In advance of World Mental Health Day on Sunday 10 October, evertonfc.com spoke to Dave McCormack, a participant on Everton in the Community's [EitC] Imagine Your Goals programme.
McCormack relates with unsparing honesty the various addictions that resulted from an upbringing in care and his former reluctance to seek help following struggles to obtain a mental health diagnosis.
He moved to Merseyside in 2019 with a view to accessing one of EitC's life-changing programmes after treatment – and since starting with Imagine Your Goals, McCormack's rehabilitation has accelerated to a point where he inhabits a "top-six" position in the imaginary Premier League table he uses to chart recovery.
Dave McCormack stood in front of a microphone and sounded like a man steadily piecing his life back together.
Yes, it was damned hard to get out of bed that morning to participate in a football tournament staged by Everton in the Community’s Imagine Your Goals programme.
But here he was, dressed in his match-worn kit, talking optimistically about the next phase of recovery from various forms of addiction following six months in a rehabilitation facility.
The bottle-blonde hair hinted at renewed confidence, the drawing of a line in the sand, perhaps, as he settled in a new city after a care-system upbringing that resulted in McCormack living in 155 properties before his 44th birthday.
When the event finished, every player from the competing teams massed around then Everton forward Bernard, a guest for the day, for a beaming group photograph.
To the casual observer, the image radiated hope and happiness and positivity.
Dave McCormack went home and ran his gaze over that picture. Then he spent two-and-a-half weeks locked in bulimia’s ruinous binge-purge cycle.
A self-confessed football fanatic, Dave McCormack uses a metaphorical Premier League table to measure his well-being.
Today, McCormack is “comfortable in the top six” but acutely aware that only 13 weeks ago he attempted to take his own life. Or was “in the relegation zone”, as he has it.
McCormack has shed more than six stone in two years. He is more than two years clean of drugs and alcohol. His most recent bulimic episode is more than three months old.
The upwards trajectory accelerated after McCormack joined EitC's Imagine Your Goals, where he discovered acceptance and help and a life-saving and life-changing support network, the “brothers and sisters” who haul him up after a fall.
Those stumbles are fewer and further between. McCormack trains up to eight times a week and is pursuing health and fitness qualifications at university. He hopes, in time, to stand as proof of the existence of a route out of poor mental health.
Dig beneath the surface of a football club that bolts into the upper reaches and you’ll likely unearth countless long-standing strategies responsible for this apparent rush to prominence.
McCormack began sowing the seeds of recovery after a series of transformative episodes back in 2019.
He’d previously only played at getting better. There was the spell in rehabilitation in 2011 when McCormack “wasn’t invested at all”.
“I did it because it was what other people wanted,” he says.
McCormack emerged from that recovery programme in former hometown Newcastle a decade ago to progressively sink back into his old life.
The cocaine and cannabis and gambling and bulimia. Those vices that ganged up to bury deeper still the childhood abuse he’d never confronted.
By the early part of 2019, McCormack was at a desperately low ebb.
“I was just under 23 stone and either going to die or end up in prison,” he says.
“I spent the best part of 40 years of my life dying.
“I never addressed my mental health or bulimia or addiction issues or what happened in childhood.
“I was just existing.”
McCormack had a straight choice between undergoing treatment in Newcastle or relocating to Runcorn for a rehabilitation programme in the town.
There really was no decision to make. What would be any different second time round in the north-east? Nothing, feared McCormack.
Runcorn carried additional appeal in the shape of its location in the vicinity of Everton in the Community [EitC].
In the Club’s official charity, which he’d encountered at various social inclusion football tournaments, McCormack identified the potential for structure and permanence.
Here was somewhere to put down roots, a chance to spare his five-year-old daughter, who had moved home “seven or eight times”, a version of her dad’s former nomadic existence.
This was how McCormack came to be talking to evertontv at a windswept football facility in Netherton in October 2019.
What he remained without on that day was a diagnosis for his condition. McCormack spent a lot of his life searching for clarity and was fobbed off variously and not exclusively as “naughty”, “a mixed-up child” and an “addict”.
Spiralling after his bulimia relapse and dismissed for the umpteenth time by a health professional as somebody fighting the urge to self-harm as a response to childhood abuse, McCormack spoke with EitC Health and Wellbeing manager Johnnie Garside, who helped arrange a consultation with the NHS Patient Advice and Liaison Service [PALS] in November 2019.
“Within seven days, I was diagnosed with both Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder [EUPD] and bipolar II,” says McCormack, who was duly accepted onto EitC’s IYG programme.
“I was never seeking a label – I wanted clarity on what I was feeling inside.
“The diagnosis felt like I was being listened to and knew what I was dealing with.
“It gave me freedom and acceptance.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to be accepted.
“The ways I chose to be accepted in the past caused me nothing but harm.
“Now, I am accepted and part of things because of who I am, not what I can bring.”
McCormack’s unmistakably Glaswegian accent is a product of growing up in the Scottish city where he lived in 70 different foster and care homes by the age of 12.
Bulimia provided a “release” from the trauma of abuse and preyed on an addictive personality.
McCormack would retreat into the eating disorder to shield from the world and he will talk in this interview about an ongoing effort to elude bulimia’s pernicious grip.
He developed an addiction to party drugs prior to rehab in 2011 and following treatment continued smoking cannabis.
But if you’d encountered McCormack around five years ago, you’d have likely assumed life was hunky-dory.
This was a man who managed England football teams at three homeless World Cups. He was employed as a support worker in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit and worked for Centrepoint, the charity providing accommodation and support for young homeless people.
Relapse was inevitable, nonetheless, because McCormack had never confronted his own issues. By 2016, he was “hooked on cocaine”.
“All these good things were happening and my ego had me thinking everything was fixed,” says McCormack, who has an 18-year-old son living in Glasgow.
“I had all this material stuff but, inside, I hadn’t dealt with the childhood abuse.
“I hadn’t dealt with the physical or sexual abuse.
“I couldn’t even admit it to myself.
“Cocaine helped me forget and gave me a lifestyle that appeared great on the outside.
“I had money and friends – but I didn’t.
“They were people who were there because of what they could get out of me.
“I wanted them there because they made me feel wanted and appreciated.
“But I couldn’t appreciate myself, so if I couldn’t appreciate myself, how could you or Johnnie, or anyone else?”
If he was going to make a go of the latest rehabilitation attempt, McCormack accepted something had to give.
“The difference this time in rehab, when I told my story, I included everything,” says McCormack.
“It was painful and these aren’t things we want to hear or talk about.
“There is bound to be somebody reading this who suffered childhood abuse.
“As men, we don’t speak about this stuff.
“It is the same with bulimia, we don’t talk about it.
“It makes people feel uncomfortable, sometimes, but that is because we don’t know how to deal with it as a society.
“A grown man of 43, with my stature and build… people think, ‘How can you have gone through that?'
“When I started looking at the bigger picture of my life, what had led me to addiction, I was able to dissect and improve every aspect.”
When McCormack was deliberating over removing the duvet on that brisk October morning two years ago, it was the “purpose” at the core of IYG that swung it for him.
The programme employs football as a means of supporting individuals’ physical, mental, emotional and social health and wellbeing.
Regular matches and coaching are interspersed with football-themed educational workshops aimed at heightening confidence and resolve.
The formidable peer-support network, meanwhile, is an unconditional source of empathy and motivation.
“Some people will look and think it is just a bunch of people playing football,” says McCormack.
“It is not, it is a bunch of brothers and sisters playing football.
“Everybody is fighting their own demons, but they are fighting them together.
“That is what kept me coming back.
“They [fellow participants] are the best judges of my character.
“If they tell me something is off with my character, I will listen to them before any professional.
“They live it.
“Don’t get me wrong, because we have varying degrees of mental health, there are times we’ll get frustrated with each other.
“Especially on a football pitch.
“But we have each other’s backs.
“There is no palming anyone off, ‘He’s being an idiot today, so I don’t want to speak to him’.
“People will persevere.
“And when you come from a background like mine, you don’t get that.
“I have lived in 155 properties. Does that sound like people have persevered with me? Not really.
“But most importantly, I haven’t persevered with myself.
“Since I’ve been here, I have.”
McCormack recently paused for thought when he received paperwork from the Football Association formalising a new social-inclusion football league.
In bold letters on the documents granting accreditation for McCormack’s brainchild – which features 10 teams comprising people who have suffered poor mental health, members of the LGBTQ+ community and others who have lived homeless or with addictions – were the words, League Chairman: Dave McCormack.
“Wow,” says McCormack, momentarily turning his head right to eye the Cruyff Court football pitch on the other side of a large sliding glass door at EitC’s People’s Hub, a community campus situated a couple of hundred metres from Goodison Park.
“In the past, I’d have thought there was no way I could do that.
“The desire to help others is in everybody. We just need to know what brings it out of us.
“We live in a society where we judge people just by looking at them.
“I coached kids in a high school in Ghana in 2008 and it was the best eight weeks of my life.
“I was a white European in a country full of black people and I was treated no differently.
“That is how the world should work.”
McCormack’s work on healing his mental health is accompanied by a commitment to improving his physical condition.
The stone in weight he lost after starting with IYG went back on – “and some more” – during last year’s spring lockdown.
He resolved to avoid a repeat when we were ordered to stay indoors again and a mixture of his own bloody-mindedness and regular telephone conversations with Garside enabled McCormack to sustain an established healthy exercise and eating programme.
Today, he weighs 16st 7lb and has not binged and purged for three months.
EitC are supporting a course in personal training, to sit beside the university qualification, with his eventual goal to train people at the outset of mental health recovery.
Nestled snugly in the top-six of that personal league table – McCormack wonders aloud if he’s best off in mid-table, “not too high, not too low” – complacency is a dangerous foe.
Drop your guard, says McCormack, and the eating disorder will pounce.
Equally, he insists, to embrace any thoughts of being home and dry is to usher in a decline in mental wellbeing.
“The bulimia can come back with a vengeance when other things in life are not quite right,” says McCormack.
“I will turn to food, rather than drugs or alcohol or gambling.
“It is in my thoughts daily but I have tools from mental health therapy I can use.
“I am in the 12-step fellowship and, when I share my story, so many people tell me they can relate to the eating disorder.
“That keeps mine under control because I know when I am living healthily and talking about it, it helps other people.
“I am enjoying where I am and the good things that are happening.
“But I have to keep the ego grounded and remember where I was 13 weeks ago, or when I met you [October 2019].
“If I forget, I am back there.
“It [slip] happens weeks before the event.
“A relapse occurs three months before you might take that drug because you stop doing the things that got you where you are.”
McCormack is kitted out in football shirt and shorts, ready to step straight onto the verdant Cruyff Court for a small-sided game with his IYG siblings.
Visible on his calf is a large tattoo of the Rangers Football Club badge.
The ink is emblematic of both McCormack’s former and current life and doubles as a permanent reminder for the owner to keep his eye on the ball.
“I am secretary of a Sunday team in Liverpool and we wear Celtic kits,” says McCormack.
“I played a couple of times last season – I went and got that tattoo because I knew the next day, I had to wear a Celtic strip.
“That is part of my addictive behaviours and illnesses that I need to keep in check.
“Football has always been a huge passion.
“When I was six, I moved in with new foster carers in the west of Scotland. I unpacked my clothes and pulled out a Rangers top.
“Six hours later, I was in the social worker’s office looking for another carer.
“When that happens as a child, how do you get it out of you?
“Until I was 18, I was anti-Celtic and anti-Catholic.
“Now I realise how much bull it is.
“Even though I am not in Glasgow, it feels like a second chance to do things right and not hate people because of who they support.
“One of my best mates on the programme, Colin Dolan, is a staunch Celtic fan.
“We would never have been part of the same sessions in Glasgow.
“That is credit to IYG.”
McCormack has been clean from drugs and alcohol since 28 August 2019.
He studies that photograph from later the same year every day.
“I had this dyed blonde hair, I don’t know what I was thinking, I was 22st 10lb and looked horrendous,” says McCormack.
“The picture makes me accept my mental health and appreciate that’s not the person I am anymore.
“That’s the person I was because I let myself get to that.
“The hardest thing is not asking for help, it is accepting help.
“Help has been there in some way my whole life.
“But because it wasn’t in the way I wanted, or my ego wouldn’t allow me to show I was weak, I didn’t accept it.
“Now I am accepting help and a lot of that is down to EitC. You are treated as a person and that is why I love coming here.
“Whether I have mental health issues, EUPD, bipolar, bulimia, drug addiction, I am just David.”
The next leg of McCormack’s recovery entails “specialised trauma therapy that will take me back to each individual abuse”.
He is brutally frank about the likely impact of a process that will, anticipates McCormack, trigger suicidal thoughts.
“But now,” he asserts, “I have tools that keep me grounded in reality.
“I’ve had relationships and great jobs and material possessions and none of it stopped me taking drugs or self-harming,” continues McCormack.
“The only person who can have a definitive impact is me.
“My goal is to make a difference with one person – that’ll be one person who doesn’t have to experience the pain I did.
“I don’t want a 15-year-old currently in care doing this interview when they are 43.
“The people in this city took me in as one of their own.
“I lived in 155 properties and this is the most settled I have been.
“I am happy.
“That is testament to this city and the value and impact of Imagine Your Goals and Everton in the Community.”
After four decades at the wrong end of the table, dying at worst, existing at best, Dave McCormack is towards the top of the league and fighting for the big prizes. Happiness and contentment and purpose and achievement.
He is living his life.
To find out more about Everton in the Community’s mental health provision, visit www.evertoninthecommunity.org