Limerick hurling legend has ‘worn the T-shirt’ having had his own problems off the pitch, but he’s eager to give back to those fighting addiction after finding his ‘true calling’ as a psychotherapy counsellor
“Here comes Ciarán Carey, Carey leading the charge of the light brigade. Forty-five metres out, he has a chance to score. He’s put it high, he’s put it over. The Limerick captain has scored a minute into injury-time. Are the All-Ireland champions out?”
— Ger Canning, The Sunday Game (June 16, 1996)
Everyone remembers that iconic score which shattered Clare hearts 25 years ago, but the wars which Ciarán Carey waged on the pitch were nothing compared to the battles with his demons off it.
The Limerick hurling legend will always be remembered for his extraordinary feats of skill and bravery between the white lines, but turbulence was a common theme in his everyday life as he regularly veered down a dangerous road.
Little compared to watching him in full flight, his hurl an extension of his right arm as he weaved through opponents. But he was also running off the pitch with the devil on his shoulder threatening to quickly turn his story into a tragedy.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest players in either code to never to get his hands on an All-Ireland winner’s medal, Carey is also a recovering alcoholic who fended off suicidal thoughts during rocky times before eventually finding his “true calling”.
It’s not quite poacher turned gamekeeper, but he admits that most who knew him 20 years ago would probably have been “sending in the white coats” if a prediction was made that he might wind up as a qualified psychotherapy counsellor.
That’s where the 51-year-old now stands with a degree from Limerick’s ICHAS (Irish College of Humanities & Applied Sciences) as well as over a decade of experience working with addicts in Cuan Mhuire Residential Treatment Centre in Bruree.
He’s even gone one step further with the ravaging effects of Covid-19 imploring him to take the plunge into business having opened ‘MyMove Counselling’ in Castletroy five months ago, and demand has already forced an expansion of services.
There have been many twists and turns along his career path, but working in the sphere of counselling, psychotherapy and addiction services is exactly where he wants to be after finding his mission in life.
“I’ve a CV buried somewhere under my bed and it’s probably the length of O’Connell Street in Dublin jumping from job to job to job. Looking back on it, really I was just running, running, running. Running from myself,” Carey tells the Irish Independent.
“I found my true calling in counselling later in life, that in itself could take up a few pages but thankfully it worked out. I wouldn’t have predicted this, but I found my true calling eventually. I love what I’m doing and I’ve passion for it. I don’t even see it as work because I love it that much.
“There’s great satisfaction in seeing people start a new chapter and get their life back together, and not only that, but family members getting on with things and negotiating life as best they can.
“The family can get equally as sick as the person in active addiction. Someone who’s trapped or in the throes of addiction probably gets most of the focus but, unfortunately, the people close to them, the ones who love them most, also get hurt.”
It’s often remarked that one can’t understand another’s life until walking in their shoes, and Carey has experienced the same roller-coaster of emotions as those he now treats so “it helps when you’ve worn the T-shirt”.
“I’d be very conscious of self-disclosure, but I’m an open book. I’m well and truly out there. And of course it helps when you’ve worn the T-shirt and travelled the road, but that’s not to say that an ordinary person who gets a degree couldn’t be equally as good or better at it,” he says.
“Of course it helps to have gone through it because once you’ve travelled the road and got through the misery, pain and hardship that goes with someone that’s trapped in addiction, that helps you going forward.”
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Carey takes great pride in Limerick’s place at hurling’s summit with three All-Irelands secured in the past four years under John Kiely – and his nephew Cian Lynch being one of the finest players of the modern era – but he gets as much satisfaction from helping others to cope with a myriad of problems.
Addiction comes in various shapes and sizes with drugs, alcohol and gambling the most obvious problems while social media, eating disorders, computers and pornography are among many other issues which were heightened amid a global pandemic.
With essential services closed for long spells when most needed, Carey insists the consequences of Covid will be visible for some time to come as it triggered other troubles, with suicide rates hitting “eye-opening” levels.
“A lot of people were just emotionally broken, they were lacking confidence, lacking self-belief, lacking self-esteem and value in themselves while there was an anxiety and the panic of when is it going to end.
“It’s been a real eye-opener with the amount of suicides that are after happening, it’s frightening this past two years, even more so than other years, and, unfortunately, a high percentage of those are addiction-related.
“I mean this with love and I’m by no means minimising the coronavirus and I know the tragedy and the hurt and damage that it has caused worldwide, but I also know a lot more people that have died by suicide as a result of addiction.”
Carey pulls no punches about how addiction goes hand in hand with mental health problems as patients must go through the process of turning hate for oneself into love on their continuous road to recovery.
“I’m 15 years in the game and I’ve yet to treat someone with addiction that doesn’t have mental illness or mental health problems, they’re hand in hand unfortunately. Anyone being treated for addiction can identify and relate with that word depression,” the three-time All-Star says. “It’s a journey, your emotional self is inevitably broken down. Your confidence, your self-esteem, your dignity and your value in yourself. When you’re in addiction, more often than not you hate yourself.
“You’re talking about going from hate to eventually loving yourself and getting to love oneself is a journey and process in itself, it’s not going to be instant and there’s no quick fix but it does come over time with discipline and positive routines. It’s all about trying to provide them with a few coping mechanisms or a few new skills they can pull from their invisible tool box and apply to their lives one day at a time.
“That can help them find a bit of happiness, find a bit of peace, find a bit of contentment, which is all the exact opposite to depression and that’s what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re doing and achieving over the past few months.”
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Dependency on phones and social media is a modern phenomenon, with Carey predicting that “serious problems are coming down the tracks” as “people seem to always be welded to their phones”.
Carey, who is amazingly still playing for his native Patrickswell in the junior ‘B’ ranks, tells of how phone addictions are now being treated in China and why the same may soon happen here before getting some other things off his chest.
It annoys him how excessive phone use and an over-reliance on social media is being normalised on these shores, but nothing irks him more than Ireland’s cocaine problem being allowed to spiral out of control.
Carey urges Croke Park to “get real to how rampant it is” within the GAA – and many other Irish sporting clubs – as he insists it is a “conversation that needs to happen” before the horse has bolted.
“It’s well and truly alive in every little club in Ireland now,” Carey says. “I wouldn’t be a bit afraid to say that about all codes; soccer, rugby, GAA or whatever, it’s gone that serious.
“It’s frightening where it’s after going in the last year and a half, frightening. There isn’t too much talk about it in the GAA because it’s such a taboo subject. It mightn’t be a popular thing to say, but it’s reality and it’s real. It’s rippling through most villages and parishes in the country, everyone knows someone struggling with coke.
“Fifteen clubs have been onto me in the last four months to come out and do workshops. I’m talking fairly big clubs within Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. I’ve my finger on the pulse when it comes to cocaine in Limerick and there aren’t too many clubs where cocaine isn’t alive.
“People are trying to normalise it and make it as if it’s somebody having a cigarette outside, ‘Sure go out and have a line instead of a fag, You’re fine, no one will really mind’. That will be disastrous as a nation if we continue to go down that road.
“Fifteen years ago, you’d be lucky to get a bit of hash in villages and now these places are awash with cocaine and tablets so that’ll tell you how far it’s after coming. It isn’t going away and it’s actually growing.
“I’m flabbergasted with the way it is allowed to go where it’s going. It doesn’t take a vacation, there’s no bank holiday for addictions, so I’m going to do my best to confront it in whatever way I can.”
Carey gives anecdotal evidence suggesting the number of drug dealers in many villages and towns is multiplying and outlines the problems which widespread cocaine use will create in the future, with education the only way to fight back.
“A lot of clubs in Limerick would know what I do and a good few of them have reached out for workshops. I don’t think society is going to tackle it itself on its own, it’s going to come from within a community,” he says.
“Keep raising the awareness and if I was to put my head on the chopping block, I’d probably be saying from sixth class upwards. I’ve young nephews who went into first year and they would have experienced young guys smoking hash at lunchtime.
“I’m not saying this is always the case, far from it, but I’m just saying that the thing about addiction is that it has no boundaries. It’s inevitable that anyone who takes cocaine recreationally, if they’re at that four or five years then the drug will snap them and hijack them.
“They will have crossed the invisible line at that stage. All it is is a coping mechanism at the start and, lo and behold, if you take it long enough and often enough, without you realising it, you’re in the throes of addiction.
“You’re masking, you’re hiding, you’re ducking and diving from something, you’re obviously taking this to cope. I need to stress also, this isn’t just a male issue, cocaine is fairly strong in both sexes.”
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Former English soccer star Paul Merson bravely revealed the extent of his gambling addiction this week as he documented the £7 million which he threw away over a 30-year spree before finally kicking his habit.
It may have sent him down a black hole but gambling never felt like a problem; instead it was his friend.
“When I was at Walsall, they put me in an Arizona clinic for the gambling,” Merson says. “The counsellor sat there playing my addiction. He’d be going, ‘I will kill you, I will ruin you, I will take everything off you’. Mind-blowing. But my addiction ain’t like that. He talks to me nicely. My addiction’s my mate.”
Therein lies another facet of addiction, as Carey details how it lures one in and “plays tricks with the mind”.
“Thankfully, it has been recognised as an illness and a disease,” Carey adds. “But it’s the only disease that will tell you that you haven’t got it and it will come at you and play tricks with you psychologically.”
Carey commends Tyrone star Conn Kilpatrick for highlighting his gambling woes after their All-Ireland win and prominent sporting figures raising awareness of a colossal problem is essential to help neutralise it.
“It was great to see him share his story and please God that will inspire others to do likewise. Gambling is rampant at club and inter-county level and it’s even bigger at a professional level,” Carey says.
Kilpatrick sought the help of the Gaelic Players Association and a counsellor to curb his habits before flourishing on and off the pitch, but many struggle to make that call as their “pride” often gets in the way, with devastating consequences.
“Unfortunately, an awful lot of people never get the opportunity to reach out and make the phone call and try to recover, whether it’s as a result of suicide, choking on their vomit or OD’ing,” Carey reveals. “Their train of thought is, ‘How can I stay away from the pints for the rest of my life?’
“Even verbalising it like that is turning it into Mount Everest. There is a recovery path, there is a solution and part of that is a day at a time, take it nice and easy.
“Pride would be the big one and they probably feel that the towel is thrown in at this stage even and they’re probably saying, ‘OK, this is my plan and this is what I’m meant to do for the rest of my life’.”
Carey calls on addicts, and those closest to them, to act before the depths of rock bottom are hit.
“Addiction is a totally different animal, it’s a killer,” he says. “It has killed and it will continue to kill the longer one stays trapped in addiction. Ultimately, that will be the end result, either slowly or quickly, unless you take immediate action.
“You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom before reaching out, that could be too late. Support people and help them to see that they have a problem that they can fix. It might be the start of him or her reaching out for a bit of help, I’ve seen that.”
Carey admits that “nearly everyone is in their own canoe” when it comes to maintaining their mental health but sleep, exercise, good food and a balanced lifestyle are the recipe for success, with a key tip to implement.
“Are we ever fully fixed?” the former Kerry manager muses. “Possibly not, but if you’re on the train to fix yourself then you’re on a great train. You might feel a bit lazy, you mightn’t go to the meeting and reverse psychology needs to be applied with that train of thought. Whatever you don’t want to do, usually you should do it because it’s going to be good for you.”
His wizardry in hurling’s finest arenas ensure he will never be forgotten in GAA folklore, but the life-saving deeds undertaken through his vocation may yet be how Ciarán Carey is best remembered.
‘MyMove Counselling’ is a mental health care facility providing professional counselling, psychotherapy and addiction services with its base in Castletroy, Co Limerick. For more details go to mymovecounselling.ie