Dark Turmoil That Lay Behind the Public Life of The Oracle

Date: October 1, 2011 / Posted by control

Photo: Nic Ellis - The West Australian

Photo: Nic Ellis – The West Australian

By Colleen Egan, The West Australian, 1 October 2011 –

As one of the nation’s top sports broadcasters, Glenn Mitchell has had front-row seats to some of the best events in the world.

Living the typical Aussie bloke’s dream, he’s been behind the microphone during history-making moments of greatness at Olympic Games, cricket matches and footy contests. Dubbed the Oracle for his encyclopaedic knowledge of statistics and facts, he is the ultimate professional on air.

But millions of listeners and viewers over two decades could not have guessed the dark turmoil that sometimes lay beneath his public persona.

“I could be doing Test cricket on Boxing Day, 80,000 people there and I’d do my first stint with Kerry O’Keeffe and it would just be fantastic, and then after tea it would be like out of a blue sky the storm clouds would roll in,” Mr Mitchell said this week.

“And the next session I’d go on air I’d be trying to focus on what I’m doing, trying to get through, and that night I’d go to bed, wake up the next morning and wish I could just pull the curtains closed in the hotel and stay there all day. I’d think, ‘I’ve got to go back. I’ve got to do the cricket today.’

“I was a male working in a very male dominated industry. I was working with experts who are former Australian Test captains like Kim Hughes, or a Terry Alderman, or a Jon Dorotich or Ken Judge. I’m not saying that any of those are non-caring people but you’re wrapped up in the kind of area that is a blokey kind of existence.

“I thought, ‘I can solve this myself’. Sometimes we had days where I’d be on air for eight hours, I’d do Sportstalk, three hours of WAFL, then 3 ½ hours of an AFL match on a Saturday night.
“All the through the day my brain was being programmed to be someone else and trying to be bright or happy behind the microphone.”

The Australian Sports Medal winner took on more and more commitments, refusing to take a sick day for the first 20 years at the ABC. He left the organization with more than 100 days of unused leave. “I saw it as a badge of honour but looking back now, I think how bloody stupid.

“I got so wrapped up and wouldn’t take a day off work – the footy season would roll into cricket into overseas tours into Olympic Games … I was just on a merry-go-round.” A non-drinker who would prefer to speak in front of 3000 people than mingle with a group of 30, he did not maintain friendships outside work.

“I’ve always been a very shy person socially,” he said, “I’ve been invited to 21 Sandover Medal nights and never been to one.

“If I go out to a dinner party, everyone’s got an opinion on Ricky Ponting or Mick Malthouse and that becomes the thing for the night.

“When I had bad depression I’d say to Karen, I wish I was just a pen-pusher somewhere so I could just sit an office and I didn’t have to go on air and be bright and bubbly, I didn’t have to on TV and be smiling at the WAFL, I could do my job, sit in a corner office and take my son to a WAFL match on the weekend.”

Underneath the main part of the house he shares in Floreat with son James and wife Karen Tighe, a fellow sports broadcaster from Sydney, Mr Mitchell’s study is filled with sporting books and memorabilia. It is his “man cave” where he would hide for hours under the guise of work.

“The preparation for games was an escape,” he said. “I can look at a set of numbers and memorize them in five minutes but I’d take two hours and sometimes I’d just sit in here, staring into space, or get a book out and thumb through it. I was very non-communicative and that was hard for Karen.

“I was a prisoner of my own self-pride and from the day George Grljusich dubbed me The Oracle I had to know the answers to all questions and that meant that I had to be studying it and looking at things and memorizing things.”

In 2006, not long after premier Geoff Gallop resigned and publicly announced his struggle with depression, Mr Mitchell spoke to his GP and was prescribed anti-depressants. Having taken the first step, he became frustrated when his black moods did not disappear.

“I was still having dark periods that would last about a week and then a semi-manic thing where I would race around and want to get everything done,” he said. “I’d go and then I went down. My little boy was three and he’d want to do things with me but I could barely drag myself off the couch. He’d be wanting to kick the footy and I just couldn’t be bothered. “Yet when it came to work I was able to go on. I don’t think anyone could have said when I was calling Test cricket or footy that I was not sounding tired or disinterested.”

In mid-2010 he was recommended to a psychiatrist who increased his medication. But it was not until after Mr Mitchell’s resignation from the ABC and suicide attempt in June that the psychiatrist came to a fresh diagnosis, with the help of his wife.

“Unbeknown to me, Karen kept a diary of my mood swings and it was through that that we came up with the diagnosis of bipolar type 2,” he said. “It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. We started a totally different medication, a mood stabilizer. The last eight weeks is the best I’ve felt in years.”

Ms Tighe hoped her family’s story would give comfort to others struggling with mental illness and their loved ones. “It was a case of self-preservation for me,” she said. “I was hanging on by my fingernails but I had to keep a sense of normality for my son.

“Hopefully this is a demonstration that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Depression is not something to be embarrassed about and there is medication and support out there.”
The Summer Grandstand presenter returned to work this week after a difficult winter break.

“Glenn and I have been with the ABC for 20 years and we feel a sense of family so I’ve felt very much the impact of what was happening to Glenn and our colleagues,” she said. “Everyone was caught up in this storm.”

Mr Mitchell said some former colleagues had not forgiven him for his “angry, grumpy” and sometimes “reprehensible” behaviour.

ABC Perth’s local manager Deborah Leavitt yesterday praised Mr Mitchell’s “distinguished career” and said that special commentary opportunities had been offered to Mr Mitchell but he had decided not to take them up.

The chief executive of Lifeline, Amanda Wheeler, said Mr Mitchell had shown great strength of character and was helping others through his story. “When people speak their truth so authentically with the humility that Glenn has learned through this, it inspires others to do the same,” she said. “Glenn is a very proud, typically bloke’s bloke and he is sharing his experiences with people in a very appropriate way.”

In public talks, Mr Mitchell is quoting a new statistic that has nothing to do with sport: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men aged between 15 and 44. He is still coming to terms with having thrown away “the best job in the world”.

“In some ways, the pain of losing my job got me to the point where I’ve got the right diagnosis, I’m on the right medication and I feel the best I have in decades,” he said.

“I can’t escape that I’m still a sports broadcaster at heart. When I’m not there at the Olympics in London there’ll be a reminder that ‘you’re an idiot’ but while I’m not going there doing the opening ceremony in London, my wife and son are not going to be looking at a gravestone in Karrakatta.

“So, for me I’m in the best possible space I can be. It’s been a harrowing six months to get here but I’m here now.”