Steven Caulker:’ I’ve sat here for years disliking myself … This year was nearly the end’

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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Steven Caulker, here celebrating after scoring on his England debut in 2012, says his football ability is a gift but also a curse. Photograph: Michael Regan/ Getty Images

He has played 123 hours in the Premier League and for eight clubs with the same, horribly familiar cycle of insecurity and self-destruction seeking him to each. There is always a catalyst to the nosedive. The sleepless nights, sat up till 5am replaying every bad decision Ive ever made in my life, fretting what will be next Tottenham sent me to Bristol City on loan at 18 and they set me in a flat in the city centre surrounded by nightclubs, two casinoes opposite, the various kinds of fund Id never seen in my life, and no guidance whatsoever. I was pulled once by a member of staff and told Id been spotted in the casino at 3am but their position was: What you do in your spare time is your business. Just dont let it affect your performances out on the pitch.

At Swansea a year later it was an injury which brought it all to the surface, and Spurs sent me to Sporting Chance to sort myself out while I was recovering from my knee but I wasnt ready. I hadnt experienced enough ache to construct me want to stop. I was gambling heavily when I went back to Tottenham, biding up to crazy hours of the night in casinoes. I guess never feeling good enough played a big part in that. I never felt I was on the same level as any of the first-teamers but a big win in the casino and fund in my back pocket might change that. Being dropped rattled me even more because football was what I had relied on to make me feel better. So then the gambling was every single day. The pain of losing all my money, combined with the dishonor and remorse, eat away at me. So Id drink myself into oblivion so I wouldnt have to feel anything. I was numb but I was out of control.

The chairman, Daniel Levy, eventually attempted him out on a post-season trip to the Bahamas. He just said: The way you act is unbelievable. You either sort yourself out or go but I can assure you, if you leave, youll be going down , not up. I was young, stupid. I took it as a challenge, a chance to prove him incorrect. I was so immature. So I went to Cardiff and, for six months, everything was amazing. I was captain, the manager, Malky Mackay, knew I had some issues but offered to be there for me. I felt wanted, so there was no gambling , no heavy binges but the second he was sacked, all the demons is coming. Thats all it took. Even before we played the next game, Id convinced myself nothing would be the same. Thats the various kinds of catastrophic guessing Ive had to address.

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Steven Caulker, here playing for Tottenham against Arsenal in 2010, says he made a big mistake leaving Spurs. Photo: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

I objective up at QPR that summertime, 2014, trying to hold it together, but the trigger there came in the second game “when hes” thrashed 4-0 at Tottenham. That feeling coming off the pitching at White Hart Lane, knowing marriage been embarrassed and that Levy was sitting up in the stand thinking: I told you so There was no denying it any more. Id made a big mistake leaving Spurs. I should have stayed and sorted myself out. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It only pounded in my head: sadnes, regret, regret. From that moment I was run, even if I never wanted to accept it, and everything just escalated. Id go for days without sleeping. I dont know how I survived it. That year was an absolute nightmare.

It was a vicious circle. Wed lose at the weekend and the fans would get at me, and Id be transgressing. I actually wanted to help us get results but we werent good enough and Id walk away taking responsibility in my head for the whole teams fails. I couldnt sleep, worrying about what had happened. The only relief I procured was in alcohol. It would silence the voices of doubt and self-hate, temporarily anyway, but Id be too intoxicated to go into training, and the blackouts Id have no memory of anything. It could be Monday and Id have no memory of what had happened since Saturday night. Id wake up, roll over and look at my phone, and thered be texts from people saying: Did you really do this last night? The administrator wants to see you. It was petrifying because I didnt know what had happened.

There were occasions when he would wake up in a police cell. He pouts when asked how often he has been arrested, embarrassed to admit the above figures, but the drunk and disorderly offences would flare up from London to Southampton to Merseyside. Sometimes Id be sat there with law enforcement agencies and my lawyer, watching the CCTV footage of what Id done, and I didnt recognise myself. I couldnt believe the person I was. Its so hard to accept I could be like that. In Liverpool I was waking up in the middle of the night throwing up, people were blackmailing me, club proprietors and bouncers: Pay fund or well sell this story on you. And I had no notion what Id even done on those blackouts. I eventually told the club I couldnt function and needed to go back into rehab.

Things might have improved last season under Hasselbaink had the hip trauma, diagnosed as a week-long issue that became a complaint which prompted five different prognosis , not rendered him helpless is again. Id expensed the club 8m, was one of the top earners and one of the few left from the Premier League, and people had no explanation why I wasnt performing. Why I was absent. It objective up as my toughest year ever. I couldnt train. My girlfriend lost her mom and was grieving while living with person struggling with craving. My son, who lives with his mother in Somerset, is now at school so Id go months without watching him. He had always been my safe place. There was no release.

QPR and my agent tried to push me towards Lokomotiv Moscow in January, saying it would be a fresh start. Part of me guessed the money they were offering could solve all my problems but why would being on my own out in Russia help? I had no idea how to break the cycle and is available on Moscow while still injured just felt a recipe for disaster. The manager, Ian Holloway, was actually telling me to remain. Id been in his office close to tears, so he said: How anyone could suppose sending you there would be a good notion is beyond me. You need to get yourself right. I appreciated him for that but, for the club, I can see why it was appealing to be shot of me but I was in no fit nation to move and eventually pulled the plug on it.

Id had one last gamble and lost a hell of a lot of fund in December. A last blowout. It was at that point I ultimately accepted I could not win; that there was no quick fix , no more daydreaming I could save the world through one good night on the roulette wheel. It was all a fantasy that took me away from having to feel anything. I contemplated suicide a lot in that period. A dark day. Everything Id gone through in football, where had it taken me? All the guilt, the embarrassment, the disgrace, the public humiliation in the papers and for what? I could cling to my son, to what Id done in Africa, or the properties Id bought their own families, but Id blown everything else. I reckon Ive lost 70% what Ive earned. When you lose that amount of money, the remorse thats so many lives you could have changed. There was no escape , no way out, other than to leave.

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Steven Caulker says: In Liverpool I was waking up in the middle of the night throwing up, people were blackmailing me, club proprietors and bouncers. Photo: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

But, in the moments of lucidity, I knew I couldnt do that because of my son. I havent gambled since but the drink filled the void for a while. I was scared and didnt feel like there was anywhere else to turn. Rehab didnt work before so why would it work now? I stupidly took comfort in the alcohol but it objective up deepening the depression. It was relentless from every slant. Until 12 March. Thats the day I lost my driving licence. Thats when I realised my life had become unmanageable.

Caulker was ordered to pay 12,755 in penalties and costs at Slough magistrates court at the end of March and was banned from driving for 18 months, having refused to blow into a breathalyser after police were called to a car park near Windsor Castle. I knew I was over the limit, I knew Id get the ban but I didnt want to tell my mothers Id fucked up again. What if I had driven the car out of the car park and killed someone? No, that was it. Ive been up before a judge four or five times. No more second opportunities. Its a jail sentence next. I was still injured and unable to play, so I signed off sick. I went to see a specialist who diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. He prescribed me medication and we put together a plan where I would take some time away to sort myself out.

He and his girlfriend travelled to Africa and India, helping in orphanages, homeless shelters and schools where the suffering was exposed and obvious. He has attended countless Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, and has reached out to support employees in video games such as Clarke Carlisle for advice. He has not touched alcohol since his arrest in March. He takes medication, a mood stabiliser to try to balance my highs and lows, and address that chemical imbalance which builds my behaviours so catastrophic, twice a day. Golf is a new, more constructive vice.

People say Ive done all this because Ive had too much money hurled at me but I know adolescents without a penny who have the same addictive traits as me. Whether I played football or not I would still be suffering from this illness, only without the public pressure and humiliation. Addiction does not care. I am a man of extremes. People dont find me doing the extra training, eating right, going to the pool every night to get fit, attending the anonymous meetings, doing the charity work. That is still me. That is who I am. But I get fucked by these other demons and I desperately require something in the middle. I feel like Im getting there now, that things have finally changed.

Im doing interesting thing only to remind me to stay on track. I could be relying on taxis to get me everywhere while Im banned but Im utilizing public transport. Im living in one of the properties I own in Feltham, back where I grew up, to stimulate me remember how hard I had to work to get out of here aged 15. Its a reminder that, if I continue to unravel, I wont improve my position again. Money covers the cracks. It can be evil. It prolongs the agony.

QPRs players reported for pre-season last Friday but Caulker, who has one year to run on his contract and has been training all summer with the former league player Drewe Broughton at Goals centre in Hayes, had been signed off until July. Life at the club had degenerated into an endless creek of internal disciplinary hearings and, despite Holloway having become clear his desire to retain the centre-halfs services, his future will not is currently under Loftus Road. What happens next is all a bit confused, all a bit unclear, he says. The administrator has texted me several times offering his support and saying he wants me at the club but my new representative has been informed by the owners Im not welcome back.

For too long Ive detested everything about myself and I needed to learn to love myself again. I miss video games like crazy. I dont feel as if Ive enjoyed playing football since Cardiff. I dont want to form my name into Google and just see a list of humiliating narratives. I want people to remember I am a footballer who was good enough to represent his country at 20 and still has 10 years left in the game. At 40% of my ability, I was playing at the top level. Now I feel good mentally and I want the chance to show people, including my son, what I am genuinely capable of. Wherever the opportunity starts, Im merely thankful still to be alive.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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