Ripping up the rule book on addiction and spinal cord injury recovery
– If I told you that I had met Michelle Obama, David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson, you might think I was some kind of sporting celebrity. However, the journey that I’ve taken is perhaps not what you would expect…
I’m Sean, born in Newton Le Willows in North West England. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. We lived on a council estate and didn’t go on family holidays until I was in my teens. I can’t even remember being taught to brush my teeth. I only started when I was 12 years old.
The school holidays were my favourite time. I would wake up, throw on my Manchester United top and play football at the local school from morning until dark. Football was my life!
I never really thought about my career, I just knew that I wanted to be a professional footballer. I was fast, strong and talented. At the age of 16, I had professional football clubs wanting to sign me. That was until my dreams came crashing down after an angry outburst on the pitch. I proceeded to get a five-year ban from playing any type of competitive football, I was arrested for the incident and given a £750 fine.
At the age of 19, I appealed my ban which was reduced to 3 years. I was ecstatic! I started playing regularly for my local team and, the following season, we went on to win the league.
On the 2nd of April 2005, two days after my birthday, I was playing in the roasting heat, my shirt soaked with sweat. I sprinted across the pitch to make a tackle. The guy tumbled over me and landed on my head. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. Something felt very wrong. I was burning up and I couldn’t feel anything from my neck down.
One of my teammates ran up to me shouting, “Get up! Get up!”
My voice trembled as I looked at him and said, “I can’t feel my arms, I can’t feel my legs.”
I’ll never forget that look on his face.
I was rushed to the hospital. Through the bustle of bright lights and worried voices, a consultant explained that they would need to operate to give me the best chance of walking again. Those words hit me like a tonne of bricks. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be paralysed for the rest of my life.
My life would never be the same again. I spent 9 hours in surgery and then three days in a coma. Nobody knew whether the surgery was a success or not, we just had to wait. After four or five days, the doctors tried to get me up. I remember seeing my feet on the floor, but I couldn’t feel them or move anything.
For ten weeks, I was confined to my bed to allow the swelling and shock to subdue. After an assessment, I was told by the leading spinal consultant in the country that people with my injuries never walk again. I looked him square in the eyes and said, “I will walk out of this hospital.”
I guess that was that stubborn attitude I had always had.
Two and a half months after the initial accident, my left arm suddenly shot into action. The other arm followed suit a few days afterwards. I was over the moon. Slowly, it felt as if my body was thawing out. Finally, my lifeless feet started to move, then one leg, then the other. Almost five months after the incident and with rigorous rehab, I had improved enough to go home.
After being released, I had a lot of spare time on my hands. The pub was the easiest option. Before the incident, I had been so active and now I couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t just that I’d lost my passion; I’d lost the comradery, the socialising. When the drink wasn’t enough, I started using drugs and the slippery slope began. I had one big gaping hole in my life and I was filling it with alcohol and drugs.
The following spring my Nan passed away and then, the following January, my dad died. I felt like I was losing everything. My mum wasn’t coping. She started drinking and eventually disappeared to our caravan in Wales. A few months later, I found out she had gotten engaged. That was the breaking point for me. I couldn’t cope anymore and attempted to take my own life.
I was sitting in my car; strong pain medication in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other. I took a tablet and a gulp of brandy, another tablet and another gulp until I passed out. Ironically, a local dealer found me and brought me around with cocaine. I was in such a dark place.
Something had to change. I sought out some counselling and was diagnosed with PTSD. After that, I started taking my football coaching badges and wrote an email to Manchester United asking if I could coach disability football. To my surprise, they replied. I took over one of the teams and, within 6 months, we won the league. Before long, I was coaching a number of teams including future Paralympic players.
From the outside everything was great; MUTV commissioned a documentary based on my story, I met Michelle Obama and David Beckham at the 2012 Olympics and I appeared on BBC’s Match of the day, local radio and TV stations. But, behind closed doors, I was dosing myself up with drugs and alcohol. My habits eventually started to spill into my life as a coach and I had to step down.
Not willing to give up, I decided to create my own club called Cerebral Palsy United. We went from nothing to competing internationally, winning games against international teams in Barcelona. But, despite our success, I couldn’t resist the urge to score drugs.
I was nominated for the BBC’s unsung hero award and won the regional award for contribution within my community. I was invited to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award (SPOTY) and, though I didn’t win, I knew I had reached the pinnacle of my football career.
In 2018, I made a conscious effort to get help with my drug and alcohol addiction after my daughter brought me a biscuit “to make me feel better” whilst I was lying in bed after a night of drinking and drugs. It broke my heart.
I decided to see a specialist and went to a group for people struggling with similar issues. It was the first time I had ever spoken about my struggles and I felt so liberated. Since 2018, I haven’t touched a drug and I’ve been sober since the beginning of 2019. The meetings helped me to realise that I was an addict, a term I had never applied to myself before.
Alcohol and drugs were not my problems, my problem was not being able to talk about it. I wanted to be taken away from my reality, my disability, people’s judgement, my pain.
For the last two years, I’ve felt like a new person. It’s as if I can see blue skies every day, whereas before, I felt as if a big black cloud loomed over me wherever I went. My approach to life completely changed.
I’m now a tutor in mental health first aid. I can admit that I’m an addict and I openly identify as a disabled person. Two or three years ago, there was no way you would get those words out of my mouth. I managed to shed the ghost that I carried around with me for so long.
I have two beautiful daughters and a wonderful little family. I still suffer from a limp and partial paralysis in my right arm and I have to manage my bladder and bowels very carefully but, physically, I am in a place I never thought I would get to. A place I was told I would never get to.
Life is good. I’m incredibly lucky to be here and I am blessed to have such an amazing family!
My message to people is:
There is always hope with recovery, whether mental or physical.
I’ve been through anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide attempt, paralysis, trauma, death… and come out the other side. My message to others that may potentially be struggling in their own life and need some form of inspiration would be –
Looking at my recovery, it demonstrates that even in the most challenging of circumstances, environments and possibilities that change for the better and recovery is possible.
Truly have hope, no matter what the situation.
Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries