In an exclusive interview with GiveMeSport Women, Fara Williams speaks for the first time since revealing she is suffering with Nephrotic Syndrome and reveals how she was in denial about her condition, the mental struggle, and why now was the right time to open up.
Once homeless and navigating the streets of South London as a teenager, Fara Williams is no stranger to adversity. Having spent six years in and out of shelters, she professes to fighting her way through it, and coming out better on the other side.
Indeed, in March 2020, following the result of a biopsy that showed Williams had a kidney condition known as Nephrotic Syndrome, her initial reaction was to treat this illness — or ‘injury’, as she initially considered it — in much the same way as any other struggle she‘d faced: by “fighting back”.
Thinking back to when she was first made aware of her condition, which is caused by damage to the clusters of small blood vessels in the kidneys, Fara concedes that she struggled to process any of the prolonged impacts on her, both physically and mentally.
To be honest, I felt that ill when I found out, I didn’t really think about long-term effects, or any effects, of what medication or side effects might do to me. I just wanted to feel better.
“When I got diagnosed I probably didn’t read into what it was and how serious it could be, it was just more of a case of giving me some medicine to make me better. I’m not one to take paracetamol or anything, so for me to want to take something shows how [bad] I felt back then.”
Despite being England’s most capped player ever, with a myriad of personal accolades to her name, Williams has experienced her fair share of injury setbacks. A hamstring injury affected the majority of her final season at Liverpool, while a pulled quadricep tendon forced her to miss the second half of last season with Reading.
Asked if this latest set-back ever caused her to consider retirement, the 37-year-old was honest in her assessment.
“No, reason being is because I’ve been injured in the past and have been able to fight back from injuries. So when I was diagnosed, I probably treated it, or thought of the illness as something similar to being injured, but actually the longer that illness went on, the more I realised that injuries and illnesses were two completely different things and, mentally, two completely different struggles.”
Williams says her physical appearance — which saw her gain excessive amounts of weight and wake up regularly with a swollen “moon face” — as well as her performances on the pitch, have had the biggest impact on her mental well-being.
She became conscious of how coaches, teammates and fans might judge her. It has taken until now for the Reading midfielder to fully open up, something she’d previously refrained from doing as she came to terms with the condition herself.
“I think I was just in denial about the illness,” she admits to GiveMeSport Women.
I was trying to find my way through it, by playing as best as I could. But I know now, looking back, I was avoiding looking at myself playing. I knew what it looked like in the mirror and I struggled to look.
It wasn’t until just before Christmas that Williams eventually recognised that this setback was like no other she’d faced. It’s taken some time away from the team at home and sessions with a psychologist to come to terms with the weight-gain and not being in control of her body.
This break from football, which enabled Williams to come off her prescribed medicine for a period of time, has helped get her in a more comfortable frame of mind, that in turn is helping her make more rational decisions. That’s why she now believes the time is right to be honest with everyone, in the hope she can provide support to others.
“I know it’s a tough time for so many people, and I perceive myself as somebody that is quite brave and quite mentally tough, so I thought I could open up and be honest about how I felt. Especially with [the ongoing] lockdown. I felt it could help somebody out there.”
This shift in mindset has allowed Williams to get back to something resembling her normal self. She’s rejoined training with the full squad, and is already in the wars once again, having suffered a knock to the head in a recent session. But, as the self-professed “football-addict” put it, she’s just pleased to be out there playing again.
Looking ahead, Williams was keen to stress that she’s not set her sight on any goals, but remains hopeful that the impending international break will be good for her recovery process.
Reading travel to Bristol City on March 7th, and Williams is characteristically optimistic. “I mean, if I get through the next few weeks fine, then hopefully I can be involved within that squad, and potentially get some minutes.”
For now, though, her only immediate aim is finishing this season as strongly as possible. While Williams’ recovery is by no means complete just yet, her eyes are firmly fixed on that Bristol game, as she seeks to add more appearances, more goals, and ultimately more memorable moments to an already era-defining career.