Steven Caulker: ‘I felt for large periods there was no light at the end of the tunnel’
The QPR defender talks movingly about his struggles with mental illness and addiction
Steven Caulker tackles Fernando Torres during Cardiff City’s 2013/14 top flight campaign. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
Steven Caulker has a tale to tell and, as hard as it is to hear, it is best simply to listen. His stream of consciousness veers from scoring on his England debut less than five years ago and the thrill at potential being realised to the horrific mental health issues that have almost ended it all in the period since. A player who, from the outside, appeared blessed with talent and opportunity speaks of desperate anxiety and self-loathing.
He contemplated killing himself in his darkest moments with his path one of self-destruction. Attempts at escapism cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds, wages frittered away in casinos. Then came the drinking aimed at numbing the pain. The 25-year-old finds himself recalling the times spent in custody watching CCTV footage of his misdemeanours, his lawyer at his side, and not recognising the vile person on the screen.
Football is still coming to terms with mental illness and Caulker, an international and a last lingering reminder at Queens Park Rangers of financially misguided days as a Premier League club, has been an easy target. He is not seeking to make excuses or win sympathy. These are details he finds painful to recount. “I’ve sat here for years hating myself and never understood why I couldn’t just be like everyone else,” he says. “This year was almost the end. I felt for large periods there was no light at the end of the tunnel.” And yet he has not placed a bet since December, or touched alcohol since early March. The healing process that can restore him to the top level is well under way, with this interview, one he sought out, potentially another step on the road to recovery.
A little under a year ago Caulker had spoken to the Guardian about a “life-changing” week spent in Sierra Leone, of humbling yet inspiring charity work with ActionAid that had provided him with a sense of perspective. He returned to be galvanised under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Loftus Road and, having spent the previous season on loan at Southampton and Liverpool – unfulfilling stints which fuelled his latent insecurities – was ready to give his all. Early season performances against Leeds and Cardiff suggested confidence had been restored, reward for a summer of incessant fitness work.
The trigger that would send him spiralling to rock bottom would be injury. He tore his groin at Barnsley and played in pain for weeks, dreading a spell back in rehabilitation, before succumbing to an associated hip complaint. “I owed it to QPR to try,” he says, “but I was naive thinking I could still perform with the tear.” He has not played since last October, with the period marked by personal turmoil and, only of late, revival. Talking publicly, he suggested, may point younger players towards seeking help if they find themselves treading the same route, or experiencing the same sense of desertion, in a brutal industry. The real hope is the exercise, as brave as it is, may ultimately prove more cathartic for Caulker himself.
He recognises his football ability as “a gift but also a curse”. It took him from Sunday League at 15 into the Premier League four years later, to the 2012 Olympics with Great Britain and into Roy Hodgson’s England side for a friendly in Sweden later that year. His talent has convinced some of the most respected managers he is worth pursuing. Yet, while he could still “get away with it” on the pitch, he lived in denial. It was more than six years into his career before he accepted he needed help. “You always think you can rein it back in again and the money provides a false sense of security. But at Southampton I realised, mentally, I was gone. I wasn’t playing, my career was going nowhere and I had to reach out to someone. The doctor there tried to help me but others were just telling me to go out on the pitch and ‘express myself’.
“There was no understanding as to what was happening in my head. I know they’d brought me in to do a job and they weren’t there to be babysitters. Just like at QPR, I needed to justify the money they were paying me but I was in a state and, at some point, there has to be a duty of care. Football does not deal well with mental illness. Maybe it’s changing but the support mechanisms are so often not there. I’ve spoken to so many players who have been told to go to the Sporting Chance clinic and they’ve refused because they know, if they take time off, they’ll lose their place in the team. Someone steps in and does well, so you’re gone. That dissuades people from getting help. You feel obliged to get on with things.
“I would urge lads to speak to the PFA, to speak to their manager, and not be scared about being dropped if they are feeling like I did. Be brave enough to say you need help before it’s too late. The anxiety … I’d always needed something to take the edge off. Football was my escape as a kid but that changed when I was chucked into the first team as a teenager and suddenly football came with pressure. My way of dealing with it, even in the early stages of my career, was gambling. I’m an addict. I’m addicted to winning, which people say is a positive in football but certainly not when it extends to gambling. I was addicted to trying to beat the system, because you convince yourself there is a system to it and you can beat it. You can never get your head around why you aren’t.”
He has played 123 times in the Premier League and for eight clubs with the same, horribly familiar cycle of insecurity and self-destruction pursuing him to each. There is always a catalyst to the nosedive. “The sleepless nights, sat up till 5am replaying every bad decision I’ve ever made in my life, worrying what will be next … Tottenham sent me to Bristol City on loan at 18 and they put me in a flat in the city centre surrounded by nightclubs, two casinos opposite, the kind of money I’d never seen in my life, and no guidance whatsoever. I was pulled once by a member of staff and told I’d been spotted in the casino at 3am but their attitude was: ‘What you do in your spare time is your business. Just don’t let it affect your performances out on the pitch.’
I was gambling heavily when I went back to Tottenham, staying up to crazy hours of the night in casinos
“At Swansea a year later it was an injury which brought it all to the surface, and Spurs sent me to Sporting Chance to sort myself out while I was recovering from my knee but I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t experienced enough pain to make me want to stop. I was gambling heavily when I went back to Tottenham, staying up to crazy hours of the night in casinos. I guess never feeling good enough played a big part in that. I never felt I was on the same level as any of the first-teamers but a big win in the casino and money in my back pocket might change that. Being dropped rattled me even more because football was what I had relied on to make me feel better. So then the gambling was every single day. The pain of losing all my money, combined with the shame and guilt, ate away at me. So I’d drink myself into oblivion so I wouldn’t have to feel anything. I was numb but I was out of control.”
The chairman, Daniel Levy, eventually sought him out on a post-season trip to the Bahamas. “He just said: ‘The way you act is unbelievable. You either sort yourself out or go but I can assure you, if you leave, you’ll be going down, not up.’ I was young, stupid. I took it as a challenge, a chance to prove him wrong. I was so immature. So I went to Cardiff and, for six months, everything was amazing. I was captain, the manager, Malky Mackay, knew I had some issues but offered to be there for me. I felt wanted, so there was no gambling, no heavy binges but the second he was sacked, all the demons came back. That’s all it took. Even before we played the next game, I’d convinced myself nothing would be the same. That’s the kind of catastrophic thinking I’ve had to address.
“I ended up at QPR that summer, 2014, trying to hold it together, but the trigger there came in the second game when we were thrashed 4-0 at Tottenham. That feeling coming off the pitch at White Hart Lane, knowing we’d been embarrassed and that Levy was sitting up in the stand thinking: ‘I told you so’… There was no denying it any more. I’d made a big mistake leaving Spurs. I should have stayed and sorted myself out. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It just pounded in my head: regret, regret, regret. From that moment I was gone, even if I never wanted to accept it, and everything just escalated. I’d go for days without sleeping. I don’t know how I survived it. That year was an absolute nightmare.
“It was a vicious circle. We’d lose at the weekend and the fans would get at me, and I’d be breaking. I really wanted to help us get results but we weren’t good enough and I’d walk away taking responsibility in my head for the whole team’s failings. I couldn’t sleep, worrying about what had happened. The only relief I found was in alcohol. It would silence the voices of doubt and self-hate, temporarily anyway, but I’d be too intoxicated to go into training, and the blackouts – I’d have no memory of anything. It could be Monday and I’d have no memory of what had happened since Saturday night. I’d wake up, roll over and look at my phone, and there’d be texts from people saying: ‘Did you really do this last night?’ ‘The manager wants to see you.’ It was petrifying because I didn’t know what had happened.”
Back to rehab
There were occasions when he would wake up in a police cell. He grimaces when asked how often he has been arrested, embarrassed to admit the figure, but the drunk and disorderly offences would flare up from London to Southampton to Merseyside. “Sometimes I’d be sat there with the police and my lawyer, watching the CCTV footage of what I’d done, and I didn’t recognise myself. I couldn’t believe the person I was. It’s so hard to accept I could be like that. In Liverpool I was waking up in the middle of the night throwing up, people were blackmailing me, club owners and bouncers: ‘Pay money or we’ll sell this story on you.’ And I had no idea what I’d even done on those blackouts. I eventually told the club I couldn’t function and needed to go back into rehab.”
Things might have improved last season under Hasselbaink had the hip injury, diagnosed as a week-long issue that became a complaint which prompted five different prognoses, not rendered him “helpless” once again. “I’d cost the club £8m, was one of the top earners and one of the few left from the Premier League, and people had no explanation why I wasn’t performing. Why I was absent. It ended up as my toughest year ever. I couldn’t train. My girlfriend lost her mother and was grieving while living with someone struggling with addiction. My son, who lives with his mother in Somerset, is now at school so I’d go months without seeing him. He had always been my ‘safe place’. There was no release.
“QPR and my agent tried to push me towards Lokomotiv Moscow in January, saying it would be a fresh start. Part of me thought the money they were offering could solve all my problems but why would being on my own out in Russia help? I had no idea how to break the cycle and being in Moscow while still injured just felt a recipe for disaster. The manager, Ian Holloway, was actually telling me to stay. I’d been in his office close to tears, so he said: ‘How anyone could think sending you there would be a good idea is beyond me. You need to get yourself right.’ I appreciated him for that but, for the club, I can see why it was appealing to be shot of me but I was in no fit state to move and eventually pulled the plug on it.
“I’d had one last gamble and lost a hell of a lot of money in December. A last blowout. It was at that point I finally accepted I could not win; that there was no quick fix, no more daydreaming I could save the world through one good night on the roulette wheel. It was all a fantasy that took me away from having to feel anything. I contemplated suicide a lot in that period. A dark time. Everything I’d gone through in football, where had it taken me? All the guilt, the embarrassment, the shame, the public humiliation in the papers … and for what? I could cling to my son, to what I’d done in Africa, or the properties I’d bought my family, but I’d blown everything else. I reckon I’ve lost 70 pre cent what I’ve earned. When you lose that amount of money, the guilt … that’s so many lives you could have changed. There was no escape, no way out, other than to ‘leave’.
“But, in the moments of clarity, I knew I couldn’t do that because of my son. I haven’t gambled since but the drink filled the void for a while. I was scared and didn’t feel like there was anywhere else to turn. Rehab didn’t work before so why would it work now? I stupidly took comfort in the alcohol but it ended up deepening the depression. It was relentless from every angle. Until March 12th. That’s the day I lost my driving licence. That’s when I realised my life had become unmanageable.”
Caulker was ordered to pay £12,755 in fines and costs at Slough magistrates court at the end of March and was banned from driving for 18 months, having refused to blow into a breathalyser after police were called to a car park near Windsor Castle. “I knew I was over the limit, I knew I’d get the ban but I didn’t want to tell my parents I’d fucked up again. What if I had driven the car out of the car park and killed someone? No, that was it. I’ve been up before a judge four or five times. No more second chances. It’s a jail sentence next. I was still injured and unable to play, so I signed off sick. I went to see a specialist who diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. He prescribed me medication and we put together a plan where I would take some time away to sort myself out.”
Whether I played football or not I would still be suffering from this illness
He and his girlfriend travelled to Africa and India, helping in orphanages, homeless shelters and schools where the suffering was exposed and obvious. He has attended countless Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and has reached out to support workers in the game such as Clarke Carlisle for advice. He has not touched alcohol since his arrest in March. He takes medication, “a mood stabiliser to try to balance my highs and lows, and address that chemical imbalance which makes my behaviour so catastrophic”, twice a day. Golf is a new, more constructive vice.
“People say I’ve done all this because I’ve had too much money thrown at me but I know teenagers without a penny who have the same addictive traits as me. Whether I played football or not I would still be suffering from this illness, just without the public pressure and humiliation. Addiction does not care. I am a man of extremes. People don’t see me doing the extra training, eating right, going to the pool every night to get fit, attending the anonymous meetings, doing the charity work. That is still me. That is who I am. But I get fucked by these other demons and I desperately need something in the middle. I feel like I’m getting there now, that things have finally changed.
“I’m doing little things just to remind me to stay on track. I could be relying on taxis to get me everywhere while I’m banned but I’m using public transport. I’m living in one of the properties I own in Feltham, back where I grew up, to make me remember how hard I had to work to get out of here aged 15. It’s a reminder that, if I continue to unravel, I won’t improve my position again. Money covers the cracks. It can be evil. It prolongs the agony.”
QPR’s players reported for pre-season last Friday but Caulker, who has one year to run on his contract and has been training all summer with the former league player Drewe Broughton at Goals centre in Hayes, had been signed off until July. Life at the club had degenerated into an endless stream of internal disciplinary hearings and, despite Holloway having made clear his desire to retain the centre-half’s services, his future will not be at Loftus Road. “What happens next is all a bit confused, all a bit unclear,” he says. “The manager has texted me several times offering his support and saying he wants me at the club but my new representative has been informed by the owners I’m not welcome back.
“For too long I’ve hated everything about myself and I needed to learn to love myself again. I miss the game like crazy. I don’t feel as if I’ve enjoyed playing football since Cardiff. I don’t want to type my name into Google and just see a list of humiliating stories. I want people to remember I am a footballer who was good enough to represent his country at 20 and still has 10 years left in the game. At 40% of my ability, I was playing at the top level. Now I feel good mentally and I want the chance to show people, including my son, what I am truly capable of. Wherever the opportunity arises, I’m just thankful still to be alive.”
In Ireland and the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116123
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.