Author and former GAA star Oisín McConville has spoken candidly about his struggle with a gambling addiction at this year's Leitrim's Health Is Wealth seminar.
Addressing the packed function room at the Bush Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon last night, McConville described the stress of growing up in "the midst of the troubles" in Crossmaglen.
"The troubles were something that really scared me. I threw myself into football at 4 years of age.....right til I was 13. I'd say I was doing things on the football field that no young lad my age was doing. I mean I was on the football field every day of the week. The only thing I wanted to be was the best Gaelic footballer I could be and I was striving toward that even at 13 years of age," he said.
"I was the most focused child you could imagine. But things changed for me at 14 years of age. I walked into a bookmakers and had my first bet on a horse. It was grand national day. Everybody was in the bookies.
"The second time I went in to have a bet there was three people in the bookies - there were 2 guys putting 50p on a horse and there was a guy over here taking wads of money out of his pocket.
At 14 years of age I wanted to be like him. My first bet was 50p each way on a horse. That wasn't going to break the bank. My second bet was a pound on a horse to win...then I went to a fiver, to a tenner, to £50 to £100, to £500, to £1000, to £5000 to £10,000.
I became addicted at 14 years of age
"The second last bet I had on a horse was £20,000. The reason why it was £20,000 and honestly the figures don't matter....was because the day I became addicted at 14 years of age, from that day I was always trying to get that big win. Just one big one. I promised myself one big win and I was out of there, I'd never gamble again.
"The strangest thing is that at 29 years of age when I had my last bet I wasn't just gambling to win back the money. I was gambling to win back the self respect, the self esteem and the relationships and the friendships and the family members, all those things that I destroyed along the way. All the collateral damage to my gambling."
While on the field, McConville was a force to be reckoned with, off the field his life was a shambles.
He describes how he changed from a confident, outgoing young teenager to a reclusive adult for whom only the GAA provided any happiness.
"The place I felt safest was that football field. The other place I was really comfortable was the bookmakers," he admitted.
"At 14 years I probably gambled three or four times .... 16-17 years of age about twice a month. By 18 years of age it was every single day and with every penny I had."
I couldn't sleep...there were so many people after me for money
As the debts mounted his health started to suffer. "I couldn't sleep, because there were so many people after me for money," he admitted.
Even when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he found that his addiction left him unable to deal with emotion, too busy gambling to visit his dad in hospital.
When he played a game in Dublin and got word that his father was passing he made several promises to change his life as he was driven to the hospital.
"I had a mantra going through my head that was I'm never going to gamble again. And another mantra, that I'm going to tell my father I love him and I will tell my family what's been going on," McConville candidly admitted.
However arriving at the hospital in 1999 he did not do any of this. He clammed up.
"I never told my father I loved him. I never told my family (about the gambling).....my father died on a Wednesday and those six days after were the longest sustained period (I had) away from gambling in 16 years," he said.
This loss triggered an escalation in his gambling and the lengths he went to to place a bet.
"In the end it wasn't about winning or losing. In the end it was about putting that bet on," he said. For him, gambling was like heroin to a drug addict, it was his 'hit'.
"Imagine I was going into that bookies looking for my integrity, my self respect....all the collateral damage I was trying to sort out with that bet."
"My father died in 1999 and I mourned his death in 2006. That's the biggest thing that addiction took away from me was the ability to feel, was the ability to care."
Thankfully McConville entered treatment in October 2004, a step which has turned his life around. He is now married and the father of two children with a third on the way.
"Addiction will always be the monkey on my shoulder"
"The truth of it is that I'm lucky. I am in recovery and have stayed in recovery for 13 years," but, he says, "addiction will always be the monkey on my shoulder".
"I met my wife after my addiction. My honesty comes from Mary's honesty. We need to continue to lift the stigma around addiction.
"I need to keep sharing my story. Believe it or not you people in here (at Leitrim's Health Is Wealth) are part of my recovery. My life resembles nothing like it was 15 years ago.
"Recovery opens up a whole new outlook on life. I thought it took different things to make me tick. I am lucky because I appreciate what I have now."
Have you been impacted by issues raised in this story?
Contact Gamblers Anonymous on 01-8721133
The Samaritans on Freephone: 116 123; Text: 087 2 60 90 90