In the first snippet of a feature from the latest SA Rugby magazine, former Springbok AJ Venter opens up on his recovery from a devastating anxiety attack, and his desire to help others in a similar situation.
Tell us how you got to the place where you had a serious anxiety attack.
OK, strap in [laughs]. At the end of my career I looked forward to retirement because I was excited about getting into the business world. I started at Absa Wealth and later moved to Old Mutual, where my job was to identify and attract high net-worth individuals in South Africa and introduce them to our investment experts. Then I went on my own and in the process lost a lot of money. That was the start of my anxiety. I progressively lost confidence in myself as an entrepreneur. I was also under significant financial strain as a result of these failed businesses. Add to that, I’ve had two divorces, which left deep emotional scars. The breaking point was when I had my heart broken by someone.
That, combined with all the other things I mentioned, made everything fall apart. There are many things that cause anxiety and depression. Some people are predisposed to it genetically, some because of their experience as children, etc. Mine was circumstantial. As the circumstances started getting worse, I was only able to see the negative things in my life. In my talks I used the example of someone wanting to buy an Opel Corsa. That person is so focused on that, that they start seeing many Opel Corsas on the road. The reality is that those cars have always been there, but because it is dominating your thoughts, you notice it more. Similarly, after two or so years of hardship, all the negativity in my life dominated my thinking. There was a dark cloud over me constantly and I couldn’t see a way out. I hit rock bottom over three weekends.
For a while, I’d notice that I got quite anxious from around Wednesday or Thursday, because I knew I was going to spend the weekend alone. My mates all have kids, wives or girlfriends, so I didn’t want to be a burden. I’d end up bunkering down in my apartment alone. This went on for a couple of weeks until one Friday I woke up and was struggling to breathe, my heart rate was up, my hands were sweating and my mind was hazy. By that afternoon it had gotten so bad I wondered if I was on the brink of a heart attack. I called my doctor, who despite not being able to see me, made an educated guess that I was having an anxiety attack.
What happened after that?
My doctor called my local pharmacy and prescribed some medication, which I took and felt better within a few hours. I kept taking it the next day but by the Sunday I was conflicted and struggling with a long-held belief in not taking medication. I googled the medication and found out it was an anti-depressant, which didn’t sit well with me. I felt like I was masking the problem but the minute I decided not to take it I went straight back to the place I was mentally on the Friday. I needed to get help. I remembered our team psychologist during Kevin Putt’s reign, Alan Kleinhans. I contacted him through Facebook. He was in London but a couple days later we video-called and started the process of healing. That was where everything changed.
What made the change?
I got off the medication as a start. The problem was mental so I had to change my mind. We worked on a strategy to fill my mind with positive thoughts. In theory that’s simple, but when you’re in a negative state of mind, it’s incredibly hard to do. So I learned to identify when I was slipping into a negative space, and how to intervene immediately by taking that thought and isolating it, wiping it away mentally and replacing it with a positive thought. That would often take the form of gratitude for the smallest things in my life … food on my plate, a roof over my head, a great group of friends and so on. It was hard work. It took me two or three months of this process, but after that I’d trained my mind and it came naturally.
The cloud disappeared. That was the one thing, the other is that I made a conscious effort to surround myself with people who’d feed me with positivity, because it is true that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So when I distanced myself from people or a person, I’d consciously replace them with a group or individual who would build me up. A big part of this included reassessing which accounts I followed on social media. There is so much positivity on social media if you look for it. I purged a couple of accounts that weren’t serving my purpose and followed others that were…
*Part 2 of this interview will be published on site on Tuesday
His entrepreneurial spirit and what he is doing professionally now.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, I’ve always been a go-getter. I’ve had to learn to be more patient in business, do more research before jumping in. But I’m grateful for those lessons, they’ve made me a better businessman and one day I’ll use that in my own business again.
I work for Itec, a great company that works in the office technology space. That covers everything from biometrics, supplying internet, offering printing solutions, telephony, video conferences systems, CCTV, anything tech related in the office space, we do.
Then I’ve got a pet project, the Life with AJ Venter podcast. There is no financial gain from that, I use it as a platform to share my story and that of others who have interesting stories in the hope that it would help people who listen.
Finally, I do talks at businesses which are close to my heart. There are many people who struggle with what I had. If I hadn’t have the opportunity to speak to psychologist Alan Kleinhans, who changed my mind over three or four sessions, God knows what may have happened. I’m not a psychologist, but if my experience and the knowledge I’ve gained from that experience can help someone move from darkness to light, that is a victory.
For those in need of assistance with any mental health issues, I’d also strongly recommend going to www.sadag.org
*This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale.