Health: Beating the booze with a dry sense of humour

Nick Charles was the sort of drunk who slept rough and knocked back meths and hair lacquer. Twenty-one years later he has helped 8,000 people beat alcoholism By Katherine Miller
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The Independent Culture
NICK CHARLES can still remember a time he was so drunk that he jumped from the window of a rural police station into a vat of sour milk from a neighbouring dairy farm. Recovered alcoholics invariably have great stories, but, as Charles reminds patients at his West London clinic: "Any story about drunkenness is only funny if you're not going to do it again."

He has been sober for the last 21 years, and has devoted the last nine to helping other alcoholics at the Chaucer Clinic in the grounds of Ealing Hospital. Since founding the clinic nine years ago he's helped some 8,000 alcoholics "unlearn" their habits, claiming an 87 per cent success rate. Last September, he received the MBE for his services to alcoholics.

Charles, a straight-talking Midlander, is modest about his achievements, personal and otherwise. He stresses that he is not in recovery, but rather "just a guy who doesn't drink any more. I couldn't even tell you if my wife has a bottle of wine in the fridge." No mean achievement for someone who spent years sleeping rough, knocking back meths and hair lacquer. After being hospitalised 23 times, he finally quit drinking when he discovered that his mother had been killed by a passing car. The funeral had already taken place and Charles will never know whether her death was suicide, or was caused by a moment of absentmindedness. Either way, his father said she was "distressed" by her son's alcoholism.

Ironically, it was his father who offered the teenage Charles his first drink. "Suddenly, I was better-looking, more confident, a better driver, everything I wanted to be." If only. He is, he admits, one of "the unfortunate few for whom drink opens the door to an inner world where real life does not exist". Social drinkers cannot appreciate what that means. Charles says: "Doctors, social workers and journalists may try to be sympathetic. But they can never grasp the extent of conceit, delusion and dishonesty in the mind of the alcoholic."

Charles married for the first time at the age of 21 and divorced six years later, "by which time I was unemployable". His second marriage, which he recalls only dimly "through the bottom of a glass", lasted nine months. He now lives in Surrey with Kelly, his third wife and soul-mate for the past 21 years. His grandfather, a senior policeman, died of drink, and Kelly's mother was an alcoholic. Convinced that 90 per cent of alcoholics have a genetic intolerance to alcohol, the couple decided long ago not to have children.

Instead, Charles has his patients and his staff, usually former alcoholics. The Chaucer treats 36 patients at a time, whose weekly fees of pounds 268 are paid for by the DSS, the local authority and from each resident's income support allowance. Along with the celebrity names, residents have included footballers, army officers and a headmistress.

Alcoholics Anonymous, "the only alternative to my clinic", didn't work for Charles, and he is critical of the programme because it allows people to prolong their "recovery", in some cases for a lifetime, and thus swap one dependency for another.

Alcoholics stay at the Chaucer clinic for at least 13 weeks, but no more than eight months. The programme begins with detoxification, when a patient is supervised by a doctor and, if necessary, prescribed Librium to counter withdrawal symptoms, which can include profuse sweating, anxiety attacks and fits.

After detoxification, patients are given work therapy. They may repair furniture, paint walls, cook, clean, or work in the office. "Alcohol has been their dearest friend for years and when you take it away from them you leave an enormous void, so a day lasts for ever," says Charles. "Some of them have not worked for years." During their free time, clients are encouraged to pursue childhood hobbies, take up new ones, or share their expertise with others.

The third phase of treatment involves group discussions and individual therapy, designed to help patients confront the trauma that triggered their alcoholism. The stories can be harrowing, although Charles says there is the odd miracle amid the tragedy. One man was there for seven months before he could admit he had accidentally run over and killed his own child. He turned to drink for consolation, and was thrown out by his wife. Yet therapy finally helped the young father to achieve sobriety, and he returned home to resolve his marriage.

For referrals to the Chaucer Clinic contact Nikki de Villiers (0181- 571 4616).

Nick Charles's autobiography, `Through A Glass Brightly', is published by Robson books, price pounds 16.95