“I was an addict. It is really hard to say that.”

Crossing The Line Summit Dan Conn
Photo: Kate Zarifeh

Former National Rugby League player Dan Conn still finds it hard to admit he is an addict.

Dan is 31 but has been retired since 2011. After 59 games for the Bulldogs, Gold Coast Titans and Roosters, he left the game aged 25 after a neck injury required him to have a spinal fusion. By then, he was already addicted to painkillers.

Dan is now wellness director for the Collective Wellness Group and says he no longer “takes anything” other than medication for his depression. Instead, he hopes that recounting his story can help others avoid the pathway to potential self-destruction he followed.

I spoke to Dan for the Crossing the Line Radio podcast during the Crossing the Line Summit in Sydney on Friday, November 10. I was interested to know what was harder, overcoming his addiction or recognising it in the first place.

“Both are very hard,” he answers. “You have to really explain how that addiction occurred before you understand what it is.

“But addiction is addiction. So many people have that genetic make-up. We might know it, or we might not. I have to say that, yeah … I know I was addicted, I know about addiction.

“I was … an addict. It is really hard to say that.”

Addiction began from a need to play through injury

Today, Dan understands how his addiction to painkillers began. As a player, there was a perceived need to play through injury, and to not let anyone – from his coaches to his teammates – see that he was injured.

“Every time I got an injury it was always turn to the doctors, or whoever I could, to get through the next training, the next game, so you could hold your spot,” says Dan.

His pain was more than physical though.

“With masking agents, I realised I was masking a lot more problems than just the physical ones. It became a way of getting through everyday life, trying to put on that happy face.

“A lot of athletes have to carry that façade with them … especially when they are out in society; they have to act. They are on top of the world, they are number one, they are great athletes…

“Addiction goes hand in hand with trying to put on that clown face.”

Turning a corner

The turning point in hospital for Dan came when he was taken out from ICU after his spinal fusion.

For about 24 hours Dan self-medicated with a buzzer connected to a morphine drip. It was then that his mother noticed something wrong.

“She put her head on my chest,” he recalls. “I was wheezing really heavily and she was a bit concerned. She told the nurse before she left that night. It turns out I had been vomiting internally. My lungs were filling up rapidly. I was laying in the bed drowning in my lungs because of a rapid onset of pneumonia.

“I was straight back in ICU, and that was when the doctors realised I had such a high tolerance and addiction. It was something I had carried for years, dealing with pain.”

With retirement a lot of things “came to the surface”

Today, Dan looks back at that juncture in his life as a positive one, but he concedes that his transition to life after an NRL career has not been easy. He contemplated suicide several times.

“When I had the really bad neck injury it all came to the surface. It was probably a good thing that it did,” he says. “Although it was a career-ending injury, a lot of things sort of came to the surface. This meant things were a lot more positive for me down the end of the line, for my future.

“I guess now I have a lot more purpose in what I do. I can see where I need to fit in and where I need to help people.

“I am kind of blessed that everything has happened the way it has.”

Hear more from Dan about overcoming his addiction, and how he speaks out about his mental health, on the Crossing the Line Radio podcast.

If you are affected by any issues in this article:

Contact Beyond Blue on its website www.beyondblue.org.au or phone 1300 22 4636.

Contact Lifeline on its website www.lifeline.org.au or phone 13 11 14.