour-long programme is presented by former Welsh rugby international and endurance athlete Richard Parks, who has himself experienced depression and anxiety.

Non, from Swansea, told Richard: "Lockdown happened and I really struggled.

"My career came to an end with an injury, and that's probably when my depression - I didn't really know what it was at the time - and anxiety started.

"The feeling I had when I retired... suddenly lockdown happens, and I felt back to square one. And I just hit an all-time low."

Non is one of Wales' most capped women's rugby players. Credit: PA Images

'I think everybody's got demons - but mine was definitely retirement from sport'

Non recalled how she turned to alcohol in a bid to deal with her feelings.

"It would go from a glass of wine to a bottle of wine, which doesn't sound a lot, but I'm quite small," she said.

"In the end, I was drinking to feel normal, rather than drinking to not feel normal. And that was the most frightening thing. I never, ever want to be back there again.

"I was so embarrassed. I did things around Mumbles - I got arrested for my behaviour in public. Which is, again, embarrassing. But being in the public eye, that's on the front page of the papers - and people know.

"I met a friend of mine yesterday - she's actually a police officer down in Mumbles. She called round for a cup of tea - not for anything else, thankfully! And she said 'Non, I thought the next time I'd see you would be in a box. You were in such a state, I really did think you were going to die'."

Richard asked Non: "Will you share with me how you got to that point? What were you trying to mask or get away from?"

Non replied: "That's a really good question. I think everybody's got demons - from their childhood, from work - but mine was definitely retirement from sport. That's where it started.

"I was lonely. I didn't have the support network from my friends in the rugby team; the judo squad; the wrestling squad. I had people around me constantly - you always had somebody there. When that's taken away from you, which happened with the lockdown, that loneliness and being on your own... it's hard.

"And I think that's when your mind plays tricks again. So mine all started with loneliness - wanting to forget my depression, not being in the public eye any more, not being 'Non Evans, the top athlete' any more.

"Drinking was social, and then in the house on my own, and then... that was the worst bit, when the drinking became a physical addiction. I mentally didn't want to drink ever again, but physically I had to, to feel normal."

Non with the MBE she received in 2011 for services to sport. Credit: PA Images

Non admitted she "hated herself" at her lowest ebb, and knew she had to make a change before it was too late.

She said: "What scared me the most was being arrested and and told, 'If you don't get a grip, basically, you'll end up in jail'.

"So I thought, right, if I don't sort myself out, I probably could die. I'll probably die of liver failure or alcohol poisoning, or I'd get hit by a car... or I'd end up in jail. Which is the last thing I wanted.

"So that was a trigger. And I wanted to get back to my proper sleeping patterns, have proper eating patterns, have proper training patterns - even if it's going for a walk in the morning. And I just wanted to get my life back on track before something really bad happened."

When asked what got her through that dark period, Non said: "I had the support network. But somebody said to me one day, 'Nobody can help yourself, except you'. And when I got that mindset, I did it.

"That was probably just over a year ago, and it's been a hard year, but I've rebuilt my life. And for the first time since I retired from sport, I'm looking forward to life.

"It's been tough and I'm embarrassed saying this because I've never said it publicly. But if anybody out there is suffering, a lot of us have been through it and honestly my message is - if you want it enough, only you can do it, and you will come out the other side."

Non was one of several people from all walks of life to appear in the documentary with Richard Parks.

Welsh opera singer and broadcaster Wynne Evans also spoke frankly about his mental health struggles during the pandemic, and said he has previously considered taking his own life.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article or in the programme, there is a list of places you can contact for support on ITV’s mental health resources webpage: itv.com/advice 

You can watch Richard Parks: Climbing out of Lockdown here.