By Cindy Zomar, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – “Seven hundred seventh and eighth graders were focused, serious and appreciative for an hour during this presentation,” exclaimed Brian Daniels, principal of the 1LT Charles W. Whitcomb Middle School in Marlborough. Daniels was referring to a presentation by Chris Sullivan, a former New England Patriot player who is admittedly a recovering alcoholic and addict.
“I was very happy with the message and how he presented it. He explained his own anxiety as a youth, and how a single bad decision can change a life. He stressed that there are folks here that are willing to help,” he continued.
Sullivan made two presentations during the day to the middle school students, and then one in the evening for parents and others.
Sullivan grew up in North Attleboro and was a star athlete and a good student. He had a full scholarship to play football at Boston College, and was subsequently drafted by the New England Patriots in the same year as Tedy Bruschi, with whom he formed a strong bond. From the outside looking in, Sullivan seemed to have it all, but what he explained to the audience is that he suffered from anxiety, depression and panic attacks his whole life.
“I waited too long to start to heal and fix myself,” Sullivan admitted. “It’s ok to reach out if you’re struggling, the big thing is communication!”
He recalled that in his big Irish family, there was a lack of communication. He idolized his father, and tried to emulate him, but he was afraid to go to his parents for fear that he was letting them down. He kept everything inside and realized too late that it was only a matter of time before it all came crashing down on him.
The Steelers picked up Sullivan in 2001, but he severely injured his back at the beginning of training camp. Unwilling to show weakness, he hid the injury from the team and self-medicated with alcohol.
“I tried to push through the injury, but eventually needed surgery. I took only two weeks to recover, instead of the normal six months, but I was drinking even more. After breaking my wrist in a motorcycle accident, the Steelers eventually released me. I hit bottom, emotionally,” he continued.
Sullivan returned to New England but was so ashamed he shut everyone out of his life.
“Life goes directly with who you surround yourself with. I was hanging with the wrong people and they weren’t my friends. Friends tell you when you’re doing something dangerous, they watch out for you,” he said.
He started taking pain pills, convincing himself he needed them because he had recently had surgery, and that they were innocent. The reliance on pills quickly progressed.
“That first pill gave me the feeling I’d been looking for all my life, and now I realize that after that first one, I wasn’t running the show anymore. I spent the next seven years trying to get back to the feeling from that very first pill. I gave up everything I’d worked my whole life for, I gave up football after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots. Bruschi didn’t speak to me for seven years. I was an alcoholic and an addict. I hit rock bottom on 12/14/08 and called for help. I woke up on 12/15 and couldn’t look myself in the mirror, but I’d gotten the gift of desperation. Now I’m comfortable sitting in church basements, those people saved my life,” he said, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous. “My Sobriety Chip is priceless and means more to me that my Super Bowl ring.”
To parents in the audience, he urged, “Be careful how you are role modeling. Your kids are watching. Start conversations with your kids. And if you see another kid struggling, let their parents know.”
Marlborough resident Kathy Leonard, who lost her 17-year-old son, Jonathan, to an overdose, was instrumental in bringing Sullivan to the city.
“Chris is an amazing guy, with an amazing story. Help your children to feel safe and to know they can come to you without being judged,” she advised.
For more information on the opioid crisis, contact the Marlborough Alliance for Prevention, at 508-460-3751.