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Footballer Steven Caulker on addiction and getting his head back in the game

At just 29, professional footballer Steven Caulker has packed a lot into his career. The former Tottenham and Liverpool player made his England debut aged 20, but Steven’s struggles with alcohol and gambling put his career on pause. We caught up with him to hear how he’s turned things around in Turkey and found a renewed passion for the game.

Joining a Zoom call from sunny Turkey, Steven Caulker is humble about his new home. Speaking about how playing for Alanyaspor has offered him a fresh start, he’s been sober for two years. Ready to open up about how he’s reached this milestone, Steven hopes that sharing his story will encourage anyone struggling with addiction to seek help. 

Talking about his hometown, which is a very comfortable 19 degrees even in winter, Steven spends his spare time soaking up the rays on the seafront while fishing, or taking his bike up the local mountain. It’s pretty clear he’s fallen for Turkey, but Steven has worked hard to get to a point where he feels at peace: 

“I’d only been sober about six weeks when I arrived in Turkey but I’ve adapted well. It’s a really relaxed way of life which I think suited me. It was the right time to come and experience a different culture, away from the pressures of the Premier League and the hustle and bustle of London where I grew up.

It’s nice to get out in the fresh ocean air away from everything. I’m very fortunate to have this stuff on my doorstep and a big part of my daily discipline is fitness, not just for my job but my mental health. I keep the positive cycle going by trying to do something every day, even if it’s a light gym session. I find when I sit and dwell on my own thoughts it’s a little more difficult.” 

It’s not been an easy journey to this point and Steven is honest about being turned down by 70 clubs over a period of six months due to alcohol and gambling dependencies. He’s worked hard to rebuild his career after years of trying to numb his feelings, struggling with self-loathing and thoughts about taking his own life as a result of anxiety and depression. A modest guy, he’s incredibly open about this tricky period in his life and it’s easy to see how a young footballer could be swept up in temptation.

But the 12 step program and joining as a defender for Alanyaspor has given Steven an opportunity to press reset and get his head back in the game. Keeping a daily gratitude list and learning to forgive himself for past mistakes has been an important step in his pathway to sobriety:

“My biggest support has been the 12 step program through Alcoholics Anonymous. I have a sponsor who I send my gratitude list to every day and we’re in touch if there’s ever any issues. My family has also been amazing. They’ve stood by me and I’ve been able to make amends with them. As part of the process I was glad to be able to apologise and own my part in my behaviour. Since then our relationship has grown stronger. 

“I’ve also got a lot of friends who were with me during the madness and also suffered themselves. I guess by seeing me turn things around in the last few years it’s inspired some of my friends to do the same, whether that’s going sober, seeking therapy, or opening up. In the same way my addiction had a downward effect on people, I’m now having a positive effect on those around me, which is a nice part of my journey.”

Seeking help when you’re in a difficult place can be challenging and for Steven, facing up to what he was going through was the toughest part. He admits he spent much of his life trying to escape his issues, but is learning to sit with his feelings, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so:

“I was very impulsive with my decisions, so I would ask my younger self to sit with what I was going through and speak to people about my feelings. If it’s just me and my thoughts it can be dangerous because my head often lies to me, so by processing things and speaking to others, I get the truth. If someone’s going through addiction, depression, or other problems, talk about it, sit with it and often you will make a different decision the next day than you would have in that moment.” 

Steven’s got his spark back, proud of the player he’s become and ready for the next chapter in his career. He’s found a new sense of ambition both on and off the pitch, with big plans to speak up and help others who might be struggling:

“Getting back into League football and having the opportunity to earn my way in the team was special for me. In my first game for Alanyaspor we won two-nil to Trabzonspor, which was a really good feat as they’re a tough team. Post career I would love to be involved in football as a coach or manager. I used to feel like football was responsible for my problems but as I worked through them I found my love again for football.

“I’m also keen to help others. We need to look out for one another in today’s world. There’s sometimes a lack of understanding when it comes to mental wellbeing, so I want to be a part of educating people, whether it be public speaking or aligning myself with a charity like CALM.”

Working to shine a light on what it’s like to live with addiction but also show that it’s possible to work through it. Steven is a force to be reckoned with, determined to derail the stigma attached to alcohol and gambling dependency:

“It’s important to get the support you need and talk to someone you can trust, because it can be very difficult to speak to family or friends about addiction. For me, I felt I’d let them down or betrayed them. Stepping outside of that and speaking to somebody you have no real connection with, but who has experience in that field can be helpful. I didn’t feel judged and was able to open up without someone being emotionally involved, whether that be a therapist or someone from the 12 step program. 

“Having someone who can identify with what you’re going through can really help because it’s a lonely illness. And it is an illness. Not many people accept that. I didn’t for many years, but the more we speak about it and the more people that are open about it, the more we can accept it as part of society.”

If you’ve been affected by Steven’s story, you can find more information on alcohol & drugs or gambling here.  No matter what you’re going through, you don’t have to go it alone. The free confidential CALM helpline and webchat service is run by a trained team, offering support and a listening ear every day from 5pm until midnight.

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