No parent should ever have to bury their child, but sadly, that’s what former pro golfer David Feherty will be doing next week. He announced on Twitter Tuesday morning that his oldest son, Shey, died of an overdose on Saturday. He turned 29 the same day. Information about which specific substance(s) were involved has not yet been released to the public. “My first born son is gone from me, dying from an overdose on his 29th birthday,” David tweeted. “Bless his sweet heart, I will fight on.” Shey struggled with drug addiction and mental illness throughout his life, just as his father did. Unlike his father, however, he never broke free from their weighty shackles.
According to Shey’s LinkedIn page, he was described by a former colleague as being “mature beyond his years … always polite & [sic] professional … quite impressive.” His tragic death serves as a reminder of the importance of seeking help as soon as possible for substance use and mental health disorders, whether it’s for yourself or a loved one. It also speaks to the notion of addiction running in families and what can be done to prevent a problem from becoming a generational curse.
Fighting Addiction and Other Monsters
In his obituary, Shey’s family stated that he “fought hard to win his battles with drug addiction and mental illness, but in the end the monsters won.” His father faced these same fiends for decades in his own life, and the memories are resurfacing as he mourns the loss of his son. Some golf fans know David Feherty only as the Irish-born former professional golfer on the European Tour and PGA Tour in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He won five events in Europe and 10 worldwide before his 1997 retirement. People also know him as the quirky former CBS golf commentator and current golf inquisitor on Golf Channel and NBC Sports. But what fewer people know is that when he wasn’t winning on the green for the world to see, he was losing something else behind closed doors.
In a 2015 interview published by Rolling Stone, he detailed his long history with drugs, alcohol and depression. “A typical day was 30–40 Vicodin and two and a half bottles of whiskey…real whiskey. Whiskey with an ‘e.’ There was cocaine, there was dope. When I think about it now I’m like, ‘Why am I alive?'” His struggles with drugs were commonplace in the early years of his career, but it was his battle with alcohol that took the biggest toll. He began drinking heavily when he was just 16, following in his father’s footsteps. The addiction eventually cost him his first marriage in the early ‘90s to Caroline DeWitt, Shey’s mother. “All of a sudden, my game and marriage disintegrated simultaneously,” he told GolfDigest. After the divorce, DeWitt moved out, taking Shey and his younger brother with her. David didn’t see his sons very often after that. To cope with the loss, he turned to cigarettes, coffee, Advil and alcohol.
David’s mental health condition was another monster to defeat, one he’s still fighting today. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011 and continues to struggle with insomnia and depression. According to a 2013 GolfDigest article, Feherty kept a vial in his pocket that contained his daily regimen of antidepressants, antipsychotics, cholesterol and blood pressure meds, stimulants, mood stabilizers and sleep aids. He still takes more than a dozen pills every day to manage his mental illness.
His life took a turn for the better when he married his current wife, Anita, in 1996. He still struggled with alcoholism during their first few years of marriage, but for the sake of his family — including their young daughter — he attempted to sober up. However, the years of chronic alcoholism made this a difficult feat. He experienced awful physical withdrawal symptoms, including hallucinations and uncontrollable delirium tremens (DT). As his journey to sobriety continued, he and his wife were granted custody of Shey and his brother in 1999.
David tried getting sober many times in his life, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 2005, with the help of fellow golfer (and former alcoholic) Tom Watson, that he finally succeeded. David was doing an interview in Canada with Tom and Jack Nicklaus (another fellow golfer). During the interview, Tom covered the camera and asked David, “You’re not well, are you?” David admitted he wasn’t and asked how Tom knew. Tom said he could see it in his eyes. “What do you see?” David asked. “My reflection,” Tom said. His wife also played a crucial role in his recovery. David’s had a few stumbles here and there since then, but he’s still committed to an alcohol-free life.
Sadly though, even after he finally reached a state of sobriety and got his life back together, David had to watch his oldest son wrestle with addiction and mental illness. “His beautiful blue eyes could captivate a room, but they could not stare down the enemy that lurked in the shadows and prevent it from reaching out to grab him in his darkest time,” Shey’s obituary reads.
Photo courtesy of Shey Feherty’s Facebook
Is There a Gene for Addiction?
The correlation between David and Shey’s substance misuse and mental health issues has left many wondering if addiction can be hereditary. Are children of those with addictions more prone to drug or alcohol abuse? Is there an addiction gene? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism claims that genetic factors do influence alcoholism. These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.
David has publicly noted that the disease of substance abuse runs in his family. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he has a family history of alcoholism and undiagnosed mental illness. “My father was a pretty heavy drinker,” he explained. “Further back, holy s—, it was a freak show.” On his website, he jokes that his father was so drunk on his birthdate that he swapped David’s first and middle name on his birth certificate, which reads: William David Feherty. “I believe my destiny to become an alcoholic was sealed right there,” he says.
But according to the University of Utah’s Genetics Science Learning Center, there isn’t just one single addiction gene; various factors determine the likelihood of addiction. These include inherited and environmental factors, which means addiction does tend to run in families, as is the case with the Fehertys. The positive news associated with this research is that scientists are actively seeking to develop improved treatments, including personalized medicine. Future genetic tests could be used to determine the effectiveness of various medications, with consideration to genetic profiles. Drug rehab centers are already offering various treatment programs to help men and women suffering from substance use disorders, including those that involve generational cycles of addiction. Many facilities, like The Recovery Village, also provide treatment for the same co-occurring mental health disorders involved in David’s family.
Are you wrestling with substance addiction? Are you also struggling to manage a mental illness? Or, perhaps you’re the parent or other loved one of someone who’s struggling. Whichever applies to you, don’t wait another moment to seek help. After losing the man they describe as their “beautiful and charismatic son and brother,” the Feherty family echoes this plea. “The worry we felt watching Shey’s struggle with his addiction has now been replaced by a feeling of loss so deep, knowing we will never see his smiling face or beautiful eyes again. But through our heartbreak we share Shey’s story in the hope that it will touch another person who may battle with addiction either for themselves or for a loved one.”