'I'd let everyone down… look at who you've become. I was totally reckless'
After considerable underage success, Ciaran McCloy saw his life – and his football career – veer off track before he was out of his teens as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. It's been a long road back, but the Maghera man is determined to let others know that all is never lost. Neil Loughran writes...
“LOOK… I dunno…” Ciaran McCloy stops for a few seconds, ruffling his hair nervously. The question he is searching for the answer to isn’t just as existential as it looks, but draws a brief moment of pause.
Why are you here?
For the guts of an hour he has sat out the back of The Irish News office and bared his soul about the demons of alcohol and drug abuse that have dogged him from his mid-teens - the journey from Hogan Cup winning goalkeeper with everything to play for to lost soul in need of saving.
There is nothing about retelling this story that he enjoys. There is still shame, still guilt. At several points his head bows and shakes as shivers of regret resurface. But he keeps going in the hope that putting himself out there in public, painful as it may be, might help others reach out before they too reach breaking point.
“I’m uncomfortable sitting here,” he says.
“But it’s important for me to try and get out of my comfort zone. It’s important for everybody to do that sometimes.
“I don’t mind looking back, but I don’t want to stay there…”
Now 25, McCloy is busting to get back out on the field with Watty Graham’s, Glen as soon as restrictions allow. Last year he played with St John’s in Belfast and while he enjoyed every second of it, making some great friends, it wasn’t home. It wasn’t his club.
The magic memories created during a glittering underage career might seem like a lifetime ago now, but they still mean plenty. In the 2013 MacRory Cup final – when St Patrick’s, Maghera ended a 10-year wait to get their hands on the famous trophy - McCloy made a spectacular second half save to deny St Paul’s, Bessbrook centre-back Daniel Nugent a goal as the Derry school eked across the line.
Less than a month later they were crowned Hogan Cup champions, while McCloy was also part of the all-conquering Glen side that swept to Ulster minor club glory at St Paul’s in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Yet the tail end of those glory days went hand in hand with the beginning of a downward spiral from which he would struggle to escape.
“Probably from 17 or 18, any time we won anything I was going out and getting blocked.
“I was nearly playing football just to have those moments where I could go out… I wasn’t even enjoying the game any more. Any of the winning photos knocking about, I’m sitting there with a big head on me. It was ridiculous. It’s not until later on that you realise.
“It all started coming to a head when I was 19/20 and I was getting in bother over it; it was costing me more than a pint. There was friction at home, any time I was going out on a Friday I maybe wasn’t home again until Monday. I had to repeat upper sixth because I basically wasted a year, I was starting to miss work.
“I got a job around home in Specialist Joinery but I could’ve been sacked out of there three or four times… I was there but I wasn’t.”
The roots of his problems had taken hold earlier on in his teenage years, he reckons, a “self-serving” streak driving a wedge between him and those who mattered most.
“My family means a whole lot to me. I was a happy child, I was always shown real love by my family, never wanted for anything. But in second or third year school reports went from ‘very smart, very bright’ to ‘Ciaran can do better, he’s not applying himself’.
“Any opportunity I had not to go to school I was taking it. There was a time I was addicted to Xbox too – I’d have sat on it for days. I remember my da putting a hammer through it at one stage.
“Then when the drinking took more of a hold, I’d go out and switch the phone off. I don’t know where it came from or why. I’d have been very shy I suppose and whenever I found alcohol it seemed to fix it for me.
“I was working part-time in a bar around home when I was in sixth form and that really escalated things for me because it just became the norm. I’d be telling my parents I was away to work in the bar where really I was going to sit in the bar.”
Football was suffering too. Three years in-a-row he missed an Ulster club minor championship match for breaking a drink ban, while he cringes at the memory of his last appearance in the Derry jersey five years ago.
“It was an U21 match against Donegal - we got beat and I was absolutely horrible. I was away off drinking the week before. I still carry that around with me, because f**k I was shit that day.
“After that game I went up to Belfast with the lads and ended up getting arrested for rioting – I can’t remember a thing. As soon as I got out the next morning it was Paddy’s Day, I went straight back drinking.
“It was just… madness. Ma and da would have maybe been saying ‘you need to drink less’, but I’d always have covered over it. I was good enough at protecting my drinking.
“You’re fooling everyone else but you’re also fooling yourself into believing your own lies at the same time. It becomes second nature, it gets you through day to day. You feel like you’re going round in a circle all the time, covering your own ass.”
Things eventually came to a head four years ago. After a night out in Magherafelt celebrating his 21st birthday, McCloy lost his licence when police stopped him while driving under the influence.
Seeing the court report in the local paper brought his sense of shame to a different level.
“Ah, it’s disgusting. It doesn’t even bear thinking about, the anxiety and all that comes with that. It just keeps you in that spiral of not wanting to face up to anything; just keeps you down in the dirt.”
Eventually he accepted the advice of his parents and agreed to seek help, entering the Cuan Mhuire addiction treatment centre in Newry for a 12 week stint. But the terms of engagement, he realises now, weren’t what they needed to be.
“At that stage I would say I wanted help but I wasn’t really ready for help. It was pretty much an ultimatum given to me - go in or get out. I convinced myself I was going in for me, but it’s only when you sit here now and look you realise I was going in to keep other people happy rather than to try and sort the thing out.
“It did do me a lot of good still, it gave me a good insight into myself. But when I came back out, I was drunk within a week… I hid that too, no-one even knows that.
“I thought I was sorted until the moment it was put in front of me.”
Although that would turn out to be a once-off as McCloy managed to steer clear of alcohol for 12 months following that bender, he couldn’t quite shake the sense that he was on borrowed time; that the next fall was just around the corner.
The moment he was offered cocaine for the first time, he knew. This is only going to go one way.
“Within six months, everything I’d built up over that year I’d lost again. That first time I remember sitting in the car, staring at this bag thinking ‘where is this going to end for you?’ Deep down I think I already knew, but I couldn’t help it.
“I was going around pretending everything was fine because no-one could tell, there’s no smell, nobody’s seeing you drinking, but it just brought me to my knees again. In the middle of this you’re keeping up the persona of someone trying to break onto the Glen senior team, still training away.
“This time it came to a head when my parents found out what I was at, they found something and confronted me about it… they took me to the doctor. They were trying to get me back into treatment but by that stage I was that deluded I was telling them ‘look, everyone’s at it, it’s not a problem to me, leave me alone’.
“Like, that’s not me at all. That’s completely me in the grips… even saying it back makes me feel sick. That argument went on for about a month, all the while I’d have been going to my friend’s house, maybe not coming back for two or three days because I was away somewhere completely different, away on a binge. The anxiety, the drug debts, missing work, everything started to mount up.
“By the end I started drinking too because, well, why the f**k not? My life was that much of a shitshow already.”
His weight had plummeted down to “around nine or 10 stone”, some difference from the solid 16 his 6’5 frame packs 18 months on.
Finally, after crashing his car one night – “absolutely off my head” – rock bottom had been reached. His mind takes him back to the bed in Antrim Area Hospital where he lay, a feeling of complete and utter emptiness consuming him.
“My ma and da came to visit me and I couldn’t even talk to them. I just stared into space. I could see the heartbreak and the worry in them.
“I couldn’t really deal with the guilt and the shame I was feeling, and the next morning when I woke up I just left the hospital myself. No phone, no nothing, I was away to get more drugs.
“A friend saw me in Magherafelt, they lifted me and took me home and that was the end of it really. By that stage I was broken, I was drained… I just couldn’t do any more. I couldn’t go on, I didn’t want to go on. I felt like nothing.
“I’d let everyone down… look at who you’ve become. I was totally reckless.”
Within a month, he was back in Newry. This time, though, it felt like he had already lost it all.
“The first time I went in I wasn’t on my knees, I hadn’t reached the bottom… this time I’d reached the bottom.
“At home I was on eggshells all the time, they were concerned about me and that made me feel uneasy because nobody was treating me normally. It was like everyone was shadowing round you… I was just glad to be away from that to be honest.
“The second time I listened a lot more, it was more serious. A lot of the boys I was in Newry with the first time, they’re dead now. There’s three or four in the last three or four months have died. Twelve weeks is a long time, you get to know people.
“You become nearly immune to being told somebody has died… that’s pretty scary.”
When he left Cuan Mhuire this time around, instead of going back home McCloy stayed at Rosemount House ¬in Belfast for 14 months. It was a clean break he felt was needed if there was to be any chance of overcoming his addictions.
“I needed to get away from home - not in the sense that I don’t love my parents and family, but getting away from people, places and things that would make me feel uneasy. Situations I didn’t want to be in, seeing certain people… I needed to go away from all that so that if I stayed clean, I was doing it by myself.
“I needed to have that space away where I was sorting it by myself once and for all before I walked back into their lives and did it all again. I needed to know I could actually do it.
“Cuan Mhuire and Rosemount House helped me massively, the safety net of staff you can talk to, the support that’s always available. There was also a discipline aspect to my life I’d never really had before, and thankfully I’ve been able to carry that on.”
Since returning home at the end of last year, he has a new job, a girlfriend, and that strong family connection has been restored. Not that everything is perfect, far from it, but there are now far more good days than bad.
October 2019 was the last time he touched drink or drugs, yet one day at a time remains the mantra and always will be.
“Life’s taking a bit of shape.
“I don’t want to get hung up on it because there’s plenty of people have come out and gone 10 years sober then bang, it’s gone. You’re always mindful of that… I try not to even think about it too much.
“It’s not all good either, the last two days I’ve been a bit down and depressed, there’s no real reason for it but the main thing is I got up out of bed and I did something where in the past I’d have lay in bed and brought all the bad stuff on myself.”
McCloy now hopes to use those hard lessons learnt as a force for good, recently launching a podcast series aimed at breaking the stigma that surrounds addiction – particularly in rural GAA strongholds.
This is why he is here.
“For me talking’s a healer. Maybe it might resonate with people, I don’t know.
“I put a post up on YouTube a while back, told my story and I got a crazy response from that. There were loads of people messaging me, people that I know messaging me about their own problems. It gave me the heart to try and do something to get things out there.
“Drink is more of a known problem, but it’s as easy to get a bag of coke nowadays as it is to get a pint when the pubs are open. It’s a sleeping giant that no-one talks about, and anyone who thinks it isn’t that big a problem is either naïve or doesn’t want to hear it. Everywhere, and especially rural areas, it’s there.
“There are so many people who could be getting help but won’t put their hand up because they’re scared of what someone will think of them… why do you care what anyone thinks about you really?
“If by doing this it breaks the stigma a little bit, or makes somebody else think about where they’re going, then I’m happy.”