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'I was a chronic, homeless, alcoholic - I'd be turning up at the races drunk'

Former jockey John Gillen on his life before and after his descent into alcoholism.

Gillen pictured in his younger days as a jockey.
Gillen pictured in his younger days as a jockey.

Updated at 08.17

IT WAS AN article on Hamilton Academical boss Brian Rice that prompted John Gillen to get in touch.

The manager of the Scottish Premiership club has acknowledged he has a gambling problem and wrote a letter to the country’s football association outlining his issues.

Rice has been praised in some quarters for showing courage in coming forward to openly admit his problem. However, that did not prevent the Scottish Football Association from handing him a 10-match ban on Thursday.

Gillen, who grew up just around the corner from Hamilton’s ground, spent years in the world of horse racing, and also experienced addiction issues.

The Scot was heartened by Rice’s bravery in coming forward and unimpressed by the SFA’s inclination to punish rather than praise him for making an important and rare step in boldly exposing his own vulnerability.

Since the beginning of his recovery, Gillen has worked with others attempting to overcome similar issues. He currently helps run a group of rehab clinics, while trying to raise awareness of issues such as gambling addiction in football. 

Gillen recently spoke to The42 on a range of topics, including his early days in horse racing, getting sober, his thoughts on the Brian Rice saga and football’s problematic relationship with the gambling industry.

John Gillen, Director at Rehab Clinics Group John Gillen is now a director at Rehab Clinics Group.

Firstly, tell us about your own experience with addiction.

It was most of my life — I’ll be 64 this July. My involvement with addiction goes way back to the ’70s. When I left school, I hadn’t many qualifications to speak of.

The only thing that was in my favour was that I was quite small. My family thought it was a good idea that I left Scotland and went down to England to be an apprentice jockey. I was 15 at the time.

I moved to Lambourn [in West Berkshire], a famous town for horse racing. I took up an apprenticeship with a well-known racing yard and I started to learn the craft of racing. When I was down there, that’s when I really got interested in alcohol.

I was away from my parents and had no set of restrictions, and I just started [to emulate] older lads and to drink the way they drank.

So my involvement with alcohol began very early, and slowly through time, I just developed alcoholism. I never ended up a chronic alcoholic through any trauma in my life, or any issues that people would link to addiction. Mine was just a constant drinking through the party effect. Because it was alcohol, it took decades before I became chronically dependent. 

I’ve been involved in horse racing most of my life really. Through being an apprentice jockey to head lad in yards. I became a professionally licensed trainer in the ’80s. So I had my own racing yard under the owners. 30 horses in training. The new kid on the block.

Horse racing is just celebrations or misery. If owners were coming down to see their horses any day of the week, I had to entertain them — maybe bring a bottle of whiskey. The whiskey would be on the table. We hardly looked at the horses. It was all this talk about winning races and drink.

By that time, I’m a chronic alcoholic — I’ve passed the functioning alcoholic phase. I was a chronic, homeless, alcoholic — I’d be turning up at the races drunk, representing these wealthy owners. And people lost confidence in me. They slowly started to take the horses away to other trainers and stuff like that. Lads that worked for me had lost their respect [for me] — they left. 

I ended up with a whole brand new purpose-built racing yard empty… My wife and kids had gone. I was on my own. Broke. So that’s my decline into alcoholism. Of course, that’s a 30-year story [told briefly].

During that time, also being in horse racing, gambling was an issue with me. It was an occupational hazard. If I wasn’t [betting] on my own horses, you’d hear it through the grapevines all the stories and I’d be pumping money constantly to win [on races].

So I had a dual addiction — chronic alcoholism coupled with gambling. But the alcoholism was the main addiction I had to overcome. The gambling took care of itself because [it was linked to] desperation through alcoholism. I never had any money to gamble. The money was spent on drink. So I guess one took over the other.

Through healthy recovery, I weaned myself off the gambling. As I redesigned my whole life, the gambling was never a direct issue that I had to deal with. 

Through the years, everybody, family members, close friends, colleagues, every day somebody would tell me: you’re developing a problem. Of course, denial was at the forefront of my life and I just denied it. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t know why you’re saying that. Youse are all drinking.’

Unbeknown to me, as I developed the disease, I also developed a brain disorder. It was a bit like Alzheimers, if someone said; ‘Hey dad, you’re getting a little bit forgetful here and there.’ He’d say: ‘What are you talking about? There’s nothing wrong with me.’ Addiction’s like that. It’s a disease that tells you that you don’t have it.

What people are saying — it doesn’t really strike a chord with you. People call it denial, but in a lot ways, your perceptions are so screwed up. Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease.

equine-flu-outbreak Gillen worked in Lambourn, a village renowned for horse racing. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Was there a specific moment where you decided to seek help?

A point in my life came where the gift of desperation claimed so much that I was literally on the streets. One minute, I’m at Royal Ascot with cigarettes and champagne. The next, I was on the streets of Glasgow asking people for money for a drink. I was totally abandoned. I probably had less than a year to live. Finally, I knocked on my dad’s door and asked for help. I was at total rock bottom.

From there, I was put into an asylum for a few weeks, basically to dry out. Something happened to me where I found myself sitting in the TV room in the psychiatric facility with other psychiatric patients who were in there with real serious conditions — schizophrenic people, really manic depressed people.

I found myself in there with other patients and thought: ‘This is what society thinks of you, John.’ They remove you from society and place you in here. They think you’re mad and mentally ill. In a way they were right, but that gave me a wake-up call.

I thought when they were in there some of these psychiatrists would tell me what I had done to myself. I wasn’t blaming anything. I was hands up in the air, surrender. By that time, I was no longer drinking for the party effect. Like every other chronic addict, it was a need for survival. A need over any rational decisions I had to make in my life. I thought somebody would tell me what I had done with my own brain, but they don’t tell you these kind of things in there.

When I got out, I went on a mission to educate myself. I found myself in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. And I started to study. It was just like going to university. Neuroscience in alcoholism, psychology, even spirituality. That took some time and it culminated in me co-authoring a book called: ‘The Secret Disease of Addiction.’ So my pathway into healthy recovery came through education, as well as all the therapies.

A lot of people think you just go to 12-step meetings. I don’t believe that. I think you’ve got to do a lot more. I was in a protracted abstinence state. I’d stopped drinking, but I’d still suffer the darkness of addiction. At some points in the day, the need for a drink would be so intense that all I could do would be to get down on my knees and pray, or try to practice some of the techniques, breathing and other things, to help me through that period.

sport-review-of-the-decade Gillen went from Royal Ascot to the streets of Glasgow. Source: David Davies

Is addiction innate, or does it come about due to environmental factors?

Nobody’s born an addict, that’s for sure. This is something that’s acquired. But just like any other disease, there’s certain pre-dispositions to it and if you’re unlucky to be one of the persons like me, you’ll come to addiction quicker than other people, but there are a lot of factors in it.

There are fatalities with this disease. It’s the same as any other disease. For suicides in relation to addiction, gambling’s got the highest rate. Not a lot of people would think that, but there are more people suffering with gambling addiction that die by suicide than any other addiction. 

The reason you got in touch was the recent news in relation to Brian Rice. From SFA’s perspective, what do you think is the best course of action deal with his problem?

Can you imagine the courage it took that guy [to speak out]? There are not so many people in his position that could find the courage and honesty to come forward and put their hands up. The guy is literally asking for help. Forgiveness has to be shown here, and compassion.

So rather than a punishment, I think it should be the opposite that should be available to him. I [helped] Paul Gascoigne about three years ago. Paul ended up with me. And if you’d seen the state of the guy, he’s a chronic alcoholic.

Some people get to the stage where it can be too late. So every help that’s available should be given to [Brian Rice]. I admire him for his courage and honesty — that’s what I see there. I don’t see anything else. 

Are football clubs and associations part of the problem in some cases, given their ties with betting companies? 

It goes hand in hand, doesn’t it? Gambling, betting, companies, advertising and football. Just look at what’s going on. At least in cricket, people are doing something about it, like banning it. But it’s everywhere you go in football. That is there for a reason. The amount of the population that are focused on the great game, it’s to catch their attention. The same sponsorship does not apply to other sports where there’s less focus on it. Why does swimming not have betting?

It’s promoting betting and it’s promoting gambling. I’m totally against that. Some of them are beginning to take the adverts down at certain times, but nevertheless, it’s a real bad match.

brian-rice-file-photo Gillen has been unimpressed by the SFA's recent treatment of Hamilton boss Brian Rice, pictured above. Source: Kenny Smith

So do football clubs need to take more responsibility in combating this problem?

Of course. They’re a world unto their own. They know this is happening, but they’re just prioritising money before people’s lives. It’s generations that follow these clubs, one after another.

If I go back to the ’60s and I was watching Celtic play Rangers in Glasgow, you never had the same extent of publicity for gambling. You could hardly place a bet. It was completely different.

The crowds were still there. In fact, there were more crowds than what we see today. It cannot be dependent on sponsorship by gambling companies. 

As a former athlete, do you think sportspeople are slightly more prone to addiction than the average person? Particularly when they retire, is there often a need to fill the void that the sudden absence of competition tends to create?

Without a doubt. Sport is a game of highs and lows, and [it applied to] me with horse racing. The high of the event — if you’re successful, you’re celebrating. If you’re defeated, you’re in misery and you’ll use drink or drugs just to cope with that. Just the general day-to-day anticipation of the event — the high that brings. That constant buzz it gives you — when that’s removed, even if you’re not a substance addict, for a sportsperson, the brain has changed its formation and structure to cope with that environment. They’re in it for maybe 20 years and all of a sudden, they leave it. 

It’s just like asking an alcoholic or drug addict to all of a sudden walk away from the drug, and [assume] everything’s going to be okay. A lot of sports people who’ve had that life find themselves depressed, stressed out, anxious people, who then start to say: ‘I’ll put a little bet on it and I feel a bit better. I take a little drink, I have a little cocaine, that gets me through the day.’

Tell us about the work you do with football clubs.

It’s just an awareness campaign to say to clubs: ‘Just wake up a minute. It’s all very well what you’re doing, but you’ve really got to pay attention to this. You’re running these adverts and getting sponsored by betting companies, it’s not quite the way to do it as people. It’s happening in your own club: players, managers, just like Brian Rice in Hamilton, who have been affected by this.’

There’s no way it’s helping the world of addiction. The audiences that these clubs get through media and live games, it’s a vast amount of people and they’re getting brainwashed into thinking it’s okay, when it’s absolutely wrong. 

paul-gascoigne-comments Paul Gascoigne is among the clients Gillen has worked with. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

When did your recovery begin?

I sought help in 2001. That’s when I first went into the psychiatric facility. I’d been paying lip service through the years before then. But when my time came, and it comes to everybody, that moment of clarity when you have that opportunity, however short it might be, to do the right thing.

I’ve never looked back, but it took me five years through lifestyle changes and education and everything else to get comfortable in my own skin. It’s not something that’s five weeks or five months. This is long-term recovery process.

And even today, I have to be mindful. I’ve no issues with drink or gambling any longer. I’ve totally broken the emotional bond between me and the chemicals and gambling and all the rest of it. But I’m still mindful that I could slip at any time if I take my eye off the ball.

I’m 20 years sober, but I don’t say that lightly, because believe me, this was an impossible life. I thought it was inconceivable to have a life without drink, yet here I am with many other millions of people who turned their lives around. 

Tell us how you got involved in the work you’re doing now?

At eight or 10 months sober, things were getting better for me and I thought I could get back to full-time employment. Horse racing was a trade and craft I knew inside out, where I designed a path in life, but I think it would’ve been suicide for me to get back into racing and back to the environment where it was totally detrimental [to my well-being].

So I decided to take a U-turn in life. I started to attempt to help other addicts, no matter where they began, with drugs or whatever. I found that, in helping others, it helped me.

So it’s through helping others that got me where I am today. Now, I’m a director in a large residential addiction company here in the UK and I have the Nad clinic in London. It’s quite amazing, the people I meet and the work I do. Some people say they don’t believe in miracles, but I do.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Need help? Support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

You can find out more about John Gillen and the Rehab Clinics Group here and here.

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Paul Fennessy

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