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My battle with alcohol: James Gavet

Wests Tigers prop James Gavet opens up about his battle with alcohol. Credit: Shane Wenzlick. Copyright: NRL Photos.

The signs were always there for James Gavet, he just refused to see them. Last Tuesday, however, the Wests Tigers prop proudly held up a different, but far more important sign – a chip – and one that he thought he'd never get a glimpse of in his lifetime. 

One that read just a few words, but symbolised a lot more: 100 days of sobriety.

"It's the longest I've been sober since I was 17 – that's almost eight years," Gavet told NRL.com this week. 

"It's a big accomplishment for me."

Like anyone who battles any kind of addiction, the slippery slope can be so difficult, so steep, that by the time you reach rock bottom, you're too ashamed to call for help. 

"The thing with being an alcoholic," he says, "is that you're always in denial. I was living in denial. Then you want to keep it under wraps, because it's embarrassing."

Even from a young age, not even the words of his own mother could deter him from a path he was destined for. 

The moment Gavet was born 25 years ago, she gave his dad an ultimatum. 

"In the end, she said it was either us or the drink. And he gave it up," he recalled. "But she said to me, 'Your father's father was a bad drunk, and your father was an alcoholic too.' 

"And you know, I was only young, but then she'd say this: 'I won't be surprised if you are.' I always said in the back of my mind that I wouldn't be, but then I started to get those traits and I started believing her."

After surviving his well-documented rough childhood in the streets of Mount Roskill, natural ability got Gavet a shot with the Warriors in 2009, alongside prodigious talents Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor and Ben Henry. 

But no matter how far his hulking frame and rampaging runs would take him, alcohol followed him around like a bad stench. 

"At the Warriors, sometimes I'd turn up to training smelling like alcohol," he says. "Luckily there were older guys like Simon Mannering. I remember we were doing leg swings one time and he was telling me, 'Make sure you stay away from the coaching staff because I can smell it on you.'"

So across the Tasman he went, in search of a fresh start and a new life. 

And in 2012 he found one at the Bulldogs, where he enjoyed a stellar year in the NSW Cup and earned himself a new two-year contract. 

But it didn't take long for him to fall back into bad habits, only this time it got so low that not only did he wreck his first-grade prospects – he played just one game over two seasons – but he threw away an engagement with a long-time girlfriend, too. 

"It caused a lot of distance between family members and breaking a lot of friendships too, over this time," he says. 

"It didn't help, because I already had a bit of an angry streak. Alcohol just multiplied it tenfold."

So after the Bulldogs tore his contract up that summer, his manager, Tyran Smith, urged him to see a counsellor. 

"I'd seen him a couple of times and there were a lot of yesses. I was doing a lot of nodding, not really taking anything in," Gavet says.

"At that time, obviously I had been let go of the Bulldogs already and the chances of me getting re-signed to another club were really slim. 

"Even if I was to get signed, it would be for less than half of what I was earning the previous year. I was looking elsewhere for work and stuff."

In the end he switched to the Wests Tigers on a minimum-base salary, where he again floundered in reserve grade as he continued to struggle, first with a major foot injury, then with his all too familiar personal demons. 

"I was in a really low place but there were a few things that happened last year that helped me realise how bad I was going," he says.

"There was the suicide of our mate Mosese Fotuaika, that hit us pretty bad. We had a heavy drink after that and once we came down from the high of the drinking and reminiscing about him, I looked myself in the mirror and asked myself what this was going to do to help bring him back. 

"I diluted my drinking for a bit, but then every now and again, I'd go off. The big injury didn't help. There was no such thing as having one or a couple. As soon as the alcohol hit my lips, I'd just go for gold."

It wasn't until about 100 days ago, when so-called friends were unashamedly making jokes of Gavet's feats with alcohol, that he mustered the courage to re-acquaint himself with the counsellor and swear off the drink. 

"Going into pre-season this year, I really made it a personal goal just to stay away from the drink. I had a few jokes earlier on in the year, they weren't very encouraging, from friends off the field," he says. 

Gavet said he sympathised with players like sacked Sharks playmaker Todd Carney, but said that counselling and abstaining from alcohol entirely wasn't always the answer. 

"It's always going to come down to the individual. Everyone says you've got to seek professional help or you've got to talk to someone who's been there or done that, but I don't think it's necessarily the case," he says. 

"Speaking on behalf of me, I've just found that having a lot of support and loved ones around you – they don't even have to know your circumstances or situation – just being welcome changes things.

"And knowing that you don't have to be on the drink to have good fun or to make good memories, because a lot of the times I was drinking it was just because it's the way we always ended the week. 

"You can make millions of memories without it. And actually remember them." 

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