Cathal McCarron: 'I want to get across how destructive addiction actually is and what it has done to my life.... it nearly killed me. But there is hope, there is light at end of the tunnel'
Tyrone Gaelic football star Cathal McCarron spiralled out of control due to gambling, which, at his lowest point, led to him participating in a gay pornographic film for £3,000 in cash, money he blew at the bookies within just two days. As his new book is published, he reveals how he's rebuilding his life
Declan Bogue: How has feedback been so far about the book?
Cathal McCarron: At the start, the feedback when it came out that I was doing a book, some people were asking: what I was doing it for? Since it has come out, the reaction has been unbelievable. I think people have now read it.
Most people have read it. Some people wrote columns about it and they admitted they had not read the book. I think that's poor journalism, to be honest. How can you comment on anything when you have not read it?
DB: To me it's a book about addiction, more so than a sports book, with a couple of personal life hooks.
C McC: It is. Of course, there is sport in it and sport is a massive part of my life. But the reason I wanted to do it was to get across how destructive and bad addiction actually is and what it did to my life. It nearly killed me.
The aim for the book was to show what gambling can do, to see how bad it can get, (for) somebody who is in that real bad place, through addiction or depression or a low, low place. It is a hard old read. Hard to see all of that. But there is hope and a light in it at the end as well.
I thought I would never work again. Or play football again. It's to give people hope that you can fall and get back up again, get back up and play sport at the highest level or do whatever they want to do. It's about hope.
DB: How has your family reacted?
C McC: My father does not read any books. I've never seen him reading a book in his life. I got the book and brought two copies home, one for Mammy and one for Daddy. Sunday morning, I got up, and he had about 80 pages read of it and a ruler stuck in it. I laughed at him and said: "Jayz, I thought you weren't going to read the book?" And he said: "Ah, I picked it up." The next day I was in work on Monday and he rang me at six o'clock and told me: "I've read the book." I couldn't believe it. He told me he had cried about four or five times reading it. It was emotional for him to read. There was probably an understanding, too, of what I felt at the time and where I was. I would never say a bad word about my parents, but it maybe tells them where I was without me having to say it to them. You know what fathers and sons are like, they don't show emotion and they don't talk about emotion.
DB: How about your mother?
My mam read it, and she is very emotional anyway. She is a good-hearted woman. She found it tough to read, but got strength in it as well that I was able to pull through what I came through, to be here today.
DB: And your brother Barry and sister Eimear?
C McC: They have read bits and pieces of it, they haven't read it all. Look, it's a hard read for the neutral (as well as) for everyone who is related to me or knows me. So it must be very hard for the family. A lot of people have rang me and texted me to tell me they broke down reading it. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a parent to read it.
DB: Has the process helped you in your recovery?
C McC: I read a piece by a man saying it was the wrong time to write a book (while I am still playing). I disagree with that, because, when is a good time? That person must not know a thing about addiction or recovery. I was still getting the same abuse on the football field last year that I am going to get this next year, so it was irrelevant. I was trying to show what gambling had done to my life and for the people that had seen all these things and read all these headlines, but did not know who I was. They could judge me on what I did, but they didn't know the person behind it.
I always knew I am a good person. I wanted to show people I am just a normal person who had a good upbringing and my parents raised me well, with manners, the right way to be brought up. I just fell into addiction and I couldn't get out of it, get out of the lure of it, the buzz of it. It gripped me, made me do things I didn't want to do.
Only a person with an addiction will understand that. I can say that to a thousand people in the public that are not addicted, but they will never, ever understand it.
DB: One of the things that struck me was that you freely admit to being spoiled as a child. Did that sow any seeds in your downfall?
C McC: Whatever we wanted at Christmas, we got. Whatever we wanted for our birthdays, we got. But at the same time, whenever we got to 16, 17 years of age, we bought our own cars. We weren't spoiled that way.
As children we were spoiled. But who doesn't spoil their children?
I would have gambled all the money I earned, never mind taking money off my father. But I still worked every day. It wasn't like I was lying around like a bum. But when my money ran out I took his money. That's the power addiction had over me.
DB: You tell the story of waking up with £68,000 in your account, won on a bet you thought had lost. And you put a down payment on a trip to the World Cup in Rio. What struck me was how desperately lonely you must have been.
C McC: My intention was to shoot off to Brazil. Away off on my own, put the money down.
But I never got a week with the money in my account until it was gone. I was in a lonely place. It is hard to describe, but a gambling addiction is a very lonely place. You don't want anyone to find out you are gambling. It's not a social thing where you say to a friend: "Come on, let's go gambling." It's a lonely place and a tough spot.
DB: You weren't cut out to be a loner.
C McC: It was pure escapism. To get away from everything, the gambling, what I had done to myself. "Let's get out of here." Looking back now, it was kind of insane. I know people do get up and go away, no bother to them. For me, that was never who I was. I would never have been able to go on a holiday by myself. It showed you where I was at mentally.
DB: Is it difficult to talk about that day you filmed the pornographic film?
C McC: To be honest, I find it hard to talk about in counselling, in my own counselling. I found it really, really difficult. I have talked about it, but not talked about it, went round in circles. I didn't go into the detail of it.
It took me a while to have the courage to do that. For me, to make real recovery and work on myself, I had to visit that place. I have visited it a few times, have to do it for myself to get back playing football, a normal way of life.
DB: You talked about taking neighbours' money for fake charity ventures and your shame at having to return the money before you entered rehab. How are things with you and the people in Dromore now?
C McC: The club is where I grew up and played my football all my life. We won three championships and five leagues with them. In fairness, they welcomed me back with open arms. Now, a club is a big community and there would have been people in the club that had their doubts about wanting me back.
DB: How about the wider Tyrone community?
C McC: I think I was welcomed back. But I am not here to please people. I am not here to say to people: "Feel sorry for me, this is what I went through."
That's not the purpose of the book. I will never be fit to change what people think of me. There will be people who think what they have always thought of me. That's them being lazy and not knowing what I went through, what addiction can do to you. I think that's the wrong way to look at anybody with an addiction.
I go down to Dublin and I see homeless people on the street every day. I feel so sorry for those people because they are somebody's sister, brother, father, mother. There probably was an addiction and people gave up on them. They have nobody. That could easily have been me. There is not a week goes by in Dublin that I don't buy something for a homeless person; a cup of coffee, a Mars bar, since I came out of recovery.
DB: Tyrone winning an Ulster title this year, with you playing a starring role, is a rare splash of colour in a very dark book.
C McC: When I step out onto the field, every single day, even during the national anthem, I won't sing the national anthem. Most of the time I am saying the Memorare (Prayer to Virgin Mary).
From where I came over two years ago, when I thought I would never lift a pair of boots and play football for my club again, never mind being in Clones on that day of sweltering heat, to be lifting an Ulster Championship...
Sometimes people say that dreams come true, and for me that was my dream. I have character defects. I talk about this in the book. Just because I am in recovery does not mean I am perfect. I am far from it. I have all my defects.
I am training to be a counsellor, but in training to be a counsellor or a psychotherapist you have to go on a journey as well. You have to walk the walk to talk the talk. I am trying to do things that I feel I would be very weak in. To try and improve mentally and improve myself.
DB: When you were in the grip of a full-blown gambling relapse in 2013 you were nominated for an All-Star on the back of your performances for Tyrone. That's incredible.
C McC: I always tell people, when I put on the football boots, that was my escape. Doesn't matter if it's Croke Park or the back garden. That's where I got away from gambling.
And money! Money used to burn holes in my head. I could never have enough money to gamble. "I owe such and such money. How am I going to get that back? I am going to have to put this on to get that back for him. Who is going to ring me looking for their money back…?"
When I was on the football field, that all left me. The 70 minutes was my peace.
DB: People might find it difficult when you ask for forgiveness for your deeds, and yet you call a few people out for abusing you on the field of play.
C McC: People might say about me: "Well, he's some hypocrite, saying he can't forgive people." For me, for what I went through and how bad a place it was, I can honestly say that words can't describe how bad a place it was. For me to come through that and play football again, I have to say from the bottom of my heart (how grateful I am to) the amount of GAA players who gave me respect this year and last year and never said a word.
A lot of boys never went to the point of saying what I went through. Me personally, it's almost like (going through a) death. You wouldn't slag somebody about a relative dying.
But that's how much it hurts me when people say that to me. It's almost like you know how bad a place I was in and you know where I went to. But yet, you don't give a f***. It just shows that they have no respect for me at all and the work I have done to get myself back.
DB: As part of your recovery, have you visited the people you have hurt to ask their forgiveness?
C McC: I have been around people and made apologies. There are some people who have not accepted them. That's just life. I have to accept that. But I can't go around for the rest of my life begging forgiveness. For me, I would say this to anybody as well, if you say you are sorry and you really mean it, then that should be enough.
DB: There has been a lot of controversy about the cancellation of the Late Late Show appearance, and your launch night with Mickey Harte was also cancelled.
C McC: The launch will go ahead. The thing I was most disappointed about… I am not one for TV or radio or all of this stuff. But the reason I wanted a book launch was because my whole family was going to be there with me, my friends, people were coming from London and Scotland, different parts of Ireland. That was a big night for me and my family, friends and loved ones, to be part of the journey. I wanted to say thanks so much to all of them.
DB: You talk about your girlfriend, Niamh, being pregnant. When is the baby due?
C McC: In February.
DB: You must be excited?
C McC: I am, I am. I am really excited and it is good for me because it is a bit of stability in my life as well. It does bring up memories of Holly (his daughter from an earlier relationship, whom he is estranged from) and she is my daughter out there, too.
People say to me: "You should run up there and see her." But people don't understand the situation, how sensitive it is. You can't go running up to somebody you haven't seen in…
I really hope she comes back into my life. I hope her mother can see how well I am doing and open that door for me again without having to go down other routes.
DB: Now, when you wake in the morning, what is your first thought?
C McC: I used to say every morning that I am good. God made me good.
This last while, I don't even pray to God. I play to Our Lady. I think she is a magnificent woman and she has given me strength to get through what I got through.
I don't ask her for help. I ask her to guide me through the day as best I can. I don't believe you should just ask when you are in need. I believe that you can ask for guidance. Help me not have a bet today. It's worked so far.
Out of Control by Cathal McCarron with Christy O'Connor, Simon & Schuster, £16.99