Michael Lipman: ‘If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been a lot more careful’

Michael Lipman: ‘If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been a lot more careful’

I

t’s been two months since Michael Lipman was diagnosed with mild dementia, two weeks since he was diagnosed with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He feels in limbo, wonders if what’s happening would make more sense if he was an old man. “I’d think I’d be like: ‘Yeah, OK,’ you know?” But he is only 40. He has no idea what the rest of his life is going to be like, and that scares him. So he’s doing what he can. “Taking exercise, trying to eat well, limiting alcohol, just try and treat yourself well, and keep your mind ticking over by doing crosswords and sudokus, studying, anything to help you train the brain.”

There are days when Lipman doesn’t want to get out of bed. “If you go outside you might embarrass yourself, might do something, or say something, that’s going to get you in trouble. I feel like your bedroom is your safe zone, you know? And when I’m in there no one can do anything to me.”

In his playing days, Lipman was full of life, “always out and about, always up and at them”. He was a busy, bustling openside flanker. Born in England, raised in Australia, he played for Bristol, Bath, and then went back to the Melbourne Rebels. He was good, too, played 10 times for England, and was a key player in the Bath team that won the Challenge Cup in 2008. Some people will remember him as the player who resigned from Bath when he got caught up in a drug-testing scandal. Others will remember, too, how much he gave to the club, that he was picked as the community player of the year because of all the work he did around town.

Lipman’s speech can be a little hesitant, and uncertain. Often he’ll pause while he’s searching for his words, and his wife, Frances, is there, off-screen, helping him through the interview. “I think you’ve noticed during this chat that my speech sometimes is quite inhibited,” he says. “It’s a real issue for me because I love having a chat.” There are other symptoms. “I’m irritable. Incredibly irritable. I’m impatient. Extremely impatient. And I get to a stage where I’m that frustrated where I just can’t handle certain things and I’ll walk out of the room. Then your mood swings go up and down like a bloody yo-yo, sometimes you go: ‘Oh I’m happy as hell,’ and then you’re as bloody down as anything.”

Michael Lipman receives treatment during Bath’s European Challenge Cup final against Worcester in 2008

There is an old interview with Lipman from 2009, which he gave after he had suffered several concussions in a short space of time. In it, he says he had passed the mandatory cognitive tests, but still felt disorientated and after taking advice from a neurologist decided he should take some time off. He said then that he didn’t want to take a chance “not when the risks are of brain damage, memory loss, the shakes and all those sort of things”. He later admitted that around this time, two experts told him in private that he should retire. In the end, he played on for three more years. And now here he is.

If it’s hard for him, it’s harder for Frances. “You reckon it’s a daily battle for me? My God, it’s a daily battle for her. Some days I’m really good and then she remembers: ‘Yeah this is the man I love.’ And then there’s other times that are very testing. But the way she’s handling it is incredible. I couldn’t put up with me. No way.” I ask how long they have been together. “Five years,” he says, then corrects himself, “no, four years. And we’ve been married for – how long?” She tells him: “Three-and-a-half.” He’s embarrassed. “You see? I should get that right. Little things like that. I should know that, off the top of my head.”

We all love rugby. And ultimately we want our players to be safe. Or else they might not have a sport to play

When they met, he had finished playing and was working in real estate. She realises now that there were warning signs. He was having severe migraines, and they could not understand why. “We were just really confused for a long time,” Frances says. Because she hadn’t seen him play, it never really occurred to her that they might be linked to his rugby career. Then there were the mood swings. “I just never knew what person I was getting.” And his memory problems. He even forgot that she had already been married. “When Michael proposed to me I was still technically married to my ex, and I said: ‘I’ve really got to get my divorce in order now’ and he looked at me and said: ‘That’s really important information you should have told me earlier.’”

Frances remembers how she stared at him, that she could not understand why he didn’t remember such an important detail. She worried it was arrogance, “that I wasn’t important enough for him to listen to or remember things I would say”.

“There were all these little things,” Frances says, “and you couldn’t put your finger on any of them.” Then they got the diagnosis. “Now I’ve got a lot more understanding, and a lot more tolerance.” They have two children, a two-year-old and a nine-year-old. “The two-year-old is too young to understand, but my wife has had a chat with the nine-year-old about the mood swings,” he says. “She’s explained that it’s not personal, the impatience, the frustration. She’s very good at that, which helps. If my wife didn’t say anything, there would be arguments left, right, and centre.”

Outside of the house, there are. “There was an incident when Michael ended up going off at a local bartender,” Frances remembers. “It was very out of character, really embarrassing for the family, because we’d go there as a family all the time. And these are the little things we go through. And it’s really hard for Michael to talk about, because they’re not his proudest moments.” She starts to cry. “When we realised this was going to go public, we were so worried about how people were going to perceive Michael. His biggest fear is ‘people are going to think that I’m stupid or I’m dying’.”

Michael Lipman and his son Joey at their home in Davistown on the NSW Central Coast in Australia.

But they keep talking, despite that, because they want to increase awareness about what they are going through, and help other families who might be suffering too. “Knowledge is power,” says Frances. “And if families of people who have played contact sport are able to recognise signs and symptoms, so they could maybe get help a lot earlier.” He agrees. “That’s the whole point,” he says. “We all love rugby, we all love sport. And ultimately we want our players to be safe. Or else they might not have a sport to play. And we want to keep our sport intact.”

He doesn’t regret his career, says he would do it all over if he could. “But if I knew then what I know now, in terms of how I’m feeling, and what my wife and family go through on a daily basis, I definitely would have been a hell of a lot more careful, and wouldn’t have done a lot of the things I did do. I wouldn’t have changed the way I played, but I certainly would have taken a lot more precautions than I did during my career. And I would have listened to my body a lot more than I did.”

Lipman remembers instances when he was concussed, and would find an excuse to go off to the blood bin “you’d get 10 minutes and that would help you” and then he’d go back on. “As a player, you’re not thinking straight, you’re always going to say: ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ I used to do it. You say whatever you need to say to get back on the field and help your friends. Because you’ve got a lot of adrenaline going, there’s a lot of pressure on yourself, and on the team, and you want to get back out there because that’s what you’re employed to do.” Ultimately, the players need to be protected from themselves, by administrators, coaches, medics, and the media.

By opening up about what he is going through, Lipman is doing his best to try and stop other players from making the same mistakes he did. He doesn’t say it, but you have to ask why the game was not able to do the same for him.