The nightmares that haunt Andrew Fifita and the worthy cause that soothes them

Andrew Fifita might get one good night a month.

The other nights, since the throat injury that left him in a five-day coma with blood flooding his lungs, are filled with nightmares.

Physically, Fifita has made a full recovery from a fractured larynx suffered against Newcastle last August. He learned to walk and run again, pushing through a bout of pneumonia and movement of a breathing tube that caused bleeding into his lungs during his induced coma, to keep his NRL career alive.

Mentally, the 32-year-old remains a work in progress.

“I’m still working on myself. The nightmares are real,” Fifita tells The Herald. “Nightmares are just nightmares. They’re not about injuries or anything like that and it’s not recurring (themes), but they’re about anything and everything.

“There’s ways to get around them and that’s what I’m working on. Everyone has dreams. The average Joe dreams at night and for me since my trauma, it’s been more nightmares than normal dreams. In a month-long cycle, I might have maybe one good dream and the rest are all nightmares.

Andrew Fifita’s fractured larynx last year was first treated by paramedics before he was rushed to hospital.Credit:AAP

“I won’t lie, after the accident I developed a fear issue. I didn’t know what it was or how to deal with it because I’ve never really felt fear in that way.

“The first time my kids visited me in hospital a tray dropped behind them. Instead of going to them and making sure they were OK at this big bang, I jumped into a corner and was scared shitless, ‘What’s going on?’

“But I learned how to get over that fear and my psychologist showed me how to handle it and hurdle those barriers. It’s a bit horrific. But I’m ok to deal with it and that’s why I’m comfortable.”

Fifita plays his 200th game in Cronulla colours on Saturday night, well aware it’s a milestone he may easily have never made. He appreciates the fuss coach Craig Fitzgibbon is making over it and loves the fact it’s landed in Indigenous Round, the Wiradjuri man’s favourite on the calendar.

After the accident I developed a fear issue. I didn’t know what it was or how to deal with it because I’ve never really felt fear in that way.

But the number matters little. Not compared to the figures that hit Fifita hardest.

In the year to November 31, 2021, there were 426 suspected or confirmed suicides in rural or regional areas of NSW, 48 more than the previous year.

Among Indigenous youth under the age of 24, suicide rates are three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians.

Fifita’s old stomping ground of Griffith, in the NSW Riverina, has heartbreakingly borne the brunt of both figures, a spate of youth suicide in recent years claiming victims as young as 12.

Andrew Fifita wants to help reduce the rate of youth suicide.Credit:Grant Trouville/NRL Imagery

“It almost became a phase where people were following each other into it,” Fifita says solemnly. “It really hits me and it hurts. It’s hard to express how big a toll that takes in a country town.

“I’ve done a lot of talks down there. I was running clinics on mental health from Griffith to Narrandera to Leeton, it’s beautiful country and it’s just so sad to see. There’s nothing more I want to do with my time than try and change that. I just want to tell these kids that there’s always a way to get help.”

Fifita himself has come so close to the brink before. In 2014 he tried to throw himself out the window of a multi-storey Gold Coast hotel, a friend pulling him back and his brother eventually “throwing me” into rehab.

It was that Christmas he met the psychologist he has called whenever needed since. The same, long-time sounding board who has offered Fifita a post-footballing role with the TAFE diploma in counselling he completed earlier this month.

What began as a passion project for the 32-year-old and retired teammate Josh Dugan has seen more than a dozen of Cronulla’s top 30 squad roped into the course.

“They’re going to be qualified counsellors coming from the male-dominated field of rugby league, that are walking, talking, living examples of, ‘It’s OK to seek help’,” teacher Darryl Gardiner says.

Fifita has already gone further, down the commenting, scrolling and trolling online rabbit-hole by co-founding a mental health and wellbeing app, Croo, last year. Croo allows users to track their mood daily and notifies trusted friends and families if someone’s mood is trending downwards.

“We’ve had really positive feedback and I use it myself every morning, I start my day with three positive things on the app and it helps me get past the rough nightmares,” Fifita says, having partnered with friend Jardian Ormsby on the project.

“We’ve got a second drop for primary school students coming soon. The idea is to make less work for the teachers and give a small report card on your child’s wellbeing at the end of the term, keep parents across that side of things.”

Andrew Fifita in action for the Sharks after making a full physical recovery from a fractured larynx.Credit:Getty

Holding court on mental health, Fifita presents as a different species from the controversy that has followed him through most of those 200 games for the Sharks. Even further from the western Sydney teen bailed out of lock-up by his mum, again, and told by a magistrate he could either get out of town – to Griffith it turns out – or go back behind bars.

“Oh man … absolutely not. I was too busy stealing shit,” Fifita booms at the thought of his teenaged self’s mental awareness. “I stole everything – young stupid me. I was just trying to get money. I look back now and just shake my head. But that’s where I’ve come from and come a long way.

Fifita with his two children Latu Jay and Lyla.Credit:Grant Trouville/NRL Imagery

“Look, mental health just wasn’t a thing for me as a kid. It wasn’t in a lot of cultures, and definitely not in older generations.

“But I’m really passionate about getting out to those remote towns and teaching this stuff every day. We’re just trying to break the stigma. Especially for men, for teenagers and that young age group, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

“All it takes is one conversation. ‘Are you OK?’, ‘How’s it going?’ And that’s all I’m saying to families, ‘Don’t be too late to ask the question’.”

Bringing it all back home, from that Brisbane hospital to the NSW Riverina, is fierce pride in his own skin.

Along with striving to mark Fifita’s milestone match, Fitzgibbon has driven a concerted cultural buy-in since arriving at Cronulla.

The club has organised daily Indigenous Round events this week while a cultural awareness day earlier this year had “Fitzy in the middle shaking a leg,” Fifita cackles, “I wish we had’ve filmed it.”

Standing on the rocks at Cronulla as the sun rises with his two eldest kids, Lyla and Latu Jay, the nightmares of the previous evening are long gone.

“That’s when I’m proudest and happiest, I’m really big on not letting the culture slide for my kids on both sides, my Indigenous heritage and our Tongan side too,” Fifita says.

“I’ve taught them how to say, ‘I’m a proud person from our land’. I’m inspired by those who pass down stories and knowing that my son goes back to land, comes back and can express himself as a proud Aboriginal boy, that inspires me to keep doing the same and keep encouraging him.”

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