Cliftonville footballer Conor McDermott opens up on crippling gambling addiction

CONOR McDermott has opened up about his battle with a crippling gambling addiction that saw him amass thousands of pounds in debts and thrown out of his family home as he ‘destroyed’ his closest relationships.

Tuesday, 30th November 2021, 1:37 pm
Conor McDermott spent eight months in rehab in Ireland and then Italy after his gambling addiction threatened to destroy his life. Photograph by George Sweeney.

As he veered dangerously down a path of reckless self-destruction and depression which threatened to ruin his life, the former Derry City defender reached the point where he didn’t want to wake up in the morning.

Feeling ‘dead inside’ and becoming increasingly apathetic, Conor explains how his life was spiralling out of control as the ‘darkness’ of his five-year addiction tightened its grip.

Speaking candidly about his addiction for the first time, the talented 24 year-old Cliftonville right back lays bare his problems and explains how he transformed his life with the help of the Cenacolo Community - a worldwide residential programme for people seeking to overcome addiction - which cut him off from the world and its temptations.

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"I’ve had an addiction for about five years and I’ve been struggling with it for some time,” admitted the former N.Ireland U21 international. “Every single year I was getting help from people who were giving me money. My family was digging me out of trouble. I was going off it and then going back on it. At the time you think you’re going to be grand and get away with it but it caught up with me.”

Casual betting escalated until compulsive gambling became a way of life as he filled his day chasing his losses and before he knew it his addiction took hold and curtailed his career, breaking down relationships with his family, girlfriend and friends.

“It starts off as a bit of craic and then you get to the stage where it’s becoming a habit and it’s becoming a big part of your life,” he explained. “It came to a stage where I was getting myself into bother with people. I was getting myself into bother with my family and it affected my whole life. It was affecting everything around me.

“It gradually got worse and my mental health was getting worse with it. Alongside that my football was getting worse, my relationships and my whole life was controlled by my addiction. I lost every sense of love for everything. I really did feel nothing inside,” said the Culmore native. “I got to a stage, especially in January and February, where I didn’t even want to wake up in the mornings. That was the worst part of my life, those few months because I destroyed everything around me. I destroyed my family, I destroyed my relationships with my friends, my girlfriend. I destroyed everything.”

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Conor’s big brother Paul finally decided the ex-St Columb’s College student’s ‘selfish’ ways had gone too far and physically removed him from the family home after one incident which caused deep hurt in his household. That intervention and temporary estrangement from his family, finally forced him to confront his addiction.

While it was never one moment of clarity which sparked his call for help, rather a gradual realisation that his life was rapidly slipping away from him, that incident proved a pivotal one as Conor finally took action, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

“I was gradually losing myself every day, bit by bit. Things were eating me up and before I knew it I was screwed. So there was no single, dark moment which sparked it. It just gradually got worse and the more money I had the more money I lost.

“Everything was about me,” he admitted. “A few months before Christmas, again I was in a bad spot and got dug out again by my family. Even then I still didn’t want to change or stop doing what I was doing, but I saw the destruction I was causing with my family.

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"My big brother pulled me out of it because he saw that destruction. Even then, when he put me out of the house, I was still empty inside. There was nothing. No feeling for anything. I didn’t feel anger, nothing. I accepted everything because I felt it was normal to feel like that. I just accepted it was normal to be sad.

“Firstly my mammy and daddy brought me down to talk. A few things had happened in the house and they were obviously not happy. They pulled me aside and told me; ‘you need to get help wee boy’. Even then I didn’t want to get help and only did it because I just wanted things to be easier in my life. I thought I would go away for a few months, I’ll get a wee bit of help and then I’ll be back out again. But even then I didn’t want to change because I couldn’t grasp or face up to how bad I was.

“I rang this community where I went, it’s called Cenacolo. There’s houses all over the world and it’s a community based organisation where they help people with addiction.

Little did he know it but his decision to pack his bags for that first Cenacolo house in Knock, Co. Mayo would transform his life! Eight torturous but life-affirming months in total between Knock and then a secluded house in rural Italy was where he took stock of his old ways, rediscovered his love for life and finally began to control his addiction.

“I only realised when I went away, how lost I was. I was a wee boy. Looking back, when you see family members and friends really caring for you and you don’t feel anything, you don’t feel the love but they’re showing it and that’s because you’re covered in the darkness. You have no love. And that’s what I’ve learned since going away. When I got so lost I stopped caring about everything, I didn’t care about myself first and foremost. Didn’t care what I was doing or who I was hurting. I got so lost in it all and it was a really sad time of my life.”

When he was transferred with little notice from Knock to Italy, Conor’s willpower and resolve was tested to the point where he wanted to leave.

“The community is based around getting people back to living life again and getting back to basics, living properly -everything I had lost over the years. Waking up early in the morning with a purpose. Rediscovering values, love, family, friends. Just talking rather than escaping from your problems.”

However, he still wasn’t in the right mindset and struggled with the structure and monotonous nature of the community.

“At first I was there just because I had no other option really. The first few weeks in Knock were tough and it was really hard to get my head around things. When you’re not there for yourself and just to please someone else because you know you have to do it and have no other option, then it’s hard. I was waking up in the morning still feeling sad and it was even worse at the start. I was thinking, ‘what am I doing? How bad have I got? You have no option so you have to be there.”

The community and its rigorous daily routine eventually inspired him to start fresh as he learned the value of steady, humble work and facing up to his problems, however, that realisation didn’t come cheaply as he constantly encountered new tests. One such test was the language barrier when he was in Italy where he stayed in two different houses with addicts at various stages of their recovery.

“There’s stables and a garden to be looked after; wood to be cut and there’s a bog there where we were expected to do a lot of physical work. I never had worked before, it was just football. So that taught me I had to work as well, it’s good for the head. After a few weeks of being there I was losing that will to stay there. Then something just changed.

"I remember waking up one morning feeling absolutely awful and something inside me just told me I can’t go on like that. I just had to want to change. No one can change for me. I put myself in this mess so I had to get myself out of it. I had to want to change my life around.

“It was around Easter and there were a lot of families coming to the house. I was cut off from the world. I saw my family once in eight months. You don’t hear anything, you can’t contact them. I saw the other families and all the kids running around and something started to grow inside me. I was waking up in a good environment and there were a lot of good things happening. There were a lot of nice people, people trying to change their lives around.

That environment started to rub off on me. It was a gradual thing. The reality that I had messed up and had to do something about if I wanted to live my life again.

“Gradually I started to get into the programme and live it properly. I stayed in Knock for three and a half months before I went to Italy. At that stage I didn’t know I was going to Italy. They don’t tell you anything, everything is off the cuff. I think it’s because people with addictions are always planning things and you don’t live in the moment. That’s something I learned there was to live in the present, day by day and take it step by step to rebuild my life again and to heal from it all.

“When I did start to feel better I began to hurt more because I started to feel for others and all the wounds I created through things I did. So I had to heal those wounds. There were nights I was going to sleep crying and crying in the morning because I was sad about the things I did. You’re not feeling sorry for yourself anymore but feeling sorry for the hurt I caused others.

That was a part of the big change in myself because I started to feel for other people and feel bad for my mistakes.

“I saw myself getting stronger every day and having that drive to save my life basically. My life was in ruins. There were a lot of dark moments and I knew I had to change something. After three and a half months in Knock it was like starting all over again in Italy. In the community the process is called a walk. That first couple of weeks was tough again because I didn’t speak the language. So I started feeling lonely again but that was when I started seeing the strength in myself. The community teaches you to deal with every situation that’s thrown at you in life.

"Normally I would crumble whenever there was a tough situation. I would go off on my own or lay in my bed and run away from my problems. Over there you can’t run away. You have to face up to it. It’s not easy. There’s people in your face telling you hard truths and there were a lot of hard moments. It makes you grow up as a person. I was a wee boy nine months ago but I know that experience made me become a man. Before I was childish and didn’t grasp what life was about.”

Now fluent in Italian, Conor had fully embraced the experience and was eventually permitted to return home. Those eight months of self-discovery has changed his whole life around.

“When I wake up in the morning I appreciate being alive again,” he beamed. “I was a dead person for a couple of years. There was no life inside me. There was desire to do things, to go to training, to work, to study. I slipped into depression. I just gave up on my life. I gave up on my football, my family, my relationships. I really did feel like a burden to people. I felt like I was better off not being there. It’s hard to accept that and no one wants to own up to that but that’s how I felt at that time.

“Now those moments are my motivation. I never want to go back to how I felt then. Now I wake up happy and go to work and football and I don’t hurt anyone doing that. Not only that, I don’t hurt myself. “It’s the happiest I’ve felt in years and it’s just a change in mentality. I know I can’t live my life like I did before. I’m living clean and everything’s going well.”

When he stepped off the plane in Dublin, Conor expected more tests but was pleasantly surprised when he lifted the phone to his family and Cliftonville manager Paddy McLaughlin who welcomed him back with open arms.

“My family never gave up on me. They were always there for me. They just had to show me tough love in those moments and I’m grateful for that. Those moments, getting thrown out of the house, they stick in your head and there’s no way I can go back to that life. That life is full of sadness. I’m full of happiness now. I wake up in the mornings and I’m full of life and rearing to go for the day ahead. To think back at the way I was eight months ago and see the difference in myself is unbelievable. That’s the motivation.

“Waking up with a smile on my face and giving my ma a hug in the mornings, it’s the small things and I appreciate everything, I just can’t lose that, it’s not worth it. Now I can finally say I’m proud of myself for something I’ve done in my life. I haven’t felt proud of anything for years because I always had my addiction following me.

“Don’t get me wrong, my life is not perfect. I have to work on myself everyday and face difficult moments in work and in football but I know how to deal with them now. I don’t go to lay down or run away from them or gamble or drink or whatever. Now I would go and speak to somebody. I’ve found my peace.”