Paul James played for Canada in the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 World Cup, then went on to become a successful coach. For most of his managerial career, he was a high-functioning crack cocaine addict. In this excerpt from his new autobiography Cracked Open, James takes up the story as he is preparing to lead his Canada Under-20 team into the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship.
It was ten weeks before the championships. Canada had been drawn in a group with Brazil, Germany and Iraq. It could not have been worse. The South American stars, the European giants and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – the only team without an official website, with rumours suggesting half their squad were over-aged.
To complicate matters, five of the Canadian players competed at the university level, three were without any team and our main defenders were injured. So I decided to scour Quebec to see if I could pull a rabbit out of the hat. But before leaving my home in Toronto, I had a major personal problem: another drug episode. It was the worst yet.
Health-wise, it had been a good period for me. I had been free of any relapses. But then, one night in early April, after another unbelievably stressful day, I went for a few drinks with a friend. It was rare for me to go out, not only because I was so committed to work, but also because I was beginning to feel vulnerable each time I did. I knew drinking would pull the craving trigger. Nevertheless, desperate for the company, I welcomed the opportunity to talk with someone.
When you are not well and you are in an environment that leaves you susceptible, one thing leads to another. Before you know it, you end up somewhere dangerous. This was the case on this particular occasion. I lost track of where I was. It was so dark I couldn’t see. I was sweating profusely. Making my way along some walls, I stumbled into a bathroom. As I looked into the mirror, blood flowed down my face, which was an odd sensation: a combination of a soothing coolness mixed with the frightening, overwhelming feeling that this time I was in real trouble.
I tried to stop the flow of blood by quickly soaking water on my head — but it kept seeping through my hands. It was not only flowing from my head but also from my face. The more I tried to get rid of the mess, the more blood would spurt out.
Feeling dazed, confused and panicked, I stumbled back along the pitch-black corridor and into the room I had left moments earlier. As if to confirm my fright, two guys and a dog looked at me in complete horror. As high and dopey as the men were, they could see I was in need of immediate help. They were sobering up quickly — if there is such a thing when you are high on crack cocaine. As they scrambled to provide me with tissues and band aids, I became even more agitated and panicky, realising I needed to get out of there quickly. At this stage I had no money, no wallet, and I did not know where I was.
It was now 5am on a cool early morning. I stumbled onto the street, praying no police would see me. The blood was still oozing from my cuts and onto my clothes. I tried to flag down a taxi. Not a simple situation, bearing in mind I had no cash and looked like I had just left a war zone. On the third attempt, rather than try to explain my dilemma, I just got into the cab and said I needed a ride to Oakville. The guy looked at me with great suspicion, but the $50 cab ride was a fare he would take.
Once we were on the highway, I asked to borrow his phone. I called my sister. She came to my rescue, paying for my cab and somehow nursing me back to some sort of stability. We went to hospital later that day. I required three banks of stitches, six in one head-wound, four in another, and six on my face between my nose and lip. A few days later, and with better clarity, I began to unravel what had happened.
After the night of drinking, I had ended up in a rundown apartment, where I began using crack cocaine. I vaguely remember making my way to the washroom and walking along a dark corridor. I felt like someone was behind me. Already paranoid from the drug, I stumbled forward and crashed into the wall, which was littered with sharp jagged staples. The cuts were acute and very deep, hence all the blood.
After a few days with my sister, she drove me to my apartment in Toronto. I phoned the Canadian Soccer Association office to let them know I had been in an accident and would not be coming into the office for a few days. I tried to repair my injuries as best I could but there was no hiding the fresh lacerations, which were just beginning to scar. No one questioned me beyond asking: "Are you OK?"
If anyone pried beyond that, I said I had fallen on a run or I had been in a car accident. Both were true, but neither had resulted in the injuries, which I did not clarify. I mean really, at this stage, I was hardly going to say I had been smoking crack cocaine and then walked into a wall.
On June 6, 2001, Canada played their opening game against Iraq in the FIFA World U-20 Championships. I was the head coach. While I had been clean since the early spring accident, I was anything but calm and relaxed. My stress was rising, guaranteeing that at some point in the future, my drug abuse would continue. How can it be that an international soccer coach, two and half months prior to a FIFA World Soccer Championship and the national leader of a participating country, makes the decision to embark on such illicit and personally damaging behaviour, with potentially dire consequences?
On reflection, I now understand that I have experienced four addictions over my lifetime: my addiction to soccer, which was the first and most pleasing; my addiction to work, which I made sustainable for many years; my addiction to crack cocaine, which should have cost me my life; and finally my addiction to excessive stress, which has been the fulcrum of my health problems.
Today, after a decade of drug use and three years in recovery, I am relieved to feel well again. If I could turn back the clock on this dreadful personal path, I would do so in a heartbeat. But, as Julian Keeling from the Sporting Chance Clinic pointed out, my life was inevitable: "Paul, if the Greek gods sitting in the clouds were watching you as a young boy, they would have concluded that it is only a matter of time before this guy smokes himself into oblivion." Even as a recovering addict, you are always vulnerable to relapse if you do not know how to read the warning signs.
How can this be? How does a well-educated, high-achieving person reach the point of such self-inflicted destruction? The answers are the theme of this very personal memoir. I hope that in some way it can shed light on the fact that drug addiction is an illness, and that for many addicts, using is not simply a choice. For me, drug addiction has proven to be a cruel disease with no simple remedy — not a moral failing or a weakness of mind, but a unique, personal, and devastating experience.
My own path into drug addiction as I know it now was an escape from the tremendous anguish of my past and the alleviation of the stress and loneliness of present-day circumstances. In spite of losing so much - employment, financial security, and, many times over, my dignity, I appreciate I should take comfort from the fact that, in 2012, I am fortunate to be alive.
I am now grateful to share with you my path into the unforgiving world of addiction, my frightening passage through it, and the very painful and ostracising process of recovery. For this to take place however, we need to get to the core of the story. And to do that I have to take you back to the beginning.
Click here to read more and buy the Kindle edition