The QPR defender talks powerfully about his battles with mental illness, his addictions to gamble and drinking and why he is thankful still to be alive
Steven Caulker has a tale to tell and, as hard as it is to hear, it is best simply to listen. His stream of consciousness veers from scoring on his England debut less than five years ago and the thrill at potential being realised to the horrific mental health a matter that have almost ended it all in the period since. A player who, from the outside, seemed blessed with talent and possibility speaks of desperate nervousnes and self-loathing.
He contemplated killing himself in his darkest moments with his path one of self-destruction. Tries at escapism expense him hundreds of thousands of pounds, wages frittered away in casinoes. Then came the drinking is targeted at numbing the ache. The 25 -year-old procures himself recalling the times spent in custody watching CCTV footage of his misdemeanour, his lawyer at his side, and not recognising the vile person on the screen.
Football is still coming to words with mental illness and Caulker, an international and a last linger reminder at Queens Park Rangers of financially misguided days as a Premier League club, has been an easy target. He is not seeking to make excuses or win sympathy. These are details he procures painful to recount. Ive sat here for years detesting myself and never understand why it is I couldnt just be like everybody else, he says. This year was almost the end. I felt for big periods there was no sun at the end of the tunnel. And yet he has not placed a gamble since December, or touched alcohol since early March. The mending process that can restore him to the top level is well under way, with this interview, one he tried out, potentially another step on the road to recovery.
A little under a year ago Caulker had spoken to the Guardian about a life-changing week spent in Sierra Leone, of humbling yet inspiring charity work with ActionAid that had provided him with a sense of view. He returned to be galvanised under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Loftus Road and, having expended the previous season on loan at Southampton and Liverpool unfulfilling stints which fuelled his latent insecurities was ready to give his all. Early season performances against Leeds and Cardiff indicated confidence had been restored, reward for a summertime of incessant fitness work.
The trigger that would send him spiralling to rock bottom would be injury. He tore his groin at Barnsley and played in pain for weeks, dreading a spell back in rehabilitation, before succumbing to an associated hip objection. I owed it to QPR to try, he says, but I was naive thinking I could still perform with the tear. He has not played since last October, with the period marked by personal commotion and, merely of late, resurgence. Talking publicly, he suggested, may point younger players towards seeking help if they find themselves treading the same road, or experiencing the same sense of desertion, in a brutal industry. The real hope is the exert, as brave as it is, may ultimately demonstrate more cathartic for Caulker himself.
He recognises his football ability as a gift but also a curse. It took him from Sunday League at 15 into the Premier League four years later, to the 2012 Olympics with Great Britain and into Roy Hodgsons England side for a friendly in Sweden afterwards that year. His talent has persuaded some of the most respected managers he is worth seeking. Yet, while he could still get away with it on the pitching, he lived in denial. It was more than six years into his career before he accepted he required assist. You always think you can rein it back in again and the money provides a false sense of security. But at Southampton I realised, mentally, I was gone. I wasnt playing, my career was going nowhere and I had to reach out to someone. The doctor there tried to help me but others were just telling me got to go on the pitch and express myself.
There was no understanding as to what was happening in my head. I know theyd brought me in to do a job and they werent there to be babysitters. Just like at QPR, I needed to justify the money the latter are paying me but I was in a state and, at some point, there has to be a duty of care. Football does not deal well with mental illness. Maybe its changing but the support mechanisms are so often not there. Ive spoken to so many players who have been told to go to the Sporting Chance clinic and theyve refused because they know, if they take time off, theyll “losing ones” place in the team. Someone steps in and does well, so youre run. That dissuades people from get assist. You feel obliged to get on with things.
I would exhort lads to speak to the PFA, to speak to their director, and not be scared about being fell if they are feeling like I did. Be brave enough to say you need assist before its too late. The anxiety Id always needed something to take the edge off. Football was my escape as a kid but that changed when I was chucked into the first team as a teenager and suddenly football came with pressure. My style of dealing with it, even in the early stages of my career, was gambling. Im an addict. Im addicted to winning, which people say is a positive in football but surely not when it extends to gambling. I was addicted to trying to beat the system, because you convince yourself there is a system to it and you can beat it. You can never get your head around why you arent.
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