Former Sale Shark Mark Jennings shares his story of addiction, depression, heartache, overdosing, arrests, rehab and now, fundraising.
At 16, a fresh-faced schoolboy from Cheshire became the youngest professional in the history of Sale Sharks. His name was Mark Jennings.
Pacey, strong, robust and a player who thrived on physical contact, the centre would represent England at U16, U18 and U20 level.
Nobody knew then his quite unbelievable story, however, nor the exhaustive torment he would experience in the years to come. By 25, he stepped away from the professional game with minimal fanfare and dealing with personal issues.
Chatting to him in the middle of a global pandemic, Jennings is in the best mental space he’s ever been in, filling boxes with food essentials for struggling families and preparing for the latest enormous physical challenge he has set himself: A 100km run in under 12 hours on a treadmill, raising money for Restart Rugby on May 31.
It’s a charity he says saved his life.
“It’s coming up to 150 days sober for me next weekend,” he says. “And Restart Rugby funded my rehab and psychiatry appointments after I’d finished professional rugby.
I owe a lot to the guys at @RestartRugby @theRPA – these guys were a light to me in some of the darkest times. Would love to raise even a small % of what was funded for me, to help the next player in need.👊 https://t.co/8ZwjLUHgg1 #MentalHealthWeek pic.twitter.com/jusrx6G6pL
“They never turned their back on me so I wanted to do something very special for them, and with Covid happening, fundraisers are getting cancelled so they need it.
“The last five months have been all about self-development and things I need to work on.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Born in February 1993 in Namibia as Jannie Jacobus Smith, Jennings and his birth mother lived off next to nothing, moving on to South Africa. It was here that a couple came across Jennings and wanted to adopt him. After some time and reluctance, the adoption eventually transpired.
Within a year, however, the relationship of his adoptive parents had broken down and Jennings arrived in England with his adopted mother aged four, without a word of English, only Afrikaans.
Again, money and resources were next to nil. And even at such a tender age, loneliness had set in.
“Basically when I got adopted, my adoptive mother couldn’t have kids and the South African husband she had wanted a child. They broke up 12 months later and he effectively just cast us out, with no money.
“She was out working hard to try and get money and put food on the table for us. So from then, the isolation really started for me.
“I got passed around to next-door neighbours, I was trying to stay at after-school clubs all the time. Loneliness set in.
“I couldn’t speak English very well, I picked up everything very slow so my communication skills weren’t great, and I was just a bit socially awkward.
“From then, I always thought I was different and stood out. I started eating a lot, and I think depression and addictive behaviours set in from an early age.”
First, it was food. As he grew older, it became alcohol, cannabis, harder drugs such as cocaine and then an addiction to painkillers. And all of this before his 20th birthday.
A vicious cycle engulfed Jennings even when placed in a world of professional athletes. Off the field he was doing things far from conducive to fitness, which in-turn, led to injuries and having to be off the pitch.
“From as long as I can remember it was food. I still self-medicated with food a lot throughout my career as well, my weight was always up and down, especially during the off-season.
“When I was about 12 or 13, my adopted mum became a landlady and we moved into different pubs. There was a beer cellar there, so everything was to hand. I could literally just walk downstairs and start drinking.
“That’s when alcohol started, and I began smoking a bit of weed then too. Getting to the end of high school, it became cocaine, and then at the end of my teens, it was the painkillers.
“Addictive behaviours never left me.
“When I was training outside with the lads or the 80 minutes on the field, those were the moments for me when my mind was engaged in something and I wasn’t thinking about my past or the darkness.
“To be stuck on the sidelines and not involved, there was literal isolation in terms of within the gym, but it also brought up feelings from when I was younger. It would be really emotional for me.
“It was like a switch in my head. Every time I was away from playing, or as soon as I’d finish a game my mind would go straight back to that darkness.
“I’d want to drink, I’d want to take drugs.”
The past has long since troubled and tortured Jennings.
Having been placed in hardships as a child, flashbacks and memories became customary. As were depressive thoughts of abandonment.
“From as long as I can remember, my mind was so dark. Even small things, like if I failed a subject at school, I’d be telling myself I’m a bad person, and I always thought my birth mum didn’t want anything to do with me.
“I never had food round a table with family, rarely did anything for Christmas. I was bullied in school and the adoption was a huge thing. I’d put on this persona and this mask for so long, that nobody actually knew who I was, and I didn’t know who I was.
“It was a stream of everything which kept coming around, and I didn’t know when it was going to stop.
“I haven’t had any real, substantial conversations with my birth mother. I had never reached out to her.
“She didn’t message me or get involved with what I was doing, but she was always watching over Facebook. She didn’t want to disrupt what I was doing in my life, while I was kind of pointing an invisible finger at her all the time thinking she’d given me away and hadn’t cared about me.
“I had no idea of the circumstances in which she’d given me away, she says it was the hardest time in her life. When lockdown is over, I’m going to go and meet her and start a relationship with her, because she’s missed out on 27 years of my life.”
In late 2018, Jennings, by now with a daughter, reached a point where he tried to take his own life via an overdose.
He was found and saved, before the RPA (Rugby Players Association) stepped in to provide support, payment for rehab and psychiatry. Former Ireland international Mike McCarthy was there to listen.
A torn bicep while an England U20 player had hooked Jennings onto painkillers – he’d never stopped taking them. Rehab in Cape Town was the next suggested step.
The withdrawal Jennings endured was described by staff at the facility as one of the worst they had witnessed.
“I came out of the hospital after the overdose and I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want to speak to any friends or teammates, I effectively switched my phone off and locked myself in a dark room.
“Then I went over to rehab for four months. I was there for Christmas.
“Years ago when I was playing professional rugby, I remember forgetting my painkiller tablets and not having any for two or three days, and I was going a bit cold turkey then, scratching and sweating because I really needed them. That was three years before I went to rehab, so you can imagine how much worse it got.
“When I got there I had the detox, lost a lot of weight, was sweating, my skin was pale, eyes bloodshot, I was having a lot of seizures, my body was literally shutting down.
“They were weaning me off the drugs, but I was locked up and they’d come in and give me drugs and water. It was that serious that they had to take extra precautions because my body was so used to these things that I was literally dying inside.
“It had to be thorough and strict, and they said it was one of the worst.”
Jennings checked himself out of rehab and relapsed almost immediately in South Africa. With family and friends frantically trying to contact him to bring him back, he was AWOL for two weeks before a lack of funds eventually saw him return to England.
All his life, Jennings had never known details about his biological father. It was at this point he set about knowing, and the answer caused him to reach the peak of his despair.
“I carried on drinking when I got back and I just felt as if I had nothing to lose. I’d always wanted to know who my dad was, and growing up I’d watch programmes about families and wanted to have that.
“I thought this fairy-tale ending might happen for me so I reached out to my birth mother and said I needed to know. She was really reluctant to tell me but told me the story about when she was in care, similar to myself, ran away and then ended up in a food bank.
“There was two guys and a woman and they said they were squatting and asked if she wanted to go. She said yes as she didn’t have a roof over her head, she got raped by one of them and that was my dad.
“Physically, it felt like having your heart broken into two. And your mind’s not mentally prepared for that.
“I’d already gone through a lot of situations in my life, so nothing was really surprising me anymore at how bad and dark things could get.
“But that was a real shock to my system. I’d never in a million years thought that would happen, and it sent me even further down into a spiral.
“The story after finding that out was I drank a couple of bottles of gin and ended up in a police cell the next day.
“My friend was there and his partner works in mental health, and she was trying to get me sectioned because of the things I was saying. There was no emotion behind my eyes and I was throwing things off the walls.
“They couldn’t get an ambulance there so the police had to come because the neighbours had rung them, and by the time they arrived I was completely delusional, trying to headbutt the police.”
Jennings avoided prison, but was convicted, handed a fine, 80 hours of community service and a 12-month community order.
As traumatic and hysterical as the incident was, Jennings admits that even this failed to prove a turning point.
“That was halfway through last year and after that I just carried on the same way I’d been going.
“My ex-partner left me, rightly so, because of all the stuff I’d put her through over the years. My daughter went with her. And I just felt sorry for myself, and had this real victim-mentality on the world.
“For eight or nine months after the police incident, I sat on the couch, put on a lot of weight, carried on doing drink and drugs. I’d been paid out by Sale and that money dried up very quickly.
“I got to a point where I had nothing left in the bank, I couldn’t pay the rent on the house.
“I couldn’t get anything substantial job-wise, I’d failed everything at school.
“November-time I got my current job (working for a supplement company), but it was only five months ago in December that things were getting dark for me again and I had to make a decision.
“I knew everything that was happening was in my mind, and I’d never had a conversation with myself about how much of a bad person I’d become, because I’d become such a bad person. I didn’t have a relationship with my daughter, I’d pushed my ex-partner away, I was selfish, a liar, wasn’t a trustworthy person.
“So I just broke myself down and every day for five months I’ve been working on each little part and trying to piece together who I am.
“All these things that have happened should have been wake-up calls, but ultimately I didn’t care and just carried on. Five months ago was the real turning point.
“The RPA helped me out so much in terms of sending me to the best people to get professional help, but before I’d go in for these meetings with people, I already had my mind made-up that I wasn’t going to get better.
“Externally I’d tell people I was back on track and getting better, and then go home and drink.
“Everybody has the strength inside them to make the decision, but you need to be willing to put that graft in, change, and have a really uncomfortable conversation with yourself.
💭 #MentalHealthAwarnessWeek pic.twitter.com/38GbJjAVIT
“I knew the problems I had, but I needed to work on myself and start having a routine and self-discipline – things I’d never had before.
“From building that way, the benefits you get and the journey I’ve been on has been on the rise all the time. I do have dark days still, but because I’ve fought everything head-on from my past and can openly speak about it, I learn to grow through it.”
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week as Jennings speaks, he knows of the vital importance to speak out.
“The amount of times I have one-on-one conversations with people where I open up to them and they open up to me, you feel the energy and never go away from it feeling embarrassed.
“The stigma is changing around it. That fire inside that everyone has, you just need to be able to open up and be at one with your emotions.
“People go through life sweeping problems under the rug for ages, and I did it for 27 years and I’ve missed out on years of life because I wasn’t open about myself.
“There’s no test for depression, you can’t have a scan on your brain and it come back and say you have it. It comes from your mind.
“Self-discipline is self-love, and I’ve found that. I’ve lost over 25kgs, my mental strength is the strongest it’s ever been, I do so much prolonged cardio.
🌅 THE MORE REFLECTIVE YOU ARE, THE MORE EFFECTIVE YOU ARE 🌅
A post shared by Mark Jennings (@jenno_12) on
“A lot of rugby players will tell you I was one of the loudest guys, at the socials I was the one getting the most drunk.
“People often do that because they are hiding who they actually are. It affects every single person, it doesn’t discriminate.
“These issues became a huge negative and it’s a frustration, because if you look at some of the strongest people on this earth, they are people who have overcome huge adversity and pain, shed a lot of tears and heartache.
“The fuel you get from that is unmatched, if you can channel it.”
Having stepped away from rugby in February 2019, does Jennings envisage a return to the sport one day?
“Professional rugby is completely finished for me. I player-coached last year at Wilmslow Wolves because I needed the money, but my heart isn’t in it.
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