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24 May 2022

Sean Friars recounts addiction nightmare which nearly took his life

'I couldn’t feel happy, I couldn’t feel love, I couldn’t feel shame.'

Sean Friars

Sean Friars spoke at the recent 'Addiction - An Honest Conversation; event at St. Cecilia's College. Pics by Jim McCafferty.

Sean Friars’ life changed when he signed for Liverpool as a young teenager. Moving away from home, he faced battles with homesickness and loneliness, but when he eventually returned home, he fell into the darkness of addition with medication, and it very nearly took his life.

Speaking candidly at the ‘Addiction – An Honest Conversation’ event last Wednesday night at St. Cecilia’s College, Sean recounted his battles through the years.

 

Teenage dreams

“When I moved away I was really, really young and I just thought this was all amazing. When I got there I was put in this three-storey house with an 82-year-old woman. I had the living room and my bedroom three stories up. It was the scariest looking house; halfway up there was this big statue of Our Lady and I used to be terrified going to bed because I had to walk past it and I was afraid it would turn and look at me.

“I was on my own so who was I to knock on the door and complain? I had just signed with YTS on a three-year deal with Liverpool and I was getting stupid money at a young age and I had the chance to help my family. I just had to get on with it. I have to say though I was really home sick. Even now I think that people in the sport won’t speak up about that because they think that the hierarchy will see it as a sign of weakness. I think it is getting better, but back then, without doubt that was the case for me.

“From the minute I hit the training ground the we actor came out in me; I’m here and it’s brilliant. Part of it wasn’t an act because when I was on the pitch that was my get out and I didn’t think about home or my family or my sister passing away, which had a big impact on my life. I actually never spoke about that when I was younger; all I did was get involved in fights because I couldn’t control my anger.

“I was playing football and I was doing really, really well and there were big, big hopes for me. I know back then there was a bit of a culture with drinking and gambling. It was just part of the norm. Because I was on my own I thought I would start going out with the boys just to get out, so I started doing that.

“Because I’m from Derry and I played for Liverpool, the phone was going crazy with people asking for tickets, and because I couldn’t wait to see people from back home, it got to the point that it didn’t have to be my mates or my family; if I just heard there was a group of boys there from Derry I was there asking who wanted tickets, just for the company.

“I never had the confidence to speak about that when I was younger. I was young and I was fit and I was going through the levels; I was captain of the U21s when I was 16, I was in the Northern Ireland international full squad when I was 17 and there were teams looking to buy me. But everything behind it just wasn’t good in my life.

“I would pick up the phone and talk to my dad and tell him we beat United 3-1 and I scored the three. He would ask ‘Is everything alright?’ and I would say ‘Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant’. I would put the payphone down and walk back to the house crying. I would get the tears out before I got there in case the landlady seen me. I would just go up and into bed and I was really low, and the next day I would just do the same act with the same routine.

“That training every day was great because I forgot about it, but back then everything was structured. We would meet up at 9:30am, start training at 10am, finish by 11:45am, and you were either going to play snooker, which was snooker and pints or you were going to play golf, which was pints because I didn’t play golf – I would just wait ‘til they finished. Everything was just to get out. I just thought it was part of the culture.

“I carried on and moved to a couple of clubs, thinking getting out of the big city would help and because I was getting older I thought I’d buy a house and settle down. I bought a house and was on my own then and didn’t have my land lady.

“I went to Ipswich and I loved it and it was a great club but it was almost worse because Ipswich was small like Derry, and they absolutely idolise their footballers and I was in the first team squad there. It was only Jim Magilton and myself so we stood out an absolute mile and everyone wanted to buy you a beer.

“I always had this inkling that I had an addictive personality. Throughout all the football I never had a thing with drugs because in professional football you are drug tested quite a lot, so I didn’t take drugs, didn’t take paracetamols, didn’t take nothing like that.

 

The addiction

“I was back here playing. I snapped my elbow, just above my arm, it just completely snapped. I was at a party, couldn’t wait for an ambulance, so jumped into a taxi thinking it might not be that bad. I got to the roundabout at the bottom of the bridge before you go up the Crescent Link and the taxi man went around it a wee bit quick and this part of my arm just hit the window. I was thinking ‘that can’t be right’, and the taxi man was telling me ‘Jesus, put that away’. I went over and that was me – that was the start of my addiction to prescription meds which nearly killed me.

“It stripped me of everything, completely. I didn’t feel anything after a while. There’s obviously a build up to it, you’re taking your medication and you’re in hospital for 10 days. I came out of the operation and my da is standing there – my da, who is a big man, 6ft 2”, my hero – he was grey. I had no idea what had gone on. He told me I had gone down for an operation and was down for seven and a half hours and because they couldn’t get the clotting to stop, they were afraid the clot would go around into my heart. So he had to sign a form which said if it didn’t stop, they could chop my arm off.

“I was in for 10 days so I was put on opiates, tramadol and really strong pain killers and I remember the first time I took them coming off the morphine, I felt sick because they were that strong. I remember saying ‘there’s no way I’m going to stick these tablets’. Was I wrong! I took it to a completely different level with the build up. I remember going to my doctor one day. My mum was concerned me at the time, as was my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now. She said they would come in with me but I told them to sit outside because I knew if they were there they would have told the truth.

“The doctor asked me how much I was taking a day and I think I told her maybe a third of what I was really taking. She started crying and went out and spoke to my mum and said ‘He should be dead every day’.

“So, they had this big talk to me and I told myself it was time to change. I was telling myself it was other things I was holding inside, it wasn’t about the tablets, all these things. I told myself I would do it, but I didn’t. I went and got more tablets, and I knew then that I was in trouble.

“I thought I had a grip of it and that I could wean myself down. I began training again, and I had a crash with a work van. I went over this drop and you hear the stories how everything goes into slow motion and your life flashes before your eyes. I would say that happened to me because I had time to pray to my sister. I asked her to look after my kids, I asked her to look after my parents, and if she got me out of this I would try and turn my life around.

“The van did a couple of flips and I landed upside down and it was all crushed up. I thought ‘I need to get out of here’, but I was afraid to move in case I couldn’t move. The next thing then the smoke started coming in and I thought ‘I’m in trouble here’. I realised then I could move. I had to punch the side bit of the window which wasn’t broke and climbed out and I got about 20 or 30 yards away and “I realised I had left two strips of Tramadol in the van, so I climbed back into the van. I went up to the hospital and I was terrified of the hospital checking my bloods. It was in Letterkenny so I signed myself out and went up to Derry and I was thinking to get my story straight.

“It was a work van, delivering papers and the shops were ringing asking for their papers. They couldn’t get a hold of me and eventually they checked the hospital and they got me.

“I sat down and said ‘Listen, I need to change’. I went to the doctor and she gave me a certain amount of tablets to do me that day. I asked for daily scripts just so I can’t get any more, but you can always get more. I was buying them off people and putting them in really bad situations. I was lying to my wife. All the time this was going on I had no feelings, nothing at all. I had a young family and I was still able to act. Anyone with children knows – your children sense it. This carried on still for another few years until it got to the point where I thought ‘I can’t do it on my own, I can’t cut down, I can’t be trusted to just stick to the tablets I was getting’. I was always torturing people to get more because my body needed it.

“Even though I couldn’t feel emotion, I couldn’t feel happy, I couldn’t feel love, I couldn’t feel shame – I was numb to those feelings. But I knew my body wasn’t right because it was like something out of the film Trainspotting every day I woke up. I was shaking, I was sore, my mind was going 100 miles an hour and I couldn’t sit at peace. It was a really uncomfortable feeling. I had some money saved up and I just said to the wife ‘Listen, that’s me away now for a month. I’m going to rehab’.

I just couldn’t wait any longer, so away I went, and it changed my life.

“Not only did it change my life and keep me alive, it changed my relationships with the most important people in my life – my family, my friends who stuck by me.

“I remember someone saying to me in rehab that I would have to be selfish. I wanted to fight them because I wasn’t selfish – I always wanted to take care of other people before myself. I got to understand what that meant – you have to take care of yourself to take care of those who are important to you. It all starts with having that open conversation – whether with someone that you love or a complete stranger who you reach out to, and things can change then. Things can change then and anybody can get there. Anybody. You just have to believe it.”

 

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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