Arsenal and England legend Paul Merson delivers addiction & recovery message in Derry
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The former Arsenal and England star, and current Sky Sports pundit, lives with addiction every day. It's now part of who he is. The League Championships, FA Cup and League Cup he won with The Arsenal couldn't change that. Nor could his 78 England caps, nor his winning cup final goal at Wembley. What made ‘The Magic Man’ appear invincible to millions of adoring football fans mattered little in the face of his well documented struggles against alcohol, gambling and drugs.
But Paul changed it. Or at least he continues to try to and that was the mental health message the decorated former footballer brought to St. Cecilia's College on Monday evening.
"If tonight can help one person then that's a major result, a major result, because what people sometimes don't understand about addiction is it's never just one person. It's everyone around that person; family members, people like that," explained the 55 year old, "No one tends to take them into account, they just talk about the actual person. That's the reason I have come over to Derry, there's no other reason."
Merson, who has been outspoken about his struggles against addiction and his own mental health, was guest speaker at the evening which formed part of a health and wellbeing initiative led by the Old Library Trust’s Healthy Living Centre in Creggan, partnered and supported by the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum and funded by the Executive Office’s ‘Communities in Transition’ (CIT) project.
The former Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth star spoke candidly about his past to a capacity crowd, outlining the need to get the mental health message across at a time when so many communities are facing challenges.
"It's very important to keep spreading the message, that's the main thing. I said yeah to coming over because I know what it's like to suffer and it is so important to get the message across," added Merson.
"It's that one person. If what I say hits home with just one person, then brilliant. Even when I wrote my books and everything like that, it's just to help one person. That's because I know that one person multiplies into 50, 60, 70 people with families, friends, etc.
"People always say, 'You're doing well, Paul, you're doing well' but no one ever talks about my family, about my wife. You leave absolute devastation behind.
"When you stop, you have left wreckage and my wife is the one that has to pick it all up. She doesn't get the help and so it's important to get that across to people, and to understand that this is an illness. It's not a bad person trying to get good every week, you're a ill person who needs to get well very, very quickly."
Merson's plight hit the headlines in November 1994 when, in an emotional press conference, he admitted to having addictions to alcohol, cocaine and gambling, an admission that saw Merson banned and forced to undergo a three-month rehabilitation programme.
"I was made to go into treatment," he admits, "I was made and I went about six years without a drink and it was hard work. I didn't really want to but I had to because I was at Arsenal, it was one of them situations.
"And for ever how much family and people will help you, it has got to be the person. I know people who go to A.A. and say, 'It didn't work'. Well, it works if you work it. It doesn't work otherwise."
Monday night’s event saw organisers the Old Library Trust set the context for the evening by showcasing the work of the CIT project this year, offering an unique insight into addiction with an open and honest conversation by community partners of the project, Glenn Hinds, Mark Gibney, Stevie Duddy (ARC), Darren Henderson (ARC) and Martin McLaughlin (Team Torres). Those stories were reaffirmed by powerful accounts from local people who allowed a glimpse into their journey to recovery and how the project has guided and supported that journey.
Tying the whole event together, Paul shared his own story to further raise awareness and challenge some of the stereotypes associated with addiction while encouraging more people to seek the necessary help and support.
Project Co-Ordinator of the project, OLT’s Julie White described the evening’s accounts as “powerful”.
"We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase the work CIT has been able to contribute to our local community. Tonight’s event provided a platform for local people to give their account of recovery,” she explained.
"This was empowered by having Paul Merson join us to share his own powerful story of addiction and recovery. His experience and insights will have a lasting impact on our community."