It's Not Fame That Freddie Flintoff Is Addicted to, It's the Rush
Smith, Ed, New Statesman (1996)
I have drugs on my mind. I've just read The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton's bleak autobiography about doping in professional cycling. It contains more than enough about injections of the hormone EPO and bags of blood sitting in the fridge next to the milk, waiting to be transfused. But it makes surprisingly little mention of arguably the strongest, most addictive drug of them all: adrenalin.
We have just witnessed more proof of the dangerous draw of adrenalin. Last week, Andrew Flintoff, the former England cricketer, fought a professional boxer in Manchester. After finally escaping all the pain that comes with a career as a fast bowler, Flintoff volunteered to step into a professional boxing ring. Madness? Absolutely. Surprising? Less so. Flintoff has always struggled to maintain focus and self-discipline without the prospect of a serious adrenalin rush around the corner. He said his life was "drifting". With cricket gone, he was searching for a new dealer.
Boxing offers the most guaranteed form of adrenalin: that which follows from being in real and immediate physical danger. The ex-champion boxer Barry McGuigan, who helped train Flintoff for his fight, has described the unmatchable thrill of stepping into the ring. McGuigan is unusually well-adjusted but nothing in the rest of his life has come close to equalling it.
The new normal
It is much wider than boxing, or even sport. The distance between "normal" living and life fuelled by adrenalin is almost as great as the gap between sleep and wakefulness. After a real adrenalin rush, the rest of life resembles a somnolent haze. That is why depressives are often prone to adrenalin addiction. Indeed, Flintoff recently made a programme about depression that revealed his own struggles.
When I was a cricketer, I never thought of myself as being ruled by adrenalin. But I can now see that the veneer of self-control and rationality was quite thin. In my darkest moments, it was adrenalin that I relied upon. Once, just before the start of a crucial one-day game, I thought I wouldn't be able to play at all. I felt swamped and exhausted by team politics and tensions. I was about to open the batting, and even after I'd put my helmet on--the final signal to switch into competitive mode--I felt only diffident emptiness. I went through my usual routine. I always tried to find a moment of peace before I batted, a mini-meditation. Not this time. I couldn't escape feeling burdened and heavy, and my head sank against the wall behind me. It was one of the only times I walked out to bat expecting to fail.
I was rescued by a flash of confrontation early in my innings, followed by a surge of adrenalin. A chance remark by an opponent lit a fuse inside me. I suspect adrenalin can be fuelled by three different sources: first, the feeling of being on the stage; secondly, competitiveness or conflict; finally, the elation that comes with pushing your physical limits. Suddenly, all three were working together. Mental exhaustion gave way to alertness, heaviness was replaced by lightness, diffidence turned into sharp focus. …