‘Rugby gave me good stuff and good times, but when it crashed, that was brutal’

From schoolboy prodigy to Ireland international to drug dealer to wellness adviser, Ryan Caldwell has lived a number of lives. This is the one he wants to be defined by

Ryan Caldwell once terrified people for a living. On the rugby field, standing at 6ft 7in, he had a reputation as an uncompromising enforcer for Ulster, Bath and Exeter. He relished physical contact and never backed down from a fight. He won two Ireland caps at the age of 25, but injuries and indiscipline never allowed him to run up the bounty of caps that his physical gifts should have promised.

Shortly after his rugby career ended at 30 due to head injuries, he sat on the edge of his bed in Maghaberry Prison near Lisburn, shaking and scared. His life was out of control and he had sabotaged everything he once held dear. Relationships and rugby were gone. He was doing and dealing drugs, in with a tough crowd where he looked the part, but felt completely alone. He decided he couldn’t live with fear anymore and tried to end his life.

“There was very little support when I finished playing. I really hope that I can help someone going through it. Not just to get players back into work, or into society, but to support their mental health. It’s a massive change, it’s a massive shift in life. I went through about a three-year period where I was constantly in a huge dark night of the soul. I got involved with drugs and wasn’t with a great crowd. In that crowd I was looking for love and looking for reassurance. I was looking in all of the wrong places. It got really dark.

“I was selling drugs and taking tablets. Getting arrested. I ended up in Maghaberry.

“I was selling drugs and taking tablets. Getting arrested. I ended up in Maghaberry. I was in there twice, six weeks at a time on remand. That’s where I tried to take my own life. A security guard came down and he said that he was working that night, and he never ever goes down the hall. He told me later that something was telling him to just check that door. That night, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, and I was just thinking how did you end up here? What the hell happened? Relationships were breaking down and I was feeling lost. I was around 32 or 33. I knew then I had to do something. It was a huge wake-up call. I knew I wasn’t totally alone, and there are people there that actually do care.”

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Caldwell’s journey to recovery - physically and mentally - took years, but today, at 38, he has never been happier. He has set up his own business in Belfast, Inner Evolution, which teaches students meditation and breath work. Rugby is far from his mind. Every morning, he completes an hour and a half of meditation and is excited by the challenges that each client presents. He understands that he has lived a number of lives before the age of 40. The schoolboy rugby star who signed a professional contract with Ulster at 19 destined for greatness, and the drug addict destined to self-destruct, before finally finding happiness. Each part of his life has made him a better teacher for his clients.

“My life has completely changed now, rugby was my lifestyle for so long, but this is my life now and it has to be all-encompassing. If I’m going to hold space for people, and host retreats, it has to be my life. If I take people for meditations and breath work, you have to be living this life.

“Money cannot buy it when I see someone getting to live a better life. I know that I’ve opened a new chapter of their life through this work. Just talking with people and showing that I care. People are dying for someone to put their arms around them and to tell them they are going to be okay. If I can get out of where I was, then I know you can get out and push through whatever you are going through. This whole journey I’ve lived has enabled me to do it.”

From a young age, Caldwell had no time in his life for anything apart from rugby. He describes his mindset at the time as “laser precision”. He was a schoolboy star at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, captaining Inst and winning the Ulster Schools’ Cup in 2003. He told his first rugby coach at primary school that he was going to play for Ireland and nothing was going to stop him. He didn’t have a girlfriend at school, he couldn’t deal with any distractions. His schoolmates were talking about universities and parties while he was memorising lineout calls and watching tapes of the opposition.

“Looking back now, at the time, rugby at school while growing up was so intense. It was like a professional set-up. When I look back it was some of the hardest training I ever did. You’re seen as the rugby guy, and you were given this blazer for the 1st XV. You’re in this absolute bubble and people are all looking at you. Then I left school and straight away Ulster came. At 19, you’re offered 35k a year to do a development contract. You see, rugby was my dream, rugby was my first love. It’s all I wanted to do.

“It was great at Ulster, I enjoyed it, then I started to get injured at about 22 on my hips. I’ve got two hip replacements now. I had really degenerative hips from 22 and I still went on to play eight years of top-level rugby. When I left rugby I was getting a hip operation at 31 and 32. Doctors would say ‘how on earth were you doing this?’ More to the point, why were you doing this? I was like, I don’t know. I just got used to playing with pain.”

Caldwell’s early lofty promise at Ulster fizzled out. He was using painkillers and cortisone injections to numb the pain from his hips. The young boy who had confidently told his coach that he would play for Ireland had done just that, but was in constant physical pain as a result. He had trained with his heroes, but the dream of playing the game he had dreamed of as a boy was turning into a nightmare. He recalls nearly losing his life after a punch from Paul O’Connell in an Ireland training session in 2007 at the University of Limerick. Caldwell had tackled O’Connell in a non-contact session, which led to O’Connell punching the Ulster man.

“That is a trauma that I never addressed. That punch. I didn’t know what had happened, I was knocked out cold, so I didn’t know the whole story until other people like Rory [Best], Stephen Ferris and people like that told me what had happened.

“I wasn’t even looking at him when the punch landed, I was completely facing the other way. I understand tempers rise and it’s all in the past now, but it was a complete trauma. I had to be resuscitated on the side of the pitch because Paulie is a massive guy. So I woke up with my shirt cut the whole way open and them giving me CPR.

“Paulie came to the hospital after, I was 22 at the time, in my first camp with Ireland rugby. I was obviously trying to keep myself right and saying ‘nah don’t worry about it’, even though inside I was like, ‘flipping hell, man, he nearly killed me today.’”

Caldwell moved from Ulster to Bath, before ending his career at Exeter. Life in Devon suited him, ironically, as he was now riven with injuries, and it was the happiest time of his career. He was preparing to play club rugby for many years, enjoying the camaraderie of the club if not the actual rugby, that had simply become a professional obligation, not a passion. His career ended in a doctor’s surgery when he just turned 30. He had suffered too many concussions to continue playing.

“Everything in my life had gone into rugby, I had no Plan B and that scared me, but then I had expected to play the game until I was about 35 or 36. I thought I had a few years left. It just stopped like this [clicks his fingers]. I went to see a specialist neurologist three or four times, and he just said on the final time, this is it, I can’t sign you off to play rugby again. I was like, I have no plan B. Not only that, I had a loss of identity, rugby resonated so hard all of my life, all through Inst, all through my twenties, I was just known as that rugby player. I was the rugby guy. It just stopped, one week I was playing rugby, the next I wasn’t.

“There was a lot of cocaine

“With the head concussions, came a lot of mental health [problems], it was strange, a lot of darkness in my mind. Then that got reinforced by not playing rugby, I had no distraction, only my own thoughts. Once I knew my career was over, I felt really vulnerable and when I stopped playing, there was a complete loss of identity. What made it worse was me trying to keep up this facade, and putting all this pressure on myself to be that guy, to be the successful rugby player. You see now, I wasn’t that. I had no prospects going forward. I was at a loss. I was questioning myself, lying in bed at night, I really wished I hadn’t gone down this rugby route, because now at this age, at 30, if I’d stuck to a normal career, I’d be coming into my prime in my job.”

Caldwell returned to Northern Ireland and spent the remaining money he had from his rugby career on alcohol and drugs. Everything he knew from childhood was geared towards the routines of rugby. Without it, he was lost. He had become institutionalised without realising it and had no coaching staff to give him a detailed plan of how he was going to run his life. Caldwell had entered an arena with an opponent he had no chance of defeating.

“There was a lot of cocaine. There were a lot of prescription tablets. The hip operations got me onto prescription drugs. So when you’re going through this in your mind, and you have the prescription medication, they take the pain away from your hip, but they also numb your whole body. That peace that they gave me, that’s what I was addicted to, not the actual substance. I was in such a dark place, I couldn’t see any light to get out. My only option was to try and numb it.

“There were nights after rugby, I was living in the high-rise flats in Belvoir in Belfast, I remember sitting with no electric, no gas, I was so skint. I was flat broke. Not two pennies to rub together. I remember one night having to ring my Mum, ‘can you order me something to eat’, I hadn’t eaten in two days. This was two years after rugby and I was in a seriously bad spot.

“There are things I’m really not proud of. Violence with the wrong crowd. Even being there in that environment, it was so alien to me. I looked the part. But inside, I wasn’t comfortable with this, I didn’t like this, but I was looking for reassurance, I was looking for people to accept me and love me.”

Caldwell became a frequent visitor to police stations and courtrooms across Northern Ireland. He remembers a policeman who would regularly arrest him. He would always tell Caldwell, ‘this isn’t your life, you don’t need to be living in this world, you can change for the better’. Caldwell remembers that kindness at the worst time of his life. He was desperate for change. He started reading and researching widely, and came across the English journalist Graham Hancock and his work on ancient civilisations in Colombia. Caldwell decided to book a one-way ticket to explore a new world and escape the one that had brought him and others so much pain.

“When I was sick, the vomit was pure black

“I remember getting to the Europa Bus Centre in Belfast and I had my backpack on, and I was standing there, then I saw the bus for Dublin airport. I was just like, ‘this is it’. You take this step onto this bus and then this is the journey started. You’re going to Colombia. I took a 16-hour bus journey from Bogota, along some of the most dangerous and rough roads in the world. I got to the very south of Colombia, into the jungle, and stayed there in an eco-type place. It was a completely different way of life. I was there for six weeks, we did a lot of different things, like ayahuasca and kambo.

“There were tears and emotions. It was all a purge. Ayahuasca can make you physically sick, and when I was sick, the vomit was pure black. It felt like bad energy was coming out of my throat. We all go through things in life, and all of those sad traumas give us our personality, our traits and our complexes about things. It’s all stuff that happened in the past that is leading you to live your life in a certain way.”

Caldwell returned from Colombia and worked hard not only to change his physical body but also his mind. He knows that some former teammates will poke fun at what he’s doing, but he genuinely doesn’t care. He rarely watches rugby and says that he is in touch with very few of his former teammates from a career that defined every hour of his life as a young man.

“I just lost contact with people, but that’s okay. I know as I evolved and changed, rugby just didn’t really resonate with me anymore. When you become a professional, you see a group of 50 guys, all alpha men. You’re in a total bubble. See if you were a fly on the wall and you saw what goes on in a rugby changing room, honestly, you’d be thinking, what the hell is going on, these guys are mad. It normalises all of these behaviours. Now sometimes looking back, that version of myself, I think sometimes he was a bit of a dick. I was so powered by ego.

“There’s toxic masculinity in these rugby circles. It’s really bullshit. Then we’re carrying around all of this negative stuff, and we don’t know how to talk about it with our friends. Stuff like ‘man up’, all that. You can’t be vulnerable, because they just see it as a weakness.

“Rugby gave me a lot of good stuff and good times, but when it crashed, that was brutal, because I was so mentally into it. All of my life was in it.”

Caldwell politely excuses himself. He is leading a breathing workshop later for clients and wants to ensure everything is planned perfectly. The life that he once led on the rugby field and subsequently on the streets of Belfast seemed to have happened to another man; but he uses each painful experience to ensure that he can give hope to each client he encounters, that life can and does get better with time.

The third act of his life is the one he wants to be forever defined by.

Samaritans’ free helpline is at 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.ie or jo@samaritans.org; Pieta’s free helpline is at 1800-247247, or text help to 51444