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How 2016 All-Star Mary Hulgraine Travelled To Hell And Back

How 2016 All-Star Mary Hulgraine Travelled To Hell And Back

One morning in 2017, Mary Hulgraine made the call she'd tried and failed to make a hundred times before. This time was different. Her courage won an arm-wrestle with the voice within which told her she wasn't worth the phone credit. It was the call which saved her life.

A year earlier, the Kildare ladies footballer had been Player of the Match as her side beat Clare in the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship final at Croke Park. She was also the All-Star goalkeeper that year.

By 2017, her mental health had hit rock bottom, sent there by a mix of alcohol and tablets taken to numb the pain inside.

"For about two years, I used to wake up every day and say, 'I'm just going to kill myself today. I just don't want to be here,'" she says.

"I have a dog, Bailey, a big golden retriever. That dog kept me alive. I used to say to myself, 'Who's going to mind him when I'm gone?' I used to get angry with him, 'You're the only one that's keeping me here'.

"I woke one day and was like, 'I can't do this any more' but said I'd walk the dog one more time in the Curragh.

"I met an old man who didn't say anything special, he just said, 'Oh, he's a gorgeous dog, where did you get him?' I was chatting to him, and that small social interaction made me think, 'I won't do it today'.

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"The next morning, I didn't have a drink. That was the routine: The minute I got up, I was getting something into the system to drown out my head. I said, 'I have to ask for help or I'm going to end up in a grave'."

mary hulgraine kildare addiction

25 September 2016; Mary Hulgraine of Kildare is presented with the Player of the Match award after the TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland IFC final. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

She rang a man involved with the Kildare team, someone who knew the directions for where she wanted to go. He'd stood under the deluge of alcohol but found an awning with Alcoholics Anonymous.

"He thought I was ringing him about football," says Hulgraine.

"I always say the phone call I made to him is the best phone call I ever made. He collected me that night and brought me to my first AA meeting. He collected me every single night after that and brought me to meetings until I found my feet, and I was able to go myself."

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'Ah that's the Irish kid, they're deadly at drinking'

Gaelic football and soccer were sporting dalliances for Mary Hulgraine growing up. It was in secondary school where she fell in love - with basketball.

She'd heard about Paul Cummins, a Kildare man who'd been to the States to play college basketball, and reasoned that if he could get a scholarship, so could she. That was reaffirmed at a camp in Dungarvan. "A couple of American coaches came over," she recalls,  "and they were like, 'You're definitely good enough to play in America'. I just became obsessed with it."

Everywhere she went, a basketball was in her grasp. When she skipped class, it was to spend time on the court. The teenager spent a year in Belfast to concentrate on the sport. While there, she got the call she'd been hoping for: The University Of Bridgeport in Connecticut had offered the 17-year-old a scholarship.

In her second year at Bridgeport, Hulgraine suffered a bad injury which would require multiple reconstructive surgeries on her leg. During the first operation, she was given OxyContin, and got hooked on the painkiller. It was the beginning of an addiction which would hobble her for the next decade.

"I got a feeling that I've never had in my life, this feeling of belonging somewhere that felt right; there was love and this warm feeling, [one] I was always missing," she says about the lure of the medication.

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"It took off from there. I tried to manipulate, lie and do everything possible to get more - and I did. I had to get another surgery, and I was nearly delighted because I was like, 'That means more transcripts. That's brilliant'.

"The insurance was paying for everything. That was my excuse: 'I have to get surgery, so I'm taking these'. I was having a great time because I was out of my head every day. Addiction ruined my basketball career."

Growing up, Hulgraine had seen the pain alcohol can cause and swore she wouldn't touch it but that changed in Connecticut.

mary hulgraine kildare addiction

4 March 2012; Mary Hulgraine, Kildare, saves a penalty from Noirin Kirwan, Laois. Bord Gais Energy Ladies National Football League, Division 1. Ballykelly, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

"My father left when I was very young - he was forced to leave," she says.

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"My mother was an alcoholic.

"It's something I grew up with. I always said that I didn't want to drink. I didn't really drink until I was nearly 17.

"I had my first drink when I was 12, puked it up and said, 'I'm never doing this again. This is horrific. It destroys families'. I was never going to touch it until the addictive behaviour started with the OxyContin. It was the feeling of getting out of myself that I wanted, not the feeling of drinking.

"I was always a master hider of things. No one ever knew there was a problem. When I started drinking when I was over in the States, we were going to parties, and I was mixing the tablets with the drink. I had the excuse, 'Ah that's the Irish kid, they're deadly at drinking'. I lapped that up."

Hulgraine spent nearly five years in the US but didn't finish her scholarship. After a trip home, she never returned to Bridgeport.

"I have a little sister, she was at home and my mother was in addiction," she explains.

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"I saw that my sister was struggling being there. I said, 'No, I can't leave her'. I didn't go back."

'I was living in my car'

Living in Sallins just outside Naas, Hulgraine did what many young Irish people do to pass the time in a small village: She drank Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

"I was always moving house, always on the run," she says.

"I never really stayed anywhere too long before I was gone again.

"The fun went out of my drinking very early. At the end of the night, I'd always be in a room full of people, and just completely alone. My head always went there because of the stuff I went through in childhood.

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"I was drinking everyday by the end of 2014 [and then in] 2015, 2016. To get out of the bed in the morning, I had to have a drink."

Hulgraine joined the Kildare panel in 2012. She'd come back from the States still hampered by injuries but started fitness classes that got her in the condition which would allow her to play sport again.

Throughout her addiction, people involved with the team saw signposts for what she was going through but no one really knew the full extent.

25 September 2016; Mary Hulgraine of Kildare makes a save from Gráinne Nolan of Clare during the TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship Final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"There were questions," she says.

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"I was living in my car. When I was heading to training, one of the girls on the team said to me, 'Why are there duvets and pillows in your car?' I brushed it off.

"The Kildare manager that year (Alan Barry), I'll never forget him for it: He rang me and said, 'Where are you living?' I told him I was staying down in Carlow at the time; I wasn't, I was living in the car.

"He said, 'Look, I'll get a house for you'. Come up and meet me. He knew someone that owned a house. It was run down, the place was wrecked.

"He was like, 'What do you think of this? We'll get it going for you'. I actually moved in there that night. I stayed for three months with no electricity, just a mattress on the floor, and a fire, because it was better than what I had. He wanted to make sure I was alright. I'll never forget him for that.

"In 2016, I was completely isolated. I just showed up at training. I had nothing. The manager would open the changing room a couple of minutes early, so I could grab a shower.

"I thought that was normal. I was happy as Larry. I went home and had my cans, so I didn't have to be in my own head after training.

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"We played in an All-Ireland in 2016. I got player of the match and, my God, I was in the height of addiction that year. No one really knew that."

'My whole life has changed dramatically in the last six months'

Reaching out for help in 2017 was the first step on a road it would take three years to travel. There were demons in her head that needed to be exorcised before she could truly recover.

"I started getting more into tablets when I came into recovery because I realised that people could smell drink - they knew when I'd relapsed," she says.

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"People weren't able to tell when I'd relapsed with tablets. I got into that a lot more.

"I wasn't being honest. I wasn't doing it for myself, I was doing it for everybody else. It changed last year when I had another relapse.

"My head was in the exact same place that I was in 2017 when I first came in. I didn't want to be here again. I was like, 'Are you actually going to start taking responsibility for your life? Are you going to stand up and start being honest with yourself?'

"I always had this thing growing up that I never asked anyone for help. Me and my brother had to grow up very quick. We always just did things for ourselves. We never needed help from people. That was my attitude.

"I think that's why it took so long for me because that was drilled into me all my life that for me to put my hand up and say, 'I surrender. Somebody tell me what I need to do to get well' [was wrong].

"When I got honest, my recovery changed and my whole life changed. My whole life has changed dramatically in the last six months. It's because I'm doing the right things."

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mary hulgraine kildare addiction

12 November 2016; Mary Hulgraine of Kildare is presented with her All Star award. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

While she was going through the worst of her addiction, Hulgraine still managed to run a small gym in Sallins. 'Mary Hulgraine Fitness' has since moved to Newbridge and is ready to reopen whenever Covid-19 restrictions allow.

The 32-year-old will be back at Kildare training this week, though in a reduced capacity due to a heart problem diagnosed recently. She's waiting on test results about a condition which may have been caused by the many substances she put in her body down the years.

Late last week, Hulgraine went to watch the sunrise on six months of sobriety knowing she'd won a battle with addiction but that the war would be ongoing.

"It will be for the rest of my life," she says.

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"When you say that, it sounds so daunting. I wake up some mornings and my demons are still there. It's my choice whether I let them chase me or if I chase them. I have the tools from the last couple of months to silence them. Everybody should have a counsellor. It's the best thing I ever did.

"It probably doesn't seem like a whole lot but to me the little six-month [sobriety] chip I got is the best trophy in the trophy cabinet at the minute. It's better than any All-Ireland or All-Star.

"On Friday I was so proud of myself. It's something that I've never been. It was just such a weird feeling.

"Before, I used to wake up every morning and didn't want to be here. I never had any hope. I used to have such a dark cloud over me.

"Now I get up every day and I'm pinching myself saying, 'What am I going to do to make myself better today?'"

If you or someone you know is affected by the subjects touched upon by Mary Hulgraine in this article, you can find out more about alcohol and drug treatment services through the HSE. If you are having suicidal thoughts, you should contact Samaritans Ireland at 116 123.

See Also: Sean Cavanagh Never Forgot Joe Brolly Jibe About 2001 Tyrone Minors

sean cavanagh joe brolly 2001 tyrone minors

PJ Browne
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