David Allen - Confronting Demons

In a world dominated by macho image and giant statures, the idea of confronting one’s demons and controlling one’s depression in a public forum may sound out of character.  For 24 year old David Allen though, as he approaches both the biggest fight and potentially most prosperous fight of his burgeoning career he has decided to own his past.  Not only that, but his will is to make the lives of others easier in reading his own troubles.  All of this while less than two weeks away from fighting renowned British heavyweight Dillian Whyte.

“I’ve been a weird man all my life” says David when I ask him about choosing now to publicly open up about his past.  “I’d been boxing about 15 months and had a gambling problem as well as depression which didn’t help.  I think it made it a lot worse.  That was my coping mechanism; I wasn’t training at the time and went up to 21 stone.  I was working in a school with kids who had behavioural problems while I was out gambling and eating, then I stopped doing that job in May 2015 and at one point I didn’t leave the house for six weeks.  I wore the same purple jumper with a hole in it and I don’t think it got washed in those six weeks.  It all got on top of me at one point and I thought ‘You know what, fuck this’.”

It’s an astonishing admission by the young boxer now residing in Doncaster.  In the public domain of Twitter he has built a huge amount of love and respect from fans of the sport through being a playful, humorous man.  He displays a sharp wit and down to earth nature that has endeared him to fans of both himself and his opponent on July 30th, Whyte.  But what many who interact with Whyte won’t realise is the personal struggle that he has been through to be in a position to take to the ring at the First Direct Arena in Leeds.

“At the lowest point, I don’t know the date but I know it was end of June 2015, only a year or so ago.  I was found unconscious in my living room.  They came in and found me laying however I was.  That was it, the secret was out.  Actions got taken from that point, until then I had been trying to deal with it but I obviously hadn’t been able to.  Nobody knows this to this day, I could count on one hand the number of people who know.  Stefy (Bull, David’s Manager) knew eventually after a period of time, maybe four or five months later.”

Allen puts the fact that he didn’t take his own life down to him “not being a handy man”.  The action that Allen took was both swift and a proven path for those who have suffered depression as he sought the guidance of a Counsellor and made changes to his own life.  “I went to see this woman once a week and I absolutely hated it.  I used to cry my eyes out every single time before I went thinking ‘what the fuck am I doing, why am I going here?’.  I would be in bed and I just couldn’t move.  It was weird – physically it was like I had a weight down my ankles that were stopping me from moving.  At the lowest point I couldn’t move a muscle, I’d just lay there.  The only other time I have felt like that was sparring Tyson Fury – there’s absolutely nothing you can do!  I had a meeting with Stefy in December 2015 and he asked me what I wanted to do and I looked him in the eyes and told him I wanted to be getting out and boxing.  I moved back to Doncaster at that point and that helped.  If I had stayed in Leeds I don’t know if I’d still be here now, I was just on my own all the time.  I got stuck into the boxing and I haven’t looked back.”

As David says himself, being the type of man that he is and in the industry that he earns his money, taking the step to seek a Counsellor is not one that came naturally.  However he also believes that if he was able to take that step and be honest about it, then others can hopefully follow his path and seek the help that can control depression.

“There was something holding me, I didn’t know what it was.  I’ve spoken to a lot of people now like Doctors and Counsellors and it makes sense.  If I can admit to it, being as stubborn as I am and I’m meant to be a big hard man, I think a lot of people can talk about it too.  The best thing I ever did was put myself in a position where I had to talk about it.  You can see it in people.  I had a good friend at the time who was suffering the same so I was able to speak to him a little bit about it, but I still never fully admitted it.  I was lucky he kind of said to me what he was struggling with.  You don’t fully delve into it as men!  All is well that ends well, but people really need to admit it and seek that help.”

David says the depression is deep rooted, something that has affected him from a young age.  “It was something I always managed to keep to myself.  As a young lad I used to speak to my mum about it and say ‘I’m not very happy you know, I want to walk to someone about it’ but it was always brushed under the carpet.  But I’m stubborn and as I got older I thought to myself that I can do this.  Thing is, my dad is a crazy man, it may be hereditary!  My dad wouldn’t have a clue about this.  I was brought up that way and I’m sure my dad had a lot of issues to but he would never discuss them.    I’m 24 now and starting to grow up a little bit.  At first I was ashamed but I look at it now and I think to myself ‘what is there to be ashamed of?’.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  You are what you are and it’s as normal as anything else.  It affects a lot more people than you realise.  I know what it’s like, I’m not saying mine is worse than what anyone else has been through, but anyone who is suffering even a little bit, they should talk to someone about it.  I wish I had spoken to someone a lot earlier.”

He says that speaking over his issues has been the key to re-taking control of his mental health.  As hard as the task has been, by his own admission he would not have been successful with the help of professionals. 

“All the medication and talking, it’s not the answer completely.  But there’s certainly more chance of getting through it if you do it and have others around you.  I’m a big man but I’m not shy to have a cry.  The thought of others going through the same things I have but not wanting to come forwards and talk about it – when I see people take their own life – it’s all saveable.  The counselling is weird; they don’t actually ask a lot of questions, it’s just yourself talking.  It’s just someone who would listen to me and I wasn’t being judged for what I was saying.  I had a lot of things on my mind and my chest that I needed to get out and I wasn’t going to be able to do that with someone that I knew.  You don’t beat it on your own.  You can’t, that’s a fact.  I wasn’t beating it on my own and it was getting worse and worse and I didn’t even realise.  ”

We speak about what the triggers are for his depressive episodes.  Lack of focus is a key problem.  As a boxer your work is cyclical; typically a fighter will look to take a bout every three months, each including an eight week training camp in the build up.  However it isn’t that simple, a boxer doesn’t have their arm raised and then have an opponent lined up for three months time.  The politics and match making mean that delays can happen and this, as Allen says, is the time that his depression is at the highest risk of happening. 

“I need direction.  If I don’t have direction in my life then that’s it.  If there’s nothing to aim for I just go to shit.  People tell me that I’m a professional and I should keep my mind on it but that doesn’t make any difference, I am what I am.  I don’t want to be like this but that is how it is, sometimes I can’t physically do something.  It’s the strangest feeling ever.  After boxing the Frenchman my life just went upside down, I don’t even know what happened.”  The Frenchman was Fabrice Aurieng, an opponent in October 2015 who David beat on point.  “I boxed him then went back to the gym and then went missing from it for a week.  I’d got back into the same rut, all the money I earned against the Frenchman I gambled away and I put on a stone and a half in a couple of weeks.  I was back laying in bed again doing nothing.”
Reece Macmillan

The gambling is another strand that continues through the depressive episodes.  “The gambling used to fill the days, used to keep me busy.  I’d use it as a distraction and not think about it.  Then suddenly you’re in a position where all your money is gone.  I wasn’t boxing at the time so there was none coming in.  It got to the lowest point where I had no money, I wasn’t boxing and I was still feeling the same way.  You end up thinking the only way out is just to end it.  My life looks good from the outside.  A lot of other people’s lives look good from the outside.  You never know the full story of what’s going on.  People preach that all the time and it sounds really cliché but you really do never know what’s going on.  People look at me and they aren’t going to think ‘I bet he’s a degenerate gambler who tried to kill himself’ – they just don’t!”

I ask Allen what would have been his response if, 12 months ago, someone had told him that he would be boxing Dillian Whyte on Sky as part of one of the largest domestic boxing cards of 2016.  His answer is typically frank.  “I’d have thought they were taking the piss.  This time last year I thought I was never going to box again, I wasn’t seeing anything.  When I talk now about it I know how I was feeling, I just can’t put it into words.  It’s just a feeling I can’t explain, absolute nothingness.”  So is there a risk that, if the fight doesn’t go in his favour, he could fall back into a depressive state?  “I don’t even know the answer to that question.  If I lose to Whyte I might go into a lunatic, but I might be fine.  I took the Whyte fight because day-to-day I don’t know what’s going to happen.  My Manager Stefy Bull would say the same; we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.  Tomorrow you could pull me out of KFC eating £50 worth of chicken in shorts and t-shirt covered in orange juice sat in Doncaster town centre.  That’s the kind of man I am!  You find me doing all sorts of weird things.  I find myself doing things to cope.”

Suicide is the most common cause of death for males aged 20-49 in England.  Allen avoided being part of those statistics through whatever act of fate or luck.  “I’m not a religious or spiritual man, but I’m here still for a reason.  It’s crazy to think a year ago to where I am now, I was at one of the lowest points in my life and now if I beat Dillian Whyte I have the world at my feet.  I’m a genuinely happy man now.  All the cliché sayings - it doesn’t last forever, after the rainbow – they’re true.” 

So did Allen accept inwardly that he was of a depressive state of mind before his attempt?  “I accepted it to myself but I was never going to accept it to anyone else.  Put it this way, if Dillian Whyte knocks me out on July 30th I still won’t accept he’s a better man than me because that’s just the kind of man I am.  I can’t accept things even in black and white, I’m a stubborn man.  But now when I look back at it I have no shame, I can talk to anyone about what happened.  There’s no shame in it whatsoever and I don’t know why I was before.  It affects everyone at some point in their life, everyone.  Even if it isn’t that person it can be a friend or a family member.  It can’t be something to be ashamed of.” 

He is honest about how his mental state has hindered his career progression.  Fights have been cancelled on his behalf because he wasn’t in the right state of mind.  Medication is something that he has turned down to help manage the situation, but he acknowledges that each individual should take the path to recovery that best suits them.  “I’ve been to the doctors and been given tablets but I won’t take it.  People probably should take whatever they’re given but to me speaking about it was the best thing I did.”

Now that he is able to contextualise what happened and is in a position where he can reflect on the dark days, David is also able to realise that now he is in a good place although he is also conscious of the risks.  “I’ve been alright for a long time.  Every now and then I feel a bit down but yeah…..I feel a lot better now.  I know it could be any time, any day.  It comes and it goes and there doesn’t seem any reason behind it, I don’t know what it is.”

With his increased platform that he is receiving through the attention of the Sky cameras as well as the admiration of boxing fans, Allen wants to use his words to inspire others who may also be suffering.  “It will affect people far more high profile than me, I’d love for them to come forward.  If I can help anyone now, if anyone can think ‘well that fucker has come forward then I can’ – then I will have helped.  I’m doing this a week before Dillian Whyte’s going to punch my face in!  If I can admit it now then I hope anyone can.  As I’m building a bit of a profile I want to come forward and discuss it, I’m not scared to be that man that puts himself out there.  People may perceive me as looking a bit daft but I’m not scared to put myself out there to help others.”

It takes a brave man to be able to speak so openly with the aim of assisting others.  He is open on Twitter with fans and tries his best to answer any interactions from fans and non-fans alike.  As fighters will attest, training camps can be a lonely place and for Allen, he gets a buzz out of being able to have a door to the outside world.  “A lot of the things on Twitter keep me going.  I live a lonely life, on Twitter I interact with other people.  I don’t have many friends in the world in all honesty, I have about three friends.  I like Twitter, I’m a nobody and I enjoy interacting with people.  I’m 24 and maturing all the time, but you realise that deep down we are all little kids who just want to be accepted.  You get the good and the bad and it’s how you take it.  I love the banter and I can take it, even the people that are rude I love.  Those people are educating on me in life.”

He also uses his ever increasing popularity to look to help others who have suffered as he has.  “I’ve always been someone who wants to help others, but since that darkest moment I get people private message me on Twitter and I have found I can’t say no to anyone now!  I can’t help it!  If anyone has the need to talk to anybody them I am that friend.  It’s made me a different person, it’s shown me life in a different light.”

So for those that may not wish to contact Allen directly, what advice would he present to anyone that is suffering in silence at present from his own experiences?  “Talk to someone.  It’s hard because people tell you what you should be doing but you just have to stick it out.  I don’t believe in karma and things like that, but life does balance out in the end.  Look where I am now, things are good.  A year ago my life was crumbling and I was ready to end it and now here we are.”

Here we are is a light place for Allen, a place where he can reflect and contextualise his problems of the past.  Talking so openly and honestly about his own past he hopes will inspire others to take the steps needed to bring themselves the help required.  Allen isn’t a preacher, he doesn’t say what is the right or wrong approach for others.  He merely explains what his crutch was, how he steered himself to the place he is today.  That place on July 30th will be sharing a ring with the fearsome Whyte.  But for Allen he has already battled the fearsome, he has overcome far bigger obstacles than any man can lay in his path.  Win or lose in Leeds, Allen will have gained the respect of a wider audience as both boxer and man.