Conor McDermott spoke at the 'Addiction - An Honest Conversation' event hosted by the Old Library Trust last week. Pic by Jim McCafferty.
Conor McDermott is just a few weeks away from celebrating one whole year without gambling. The former Derry City and current Cliftonville defender has turned his life around in that time and has spoken openly about his struggles with addiction since.
Last Wednesday night, as part of ‘Addiction – An Honest Conversation’, held at St. Cecilia’s College, Conor revealed his journey into ‘the darkness of addiction’ and how one significant incident opened his eyes to how lost he had become.
The first bet
“I had my first bet at 16. I remember one day I walked out the back gates of the College with two of my muckers at the time. I walked right up to Shanty with them and they were on about doing a football bet for that night. I actually never stepped foot in the bookies that day but they went in for me. I had a fair idea of how it worked, I wasn’t stupid. I stuck a pound on a bet and I remember watching the teams coming in that night and thinking ‘This is unbelievable’, turning £1 into £17. At that age it’s a lot of money. It was great the next day giving them the slip to go in, because I was still scared to go into the bookies at the time because I knew my ma and da were against it because of family problems before.
“They had talked to me about doing the right things in life. I was taught at a young age to do everything right and gambling was one of the things that they had mentioned not to do, along with drinking and drugs.
“That was the start of it for me. It didn’t take a grip on me straight away but over time as I became older, especially with getting more money working in the City Hotel and starting to play with Derry, things did start to get on top of me then. I was 18 and I was allowed in the bookies for a start. Things just took their toll.
“I always realise when I look back that when I went away for 8 months, that I do have an addictive personality. I remember looking back being addicted to my X-Box at the start, and I only realised when I went away that was something that had taken control of me because I was missing days of school for that and missing football because I was playing an X-Box up to four and five in the morning. So that was the start of it, realizing that I had that addictive personality. If I could go back today, I wouldn’t make that first bet but things just spiralled out of control.
“I would bet my wages away every month from the City Hotel and every month from the football, and I was just losing everything I had basically. I was 18 and coming towards the end of 2016 was the first time that my family had to pull me out of trouble. I took loans out online and it was the first time that they knew about it. I had borrowed money as well from some close friends of my ma and da’s and my brother as well and that’s how it came to a head, because they threatened to go and tell what was happening.
“Everything kind of got worse after that. I went clean for a few months but I never really wanted to change things, I never really wanted to stop betting. I only did it because my father had control of my finances and had control of certain things which stopped me from gambling at the time.
“Gamblers and addicts find a way and I found a way to manipulate that system that my family had put on me. I covered up and manipulated everyone around me just to be able to get a bet on. I started gambling again halfway through 2017 with a small bet of a fiver on the way to a football match. By the end of 2017 I owed money out and had got myself into debt. That kind of spiral kept repeating itself every single year.
“There was always a breaking point every single year because I would basically run out of options. There was nowhere to turn to and I had no other options to get money and no other option to get out of the situation. Every year my family would be the ones I called upon. For a few times they did bail me out, but there was one time, in 2020 they said no for the first time. They told me they wouldn’t bail me out so I was thinking ‘What am I going to do?’
“I went and spoke to Cliftonville and Cliftonville bailed me out. I didn’t want to stop gambling when I was doing it but I had no other option. That circle as I said just kept repeating and repeating.”
‘The biggest mistake of my life’
The end of 2020, December and January were the worst two months of my life because I had done so many bad things to my family and my friends and people around me. I had lied and borrowed from every single person around me. In January, this time last year it was the breaking point in my life. It was the point where I made probably the biggest mistake, but looking back on it now it was probably the best thing that ever happened me.
“I stole £12,5000 from my mother. People will probably thing ‘How did you ever get to that point?’, but I had no other option basically at that time. I’m not proud of what I done, but I wouldn’t change it because it was the real point that my family really woke up to how bad I was. At the time I was numb and I didn’t really care what I done. I just wanted out of the situation that I was in. I was getting threatened, I was getting threatened with my football, that I would never play again.
“People were coming to the door and all those scary things were happening in my life. When I took the money, I was just glad that they kind of thing was sorted. I had the big problem with my mammy finding out. I knew she would find out and I knew that there was no way she wouldn’t see it. It was a lot of money.
“The three weeks in January when I had taken the money, I was basically laying up in my bed for three weeks; I had stopped playing football. I basically shut down my life. Those were the worst three weeks I ever had on my life. I was numb. The feeling of anxiety I had every day waking up ‘What time is she going to find out? When is she going to look at her bank? When is it going to come?’
"When I think back on those moments now – I’m proud now of where I’m at, but I know I can never let myself get to that stage where I am laying in my bed every day, giving up on my life, my family, my football and everything that was there for me.
“When she found out, she showed me tremendous love. She forgave me, and at the time I was just glad that she didn’t go as mad as she did because I was just at the stage where I was empty as well. She forgave me straight away but she told me ‘Conor, we need to sort this problem out really because no son should ever do that to their mother, especially after all these years of love and everything she had given me’.
“I remember ringing the community centre, the Cenacolo programme that I went to and a mucker of mines Keith; I contacted him every day and we stayed in touch to start the process. We started meetings and I thought I would go away and do three times, but deep down I didn’t really want to change anything. I was just happy that it was just a couple of months of rehab, and I would be back out again and everything would be grand. I remember saying to a mucker ‘I’ve got away with one again’.
“Another thing happened after that – my brother found out what I had done and he took control then and kicked me out of the house, so I had to stay at a mucker’s house for a week. It’s those moments as well that I know I can never go back to those stages when I’m not in my own family’s home for the bad reasons.
“Now I want to live on my own because it’s time to grow up. I got thrown out of the house and that week away and being out of the house was a reality check because it was the first time that someone really dealt with it in that way. Ahead of my last meeting with the community my brother gave me an ultimatum ‘If you come back to the house, I take your phone off you, I take everything off you, you are living by my rules now’. This was two weeks before I entered the community. It’s a process where they want to make sure you’re right before you go in there. So, on the way home from Dublin I said ‘Aye, I give up everything for the first time’. I held my hands up and I think that was a big thing, letting someone else take control, because usually, us, as addicts, we’re in control of everything.
“I probably would have found out of it and found another way of not going to rehab and not sorting my life out, so I thank him for doing that as well. So, I went back home I had no phone and no contact with the outside world for three weeks before I went in. So, I went away to Knock down south for three and a half months. The first month was probably the hardest because I wasn’t there for myself – I was there just to please my family, just because I had no other option because my brother had taken control of everything and he was threatening the police and stuff and I didn’t want to go down that route.
“The first month was the toughest, and I spoke about this on the podcast, but I had the turning point where I saw a lot of wains running around at Easter time and I saw a lot of happy families. It really opened my eyes up to what life was about in that moment. They really showed me that there is more to life and that addicts can change their life around. It is possible. I remember speaking to a few of them and asking how they stuck it so long, because lads go and do six months, 12 months, a year and a half or two years and some lads don’t leave.
“It just depends on what you need and what you want to do with your life. I spoke to them and a couple of family members down there and we got a fair idea of what to do, just how to stick with the programme and trust in it basically.
“After a month or so the feelings came back and I started to really hurt for what I had done then. The emptiness went away and I started to feel what life was about. It became harder because you start to hurt for things that you done to your ma, that you done to your friends, that you done to people. Having to heal from that took a long time. That’s why I stayed away for so long because it took me a good six or seven months to really come to terms with everything that I had done and the person I became. I became someone that I wasn’t and I became someone that was just lost in the darkness of addiction basically.
“It was hard to accept that, it was hard to accept the person that I became, but I knew deep down that there was a good person there. I went away and I stuck at the programme and I got transferred over to Italy then after three and a half months, and that was the experience of a lifetime really, to meet thousands of addicts trying to change their life, thousands of people who came from different backgrounds, living on the streets, to gamblers, to heroin addicts to people with depression. I think the life lessons I learned over there are something I can never forget. It’s something that’s going to stick in my mind every single day.
“It's motivation too because one bad decision for me and I’m back to square one basically. I’m coming up in a few weeks to a year without a bet and I never thought I would say that. It’s going to be a proud moment for me. The person I was a year ago, he’s always going to be there because addiction will follow you for the rest of your life, but he’s put on the back burner for now and for the rest of my life and I just have to be aware of falling into bad habits and falling into traps, and be aware if my environment and stuff. They all shape you as well and one bad decision will take me back to square one so it’s just about staying on top of everything.”
The ‘Addiction – An Honest Conversation’ event was hosted by the Old Library Trust, and was funded by the Executive Office NI’s ‘Communities in Transition’ programme, in partnership with the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum.
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