'My son Philip was a happy-go-lucky young man yet he ended up a prisoner to drugs... the last time he was in hospital I said if he didn't get help he'd be coming home in a box... four months later he was dead'
Paul Millar, former footballer and now assistant manager at Glenavon, opens his heart about his son Philip's death from a drug overdose and reveals plans to fund a counselling service to help other young people struggling with addiction.
The heartbreaking loss of his son earlier this year to drugs has spurred Glenavon's Paul Millar to do something to try and help young addicts. The well-known former footballer, who is now assistant manager to Gary Hamilton at the Lurgan club, lost his fun-loving son Philip in March, aged just 26.
Speaking for the first time about his family's shattering loss, Paul (50) says he has a vision for setting up support within local football clubs to make it easier for anyone battling addiction to access help.
He has been joined by seven friends who have all decided to 'Go Sober for October' in a drive to raise enough funds to cover the salary of a counsellor he would like to see working out of soccer clubs right in the heart of local communities.
"I haven't worked out all the details yet but I would like to see every penny donated go direct to helping addicts and hopefully use my football contacts to try and set something up in local communities which young people will feel comfortable about accessing," he says.
Paul, who is also CEO of the Belfast-based charity the Hanwood Trust, enjoyed a successful football career playing for local teams Glentoran, Linfield and Portadown as well as in the English leagues with Port Vale and Cardiff City.
He says that he and his ex-wife Kathryn felt helpless as they watched their son struggle with a drug addiction for a number of years and despite their efforts to get him help he passed away last March.
His death has left the whole family, including their daughter Zara (24) and Philip's aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, completely shattered.
Just last week, Philip's mum Kathryn found an upsetting letter her son had written some months before his death which Paul says has helped the family to understand a little of why he started to take drugs in his late teens.
In it he wrote about his devastation at losing a best friend who passed away at the age of 16.
He also outlined the horror of the life he was leading with his drug addiction and his dad says the heartbreaking note also made it clear Philip knew his days were numbered.
Paul says: "His mum found the letter just last week and it has helped us to understand some of what was going on in his mind.
"It is a nightmare how he felt about himself and the hell he was going through on a daily basis.
"The letter was unbelievable and talked a lot about how he felt about losing his best friend Sam who died when he was 16. We had no idea at the time it had affected Philip so badly because there were no signs and he didn't talk to us about it.
"He says he decided he would do everything his friend didn't get the chance to do and go out and party and enjoy himself and that's when it all started for him.
"I would just like to say to parents that there could be events in their kids' lives which are affecting them even though the kids appear okay.
"Philip didn't behave any differently and wasn't crying at night and yet it had affected him so much and we didn't know."
Paul says his son started to party shortly after losing his friend in his teens and moved from the family home in Bangor to share a house with friends in Belfast.
He became addicted to drugs and eventually returned home to live with his mum in his early 20s. His parents tried everything they could to support him and, even though he was attending counselling, his drug addiction was never brought under control.
Paul believes that there isn't enough help for addicts which is why he feels compelled to raise funds and do something that he hopes could make a difference to other young people.
He believes that addicts are generally regarded as people who have chosen the road they are on, rather than accepted as being ill and needing support.
On the day his son died, Paul desperately sought to save him, performing CPR for half an hour while waiting for an ambulance. Tragically, it was too late.
He says: "I think Philip's body just gave up on him.
"We had him in hospital three times the year before he died and pleaded with them to get him some sort of help but he was sent home.
"The last time he was there I told them that if he didn't get the help he needed, the next time he would be coming out in a box. Four months later he was dead.
"The support just isn't there. Philip was happy-go-lucky and he ended up a prisoner to drugs.
"I think people don't see addiction as an illness and that addicts are viewed as having made the choice to take drugs rather than being seen or treated as someone who is ill.
"Maybe they did send appointments out to Philip to see the mental health team and this is part of the problem. It comes to a point when the scales tip and they don't have a choice anymore and they are very ill and their minds don't function properly and I feel at that stage the decisions should be taken out of their hands.
"Philip hid a lot from us and we felt helpless. Everywhere we turned a door closed in our face.
"Philip did go to Newtownards Hospital for counselling but to be honest I think a lot of it was a box-ticking exercise.
"I think when a young person is taken into hospital and it is drugs-related, it is regarded as their own fault but there are mental health issues there and Philip's mental health was a mess.
"He was hallucinating and having nightmares and couldn't sleep and was seeing people who weren't there, but they were very real for him.
"He also went from being an outgoing young man to a real hermit who wouldn't go out over the door."
Paul is horrified by the many young people in our society whose lives are being destroyed and lost to drugs. In the weeks after his son passed away, he and his family were overwhelmed with the support they received and the money which was donated to Addiction NI in memory of Philip.
Paul's football club has also adopted Addiction NI as their chosen charity this year and will launch the partnership at Mourneview Park this Saturday.
Encouraged by the support, Paul wanted to do something himself to raise funds and decided on Go Sober for October because of his son's addiction problem.
He says: "When Philip died a lot of friends from all areas of society and all areas of Northern Ireland and beyond wanted to help. Drug addiction is not a rich or poor thing it's a society thing and there are no boundaries.
"I saw that one of Philip's ex-girlfriends had donated money by going 'Sober for October' and I just thought after what our Philip had been through I could go without a drink for a month and then my brother joined me and some friends, and now there are seven of us doing it.
"I would like to raise enough to cover the salary of a counsellor and I would like that person to be an ex-addict.
"Philip went to counselling and it didn't help. I think it takes someone who has been through this hell and knows what it is like and who has come out the other end to really understand what young addicts are going through.
"Football clubs are at the heart of local communities and I want to approach my ex-clubs in east Belfast, north Down and north Belfast, and also Glenavon.
"My idea is that this counsellor will spend a day in each venue and young people will be able to drop in for support and to be sign-posted and given help.
"I'd like to think the football clubs will donate the space so that there is zero cost and every penny raised will be used to cover the wages."
Paul has not yet had a chance to approach the clubs for their support and is hoping that they and the local community will get behind him. If the service works it would be his hope that local communities will take on future fundraising to keep the service going in their area.
He adds: "If say, over the year, the counsellor sees 5,000 young people and 200 are counselled and one life or 10 lives are saved then it will be worthwhile. You have to ask the question how much does a life cost? As a family you would give everything you have to get that person back.
"Our Go Fund Me appeal is called 'Saving Lives for Philip Millar' and for me that is what this is all about. While my contacts are in football, it is something that also could work equally well in gaelic football clubs.
"If it goes good I would love to reach out and empower communities to fund it and keep it going.
"Philip's loss has left us all shattered and it is difficult to think of the hell he was going through on a daily basis. I'll never be the same again and his mum and sister and grandparents, and everybody in the family have been hit so hard.
"I just hope the community gets behind our fundraising drive and supports us and we can set something up that will be in the heart of local communities where so many young lives are being destroyed by drugs."
To support Paul you can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/saving-lives-for- philip-millar