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Sporting Highs and Lows - Episode one with Paul Walsh

Our new podcast series, Sporting High and Lows, looks at how addictions and mental health challenges develop in the high-pressured world of sport.

In the first episode, our host Luke Sutton, ex-professional cricketer turned sports agent, speaks to former England international footballer Paul Walsh.

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Paul Walsh's journey

In our podcast, Paul discusses his journey from a high-profile football career, playing for Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Portsmouth and England, before moving into TV broadcasting after hanging up his boots, through to eventually seeking help for alcohol addiction.

Paul’s own battle with alcoholism led to him seeking professional addiction treatment, and he has been sober for four and a half years. He now volunteers his time as a peer supporter, inspiring others on the Addiction Treatment Programme to stay on the path to long-term recovery. You can watch a video of Paul talking about this here.

“The early influences in my life maybe had a bearing on my thinking; I had a lot of contradictions growing up”

Paul believes the challenges that led to his addiction started much earlier than his professional football days. He had a religious upbringing and attended a Catholic school, yet felt that the lines of right and wrong seemed blurred to him. This was partly due to being given a lot of freedom to do what he wanted and make up his own rules, which he thinks made him badly behaved.

In addition to this, being repeatedly told as a youngster that he couldn’t play football – which he was obsessed with – due to his height, made Paul feel a lot of resentment and anger, along with a determination to prove people wrong.

He remembers his relationship with alcohol starting during a youth football trip to Munich in 1975, when as a teenager of 13 or 14, his Sunday football manager bought him and his teammates big steins of beer. Even though it made Paul quite sick that night and he knew it would harm his playing, he had been given his first real taste of drinking and he couldn’t wait to get in the pub when he was old enough.

This presented yet another contradiction in Paul’s life as he wanted to do whatever it took to play professional football, but all his insecurities and fears went out of the window when he had alcohol. For this reason, drinking became a solution. Even after he’d win a game, Paul would then use alcohol to help him sleep that night when his adrenaline levels were still high.

The chaos and inner turmoil caused by addiction

Paul’s messy relationship with alcohol continued over the years, plaguing him throughout his playing career, during which time several injuries added to his mounting troubles. There was a period during his contract with Tottenham Hotspur when he lost all control of his drinking, regularly engaging in risky behaviours such as fighting and drink driving. Even when he was due to play a match, he wasn’t deterred from drinking the night before until the early hours.

Paul became trapped in a continuous cycle, masking the shame of poor performance after heavy drinking sessions with more nights out, creating constant internal embarrassment and self-loathing. Because of the drinking culture in football at that time, Paul felt that his partying was allowed to a certain extent, but that he took it too far. He tried to compensate for his low self-esteem by putting on an aggressive front, which led to constant confrontations and fallouts.

After Paul’s struggles with anger led to him punching the coach at Tottenham during a match, he was sold to Portsmouth. He used this as a chance to restart and slowed down his drinking for a while; which he partly credits to meeting his wife around that time. It was a temporary respite from the hold alcohol had on him, though, as more worries began to pile up. The pressure of having to plan financially for life off the pitch became ‘an obsession’. He said he constantly panicked about not having enough money when he retired.

The fear Paul felt over his future, as he desperately tried to figure out what else he might be good at (which he says was worsened by the fact that he was ‘average’ at school and never took any exams), created a lot of negativity and anger. The impact of his behaviour on his loved ones was so severe that he and his wife almost divorced and his children would no longer speak to him. Paul used to go to the pub just to be able to sleep at night, as family life deteriorated.

The decision to reach out and seek help

The final straw came when Paul got so drunk at his dad’s birthday party, he hit his son and knocked his mum over. He said he felt suicidal when he woke up and was “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired”. He decided he would never drink again after the atmosphere with his own family got unbearable and he realised he was losing them. He knew that his endless apologies had become meaningless and the only way he could finally move forward was by taking positive action.

Finally getting professional help was the pivotal turning point in Paul’s life. He’s never looked back from his initial residential treatment for addiction. Although he didn’t find it easy to accept responsibility, take control of the work he had to do and ‘surrender’ to the fact that it would never be safe to relapse (a leading principle taught in recovery), Paul realised how selfish his addiction had made him and he remained committed to staying clean. He’s now been sober since 2016 and has significantly improved his relationship with his wife and children.

Paul’s still fearful of putting himself in situations where he may find it difficult to fight the urge to drink. He says he’s disappointed in his behaviour and some of the situations he got himself into, and would still like to make amends with people he’s crossed over the years in order to feel at peace. He acknowledges how his progress managing his emotions and mental health is still ongoing – “At 58, I can still be an ‘emotional baby”.

The link between sport and addiction

Priory Addictions Therapist, Pamela Roberts, asked Paul how he thinks a ‘nurtured aggression’, in the form of his drive to win – so prevalent in the mindset of athletes – features in addiction. Paul conceded that some of the traits that made him succeed in sport, made him destructive out of it. He discussed how he had to learn to counter some of the negative aspects of his personality, which once allowed him to succeed in his field. This included overcoming the urge to manipulate situations with his own family as they all suffered through his addiction.

Luke agreed that sportspeople’s obsessiveness and leading with their ego is unmanageable in the long-term, with these qualities having nowhere to go outside of the sporting world. Like Paul, he also found it difficult to return to the real world and find an outlet for these behaviours, which were encouraged so long. This is why these characteristics contribute so readily to addiction, as inner frustrations build up when the obsession with chasing the thrill of winning has to stop.

Pamela says that addiction is a ‘shortcut term’ for a combination of factors, which might start to form in early life experiences and are influenced by each person’s environment as they grow up. She notes how social displacement is a huge part of becoming a famous sports personality, taking them out of everything they’ve ever known and into a culture where they suddenly have everything they’ve ever wanted.

The ongoing journey in recovery from addiction

Paul has now been volunteering years, and loves helping others going through the same challenges he has faced. He says that providing a service to others helps him to feel spiritual, and he feels immense pride when he sees the progress of people he sponsors. He attends regular AA meetings wherever he travels around the world; during the pandemic’s restrictions, he’s been doing them over Zoom.

Alcoholism is a serious condition that requires the help of experienced specialists. If you feel that you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, it’s important to reach out for professional support.

At Priory, we can carry out an initial no-obligation assessment to determine each person’s needs before recommending treatment. Our most comprehensive course of treatment is our 28-day residential Addiction Treatment Programme. This incorporates the 12-step treatment philosophy, a model universally approved for its effective guiding principles, focusing on each person’s motivations for overcoming their addiction.

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