Chris kirkland doesn’t hesitate to pinpoint the exact moment he knew things had to change. It was in February of this year that he lost himself at Liverpool, where he was once the most expensive goalkeeper in English football, while battling a secret addiction to painkillers. “I took them and,” he said, puffing out his cheeks, “I thought I was going to die. I just didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t remember where home was. I only got home because I put ‘home’ in the sat-nav and it was already preset, otherwise “I don’t know where I’m going. I came home … and then I got violently ill. I slept for about 18 hours. I woke up, took the tablets from the car and threw them straight into the toilet.”
It’s been a tough road to get to this point, but Kirkland is no longer interested in hiding out in the living room of his Lancashire home, feet up on a pouf. He knew he was in trouble when he grabbed the tablets in 2013, months after signing a three-year deal at Sheffield Wednesday, after his mental health took a nosedive and he became depressed. Over an hour long talk, Kirkland tells tales of lies and deception, hiding supplies in the car or in a sock drawer—developing secret habits that helped hide his addiction. “I would call the doctors and say, ‘I’ve lost them, I need more,'” she says. “I would get them off the internet any way I could. There were times when I had to be out and about and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind or I wouldn’t take too many tablets and I would call and ‘punch’ or make other excuses and not come back. up, it’s terrible.”
During her first visit to Parkland Place, a rehab clinic near Colwyn Bay, North Wales, three years ago, Kirkland remembers hearing eye-opening stories from other addicts – of alcohol, cocaine and gambling – during a group meeting, and thinking: “Not me. that what am I doing here?” When things took off earlier this year, Cheryl, the manager of the center, whom he spoke very kindly to, became his first port of call, and they continued to see each other several times a week. This time, Kirkland realized the importance of putting a more watertight structure around the house. “That’s what they advised when I got there [to rehab] the first time and I said ‘yes, yes, yes’ but I never did.
His wife has been a constant support to Leeon and runs drug tests at home during the week, their presence is a deterrent. In reality, it’s almost impossible for Kirkland to get his hands on painkillers right now. Leeona visited the doctor with him and told them never to prescribe painkillers. “The post office knows not to give me any letters or packages because I’ve been buying them online,” says Kirkland. Now he knows never to give me anything, so he always goes to Lyon. We have taken the necessary measures to prevent this from happening again.”
Kirkland works for a charity in his local community and remains a regular at Anfield, where he first attended the Kop as a seven-year-old before signing for the club on the same day as Jerzy Dudek under Gerard Houllier in 2001. Walking and Talking Charity Hikes, a mental health group created by former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Mark Crossley to support T-shirt charities, has taken on the Three Peaks and Coast to Coast challenges, climbing Kilimanjaro and his next base. purpose.
Kirkland is no stranger to trying times. His burgeoning career was dogged by injury, and in the summer of 2012, a storm of emotions began to engulf him. Kirkland felt he was flying in pre-season on Wednesday after two tough finals seasons at Wigan Athletic, where he lost his place, but suffered a back injury days before the opening game of their two Championship campaigns. “I thought, ‘Fuck, if I don’t play on Saturday, I’m going to be crucified.’ Everyone will say: ‘I told you so’. There was a clause in the contract that if I missed three games with a back injury, they could break the contract. Early in the season it’s Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, so I could be gone for a week. It was playing on my mind, so I took some pain reliever, tramadol. [which] took the pain away and also helped me with the anxiety of traveling from home to Sheffield and back.
He saw out his contract on Wednesday before joining Preston to return to a more family routine so he can spend more time with his daughter Lucy, now 15. but the following month he signed for Bury. “I should never have signed,” he says. “We stayed in these residential blocks [in pre-season in Portugal] and I was in bad shape. I didn’t want to be there and I just wanted to go home.” Kirkland seriously considered killing himself there. “I felt a pull back – and Lyona and Lucy obviously weren’t there – but I knew they were saying, ‘Look, come home, we can help.’ I called Lyon, broke down and said, ‘I’m in pain, I need help.'”
He distanced himself from them with the help of the Professional Footballers’ Association – “if you go cold turkey, there are risks” – but fell apart again in 2019. The following year, during the quarantine, the familiar feelings grew. He hopes his transparency will prevent others from making similar choices. Kirkland says he’s spoken to current players struggling with drug addiction and believes the volatile nature of the game, especially down the pyramid where contracts are often tied to appearances and short-term deals are commonplace, puts players in a difficult position.
Kirkland shook his head at how skewed his decision-making was. “You shouldn’t take more than 400 mg of tramadol a day, and I was on 2,500 mg a day,” he said, almost in disbelief. “In the end they don’t work, they just mess you up mentally. You think, “I’ll stop next week, I’ll stop next week.” I’ve had a few really bad episodes where I’ve taken 10 or 12, over 2000mg, and hallucinating at home. My heart was pounding, I fainted. It made me stop for a few days because I thought, ‘I’m going to kill myself here.’ But then the addiction kicks in, your body craves it, the aches and pains happen, and you know if you take them, they’ll go away. I didn’t want to talk to people and it was very difficult for Leeona and Lucy at home. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, simple as that.”
Is her back worse because she’s not taking painkillers? “You know,” he says, “it’s probably better. The pain relievers will say, ‘You’re really sore, really sore, pick me up and you’ll be fine,’ and on top of that, you’re like, ‘I’d like to play golf every day, but I can’t, because that would be torture. I can’t run the road from the stroke, but I can walk. I can ride a bike. I can’t lift weights. I know exactly what I can do and what I can’t do.”
It’s still a daily battle, but the traffic on his head has decreased. Nick Hagley, who is in the youth team at Coventry, and Hagley’s wife, Jess, have been a huge support throughout. “When you’re in pain and you’re sweating, you’re cramping and every second you’re thinking ‘a pill will stop it’, you know you can’t take it, it makes it worse. I just had to deal with it because I knew I couldn’t take a tablet.
“[Previously] I would google ‘pain relievers available’… [they are] all illegal sites right? If we take them, they will be here in two or three days. They say don’t take tablets off the internet because you never know what’s on them, and I found that out first hand. God knows what I took, but it certainly wasn’t what it was intended to be, and the spin nearly killed us.
His black labrador, Sam, and his Maltese, Ted, keep Kirkland, once described by Sven-Goran Eriksson as the future of English goalkeeping, on his toes. He has little interest in returning to coaching, but enjoys watching his team as a fan. Kirkland jokes with the Manchester United supporter from Wigan, pretending to give him a cup of coffee at the Liverpool Cup, and after this interview looks at his phone and tells how Jadon Sancho opened the score against Jurgen Klopp’s side in Bangkok. Soon he’s taking Lucy to netball, after which they’ll be walking the dogs on Formby beach. “We talked to Lucy and said, ‘Listen, if you don’t want me to do this [speak out] … and he was like, “no, you have to do this,” and he kept pushing me harder. Now he sees that he got his father back and wants it to stay that way.”
So how does he feel? “Now? brilliant. It was really hard … the withdrawals were terrible. For a week I could hardly move; I was sweating, shaking, Leeona still had to check that I was breathing properly. It was a terrible time. I still feel like a bit of a fake how I feel because people don’t know the real truth. I don’t think I’d be able to stay in recovery—because I’ll always be an addict, simple as that—if it wasn’t out there. Now people know.”
He has been breaking the news to friends and colleagues over the past few weeks. How does anyone who knows unfiltered reality feel about it? “Relieved,” replies the 41-year-old. To Leeona, whom he calls a saint and an angel, the drug tests him every two days. “Actually, I should be one,” he says. “If you’re struggling with any type of addiction, you can’t do it on your own; It is impossible. You will be kidding yourself. Be brave, ask for help, and the sooner you get it, the better off you will be.”