EAST GREENWICH – Children and parents got an inside look at the dangers of addiction and underage drinking this week in a virtual presentation by Sullivan’s Message, an organization and effort spearheaded by Chris and Kathi Sullivan of Massachusetts. Chris, a former addict and defensive end for the New England Patriots, and Kathi, who lost her 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, due to alcohol, met during a parents’ night put on by Kathi shortly after the loss of her daughter and Chris’ decision to get sober. Throughout the evening, both stressed the importance of communication and openness between parents and their kids and how such a relationship could save a life.
“Just ask your children questions,” said Chris. “You don’t have to hound them. Too many people suffer in silence because they’re ashamed, and it shouldn’t be like that. Just pay attention. Don’t think it couldn’t be your kid.”
“In her worst state, [my daughter] didn’t call me, her mom,” shared Kathi. “She shared everything with me, yet she didn’t call me in her worst state…Please make sure that you have that conversation with your kid and let them know you want that phone call. It will make a world of difference.”
The hour-long presentation saw the Sullivans share their separate stories of struggle and tragedy. Growing up in Attleboro, Mass., Chris was a gifted athlete, and began playing football at around six years old. Working diligently through high school, he eventually attended Boston College on scholarship, where he started 48 straight games for the Eagles. Despite his achievements in the early part of his life, Chris explained that he had always experienced severe anxiety growing up and never reached out to anyone about it or told his parents. Addiction, he explained further, was foreign to him as a child and his mental image of an addict did not match up with who he was.
“My whole life I struggled with my mental health, and I didn’t know there was people to talk to,” said Chris. “I wish I reached out or had someone ask. My mother never knew of my struggles because I kept it hidden.”
At BC, Chris reports he never missed a class and graduated in three and a half years. He was afterwards drafted by the Patriots in 1996 and played in New England for four seasons before heading to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“All along this journey, my anxiety and depression controlled everything I did,” he said.
After a back injury, motorcycle accident and subsequent release from the Steelers, Chris began down a spiral of alcohol and opiate addiction in September, 2001. Coming back to the Patriots and winning a Superbowl in 2002 should have provided a lifetime achievement for him, but was nothing, at the time, compared to the demands of his substance abuse.
“2002 should have been a highlight of my life,” said Chris. “I was with the New England Patriots, it was the second Superbowl the team had ever been to and it was the one we won. I can remember it pretty vividly. I can remember parts of the game, but I can vividly remember when [former Patriots kicker] Adam Vinatieri kicked the field goal to win the game, and I can think back and I remember everyone running onto the field, guys are crying and people are going to grab their families and bring them down on the field. I remember sitting there and I could not wait to get back to my hotel room. That was my only thought.”
“I was mad that I didn’t bring my pain pills to the game because I was afraid of getting caught,” he continued. “It’s crazy thinking back. I didn’t go to the team party after, I didn’t hang out with my family who had supported me my whole life, I didn’t know my life was spiraling…I went back to the hotel room and I sat in the dark and I took what I thought were harmless pills that made me happy.”
Throughout the presentation, Chris noted his regret in not voicing his struggle to his parents early on, or sharing what he was going through as he matured through life and was granted opportunities he had worked so hard to achieve. The decision to purchase painkillers illegally, he said, erased 23 years of dedication to football.
“That one decision will change my life until they put me in the ground,” he said. “Hopefully I stay sober and life’s good, but I didn’t realize how important of a decision that was… Absolutely no one knew how my every day was a struggle. No one knew how severe my anxiety was…I didn’t wake up happy, I didn’t enjoy things. I missed out on so much.”
He was arrested the same year his team won the Superbowl and gave up football six months after taking his first pill. By 2005, he had come to fit his mental image of an addict growing up. Chris was charged with five OUIs, made multiple visits to the emergency room, totaled five cars and attended 15 rehab programs. He lost all the money he made by playing in the National Football League and his house.
“I tortured my family,” he said.
An emotional realization pushed Chris to pursue sobriety in 2008. Two weeks after making the decision, he met Kathi, who was conducting a parents’ night presentation similar to the virtual one held by East Greenwich Monday. There, Kathi shared her story about the loss of her daughter and cautioned parents regarding the devastating consequences underage drinking could have.
In October of 2008, Kathi’s daughter Taylor was celebrating homecoming the way a lot of high schoolers do – partying with friends. Telling her mother she was sleeping at a friend’s house, Taylor began drinking early on in the night, attended her school’s homecoming football game, and then went into the woods with a group of 22 peers to party some more. After a verbal fight with one of her friends, Taylor walked away from the group after consuming a significant amount of alcohol. Her body was found several days later in vegetation in the woods. She had died from hypothermia after falling into a small river with about two feet of water.
“My world changed instantly,” she said. “My parenting skills changed just as quick, because there’s a lot that I wish I had done different with Tay. To be honest with you, that’s kind of what these parents’ nights are about – learning from my mistakes.”
The last phone call she made was at 11 p.m. the night of the homecoming game to a friend.
“I didn’t check up on Tay that night because I thought she was going to be OK,” she said. “That is a huge, huge regret as a parent.”
Wanting the public to understand that she is living proof that tragedy can happen, Kathi began conducting informational parents’ nights, sharing her story with local communities. Chris, who was attending one of these sessions, met her and the two began dating. They were married in 2011 and remain a happy family today.
The virtual presentation was put on by the Town of East Greenwich. To learn more, please visit facebook.com/sullivansmessage.