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'If someone hears my name and thinks, that's the guy who was sexually abused, I'm okay with that'

Richie Sadlier discusses his new book ‘Recovering’ and his long journey towards contentment.

RICHIE SADLIER SPENT the first part of his adult life primarily trying to impress a large group of strangers. Now, he says, he has learned not to care what strangers think.

His memoir, ‘Recovering’, written with sports journalist Dion Fanning, has been widely acclaimed, recently winning the sports category in the Irish Book Awards.

It charts his rise and fall, starring as a highly promising young footballer with Millwall and Ireland, retiring prematurely from sport at the age of 24 and documenting the subsequent years of adjusting to life as a former footballer.

He turns 41 in January, and for a long time, it was suspected he had a book in him.

After hanging up his boots, he started to regularly write columns for the Sunday Independent that were admired for their insight and honesty, covering behind-the-scenes issues not often explored so rigorously in coverage of the beautiful game.

Partly as a result of the attention he was getting from these well-received articles, at the age of 27 or 28, Sadlier was offered the chance to write a book. Perhaps wisely, he declined.

“If I’d written it in my late 20s, it would have just been a book about my hopes of being a footballer, my experiences of being a footballer and my difficulties of being an ex-footballer — that would have been it,” he tells The42.

Of course, much else has happened since retirement. He has given up alcohol and stopped using recreational drugs. He has started regularly attending therapy as well as recovery meetings for his alcoholism. He had a brief spell on the board at St Patrick’s Athletic in addition to working for a period with the football agent Fintan Drury. He has undertaken college degrees and become a psychotherapist. He has gone from being, by his own admission, a mediocre soccer pundit when starting out to one of Ireland’s most respected voices, not just on football, but also matters pertaining to sex, mental health and addiction, working as a contributor for RTÉ, The Irish Times and Second Captains. He also regularly gives talks on consent to transition year students.

“Probably one of the biggest things I got from it was even more gratitude for how my life is today,” he says of writing the book.

Yet the journey to get to this point was far from easy. There was even some apprehension about how his story would be received.

“I would have said ‘no’ in previous years, because I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready.

Personally and professionally, I was just starting out as a therapist, or just starting out as a pundit, or just starting out teaching in schools. I just never felt comfortable or stable enough and now I feel both of those things.

“I just thought it felt like the right time. It was a gut feeling. There was no bigger thought than that. I felt ready to write it. 

“I just wouldn’t have been comfortable with people knowing about my issues with drink, or my childhood stuff, or my family stuff, or some of the darker stuff around my career, or my own personal stuff.

“I have a job in the public eye. I would tend to be quite a private person, which is what’s caught a lot of people by surprise. So much of what’s in the book, there was no hint of that before, because I did a really good job of keeping a lot of my life private.”

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The most distressing revelation from the book is Sadlier’s recollection of being abused as a 14-year-old by a now-deceased physio who was giving him treatment for a sports injury. He recently spoke about the issue on the Late Late Show and has been widely praised for opening up on the matter. It took him years to come to terms with and there is a suggestion in the book it contributed to his addiction issues and difficulties sustaining long-term relationships with women, owing to what he originally perceived as a shameful secret. For years, he had blamed himself, and wished he had responded with more than “silence and confusion”. He worried that by staying quiet, he was effectively an accomplice for the future crimes his abuser may have committed. He once told a friend about it during a “coke-fuelled bender,” only for that person to urge him to stay silent on the matter, reconfirming his original reservations in the process. It was only in 2008 that he opened up to a psychotherapist about the secret, gradually telling more people thereafter.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t yet met anyone who can make the pain go away,” he writes. But then adds that the emotional scars “have begun to heal” and “talking about it was the thing that started the healing process”.

He credits Paul Stewart, a fellow abuse survivor, who Sadlier interviewed when the ex-Tottenham and Liverpool player wrote his own book, as one of the inspirations for ‘Recovering’.

Recalling such painful memories was an inevitably intense experience, though years of therapy had helped Sadlier become more accustomed to such a process.

As I was writing it, one of the challenges was: ‘How do I concentrate on anything else?’ Because it’s all-consuming. I’d meet friends, be teaching in school or preparing to go on the RTÉ panel. My mind would be consumed by the events in the chapter that I was currently writing about, or it’d be right back to the emotions of the difficult stuff. It was all coming back to the surface as well.

“And then there was the thing of going: will I regret writing this? Will it change how people perceive me? Will it cost me work? Will it change how people are to me in my therapy practice? Will people look at me differently on the RTÉ panel? Will it impact whether schools want me to come in and talk to their pupils or not? Because I wrote a lot of stuff that people tend not to write about themselves.

“All those questions are unanswerable until you go through it, because there’s no way of knowing until you actually do it. So I just thought: ‘I’m ready to do it.’ And whatever the answers are to those questions, I’m going to be alright and I’ll be able to cope. I can stand over every word in the book, and that was important.”

football Meeting former Tottenham player Paul Stewart was one of the inspirations behind Sadlier's decision to write 'Recovering'. Source: EMPICS Sport

He continues: “I go to therapy every week, so throughout writing the book, I was in therapy. And that was a huge support. Any of the topics that had come up or would come up — the memories or emotions or regrets, the stuff that would make me feel happy as well as sad, I had somewhere every Wednesday to go to, just to talk about it in a really safe place with someone I trusted.

“I’ve heard people talk about the process of writing a book and they said it was very therapeutic. A lot of the stuff they were talking about or remembering for the first time. They were saying things out loud for the first time. Virtually everything that was in the book I’d been talking about for years in therapy anyway.

“So there was no real new material that came up, but it did really help. Because when you really write down in detail all the stuff you’ve gone through, particularly when some of the things you go through are difficult and you remember how you felt, I feel very different today and it’s nice to realise how different my life is compared to some of the darker days I’ve had in the past.”

Moreover, his concerns that the book would do more harm than good have proved to be unfounded.

“There was the initial reaction to the Late-Late interview and 100% of the messages I got were positive and supportive. I thought if people stopped me and mentioned the interview, will I be awkward? Or will they be awkward? That hasn’t been the case at all.

Virtually everywhere I go, people will say: ‘Saw you on the Late Late, fair play to you.’ I’ll shake their hand and they’ll give me a hug, it’s just lovely. I don’t have any awkwardness and I don’t pick up any awkwardness from them. And I’ve a lot of messages from people who have shared some of the experiences that I wrote about in the book or identified with the stuff that’s in the book. And they’ve been nice messages too. 

“There hasn’t been one response from anyone — either directly to me or that I’ve heard about that has made me question whether writing this was the right thing to do.”

Nowadays, Sadlier feels much more comfortable in his own skin than had been the case for much of his teenage and adult life.

Opening up, both in therapy and to loved ones, has helped. Quitting alcohol has also had a positive effect. Nights out without drink are not as awkward as he feared. The cravings for a pint have gradually become less intense since he originally stopped in 2011, after one night too many where he blacked out or lost control in some fashion.

soccer-fifa-world-youth-championships-group-c-ireland-v-australia Sadlier, pictured above representing Ireland at the World Youth Championships in 1999, says he no longer thinks of himself primarily as a former footballer. Source: EMPICS Sport

“It was an exhausting battle of trying to control something that was always out of control — my relationship with drink,” he says.

“I know lots of people who are recovering alcoholics and my own view is I don’t think I had issues with drink because of any one specific incident in my life or any specific experience — it’s a combination of them all. [There were] genetic reasons — I came from a home where alcoholism was present since I was a kid, so I think no matter what road I travelled, I would have arrived at this destination. I would have arrived at a point where I’d accept I had to stop drinking or continue creating carnage.

Everything has gotten easier and gotten better and gotten more enjoyable, more relaxing, more comfortable [since I stopped]. I heard a phrase early on, someone who was in recovery years ahead of me said of their experience of being in recovery: it didn’t make everything perfect. It didn’t make all their dreams come true. It didn’t protect the people around them from getting sick and dying like everyone does, but it just made him get more out of the good days and deal better with the bad days. And that’s been the case with me. My bad days are much easier to deal with, because I don’t drink, and my good days are way more enjoyable.

“I switch off when I hear someone talk about the idea of constant or eternal or ongoing happiness. ‘Here’s the secret to happiness or the key to happiness.’ Or ‘here are the things you need to do or change or say in order to achieve and maintain happiness’. Happiness is just one thing you’re going to experience throughout your life. There are loads of other emotions. 

“I think where I am now is way more content or comfortable than I’ve ever been. On lots of days, that doesn’t involve happiness. It’s sometimes really challenging and sometimes really sad doing the work I do with young people. Sometimes it’s really challenging and anxiety-provoking to be on the RTÉ panel. Sometimes it’s difficult to stand in front of a group of 16-year-olds with all the ethical, moral, religious and personal issues in any discussions around sex.

“It’s a real challenge to juggle all those balls in the air and not drop any of them. Those aren’t experiences where I’ll go: ‘I feel happy,’ throughout them all. But I feel comfortable doing them all now — I think that’s the difference.”

richard-sadlier Sadlier works as a pundit for RTÉ among other roles. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Part of the reason for Sadlier’s newfound levels of contentment, he says, is down to identity. The loss of it is something many sports stars struggle with after they retire, and the former player acknowledges it was a problem for him.

“I used to think of myself solely in terms of the jobs I did, primarily a footballer. I would see myself either as a footballer or a former footballer. The longer I’ve been out of football and the jobs that I had, the fact that I’m a former footballer is no longer the defining thing. It’s not the thing I see in the mirror every morning.

“I’m a husband now. I love that. I’m an uncle. I absolutely love that. Those are the kinds of things that are more important to me now than the jobs I do or the football career I have.

“My house isn’t decorated by football memorabilia. There are no pictures of me playing football anywhere on the walls of my home. It’s not something you’d know about me if you met me today and had never met me before. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not something that comes up in conversation. If you come out to my house for dinner, you wouldn’t notice it.

“So I’ve moved on a lot in terms of what I could do on a football pitch, which I think is a healthy thing. I’m 41 in January. It would be a shame if I was 41 and the primary focus was still what I did between the ages of 17 and 24. It would be like a 40-year-old banging on about what he got in the Leaving Cert. After a while, you go: ‘Mate, you’re 40. What have you done since?’

“I would define myself in a very narrow way. The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve branched out into different areas, that title or that status, footballer or non-footballer, started to matter less.

I always wondered if you put certain things in a book, will that be the thing people always think about? Will I always be narrowly thought of in those terms from now on? But one of the nicest things about the process is while I was asking those questions, I was still prepared to put them all out there not knowing the answer.

“I was still prepared to write them anyway, show up in every interview and say ‘nothing’s off the table’. Then ask me whatever the hell you want. At no point that I’m aware of since the book came out have I been concerned that the person I’m looking at or talking to is viewing me differently. Maybe they have been, but I haven’t been consciously aware of it.

“And it’s nice to go: ‘There’s my story, read it or don’t read it, like it or don’t like it, but that’s it.’ And then to just be able to get on from day to day, and do the things that I’m doing, and not be completely hung up with what you think of me.

“I really appreciate that I kind of just don’t care. If someone in any county hears my name and thinks ‘that’s the guy who was sexually abused,’ I’m okay with that. If someone else goes ‘he’s the fella that used to play football,’ I’m okay with that. ‘He’s the guy on the RTÉ panel, the therapist, the recovering alcoholic, the shite pundit, the shite footballer, the fella who wrote the shite book,’ I don’t care. That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. I like that I can just potter along from day to day doing what I do and feeling quite comfortable wherever I am.”

‘Recovering’ by Richie Sadlier is published by Gill Books. More info here.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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