Back in June I was admitted to hospital for an alcohol detox. I knew what was coming but had never dried out in this kind of environment before. In the past, it had always been a trip to the doctor's, a script for Librium and then back to wherever I was living to get under the duvet and sweat, shake and whimper as the hell began. Whenever a drinker dries out, all that they've been running from ricochets back with unimaginable ferocity whilst they're at their most vulnerable. With the bottles drained, all that's left is remorse, tears and self-loathing.
But this time it was a hospital bed. Anecdotes amongst my peers had semi-prepared me for this experience in a local psychiatric ward but until you're there, you never really know what's going to happen. But as I waited to be seen by staff, a water dispenser went flying. A schizophrenic patient in his mid-60s, who, judging by appearances, would have needed help lifting his flannel, was kicking off, trying to exorcise inner emotions I couldn't begin to imagine.
Sure, an unnerving introduction, but it was half nine in the morning so I was already a few pints under and consequently it didn't bother me too much. A few pints but not enough to ward off the shakes. A member of staff took me to a side room to be formally admitted, checked my bag for any rogue bottles, took my razors for safe keeping and gave me my first 40mg of diazepam. It had begun. Seven days under medical supervision as my liver seized the chance to flood the bedding with all the toxins that had built up.
Despite that initial scene involving the water cooler, things weren't so bad in there. A week later I packed my bag and headed off into the morning sunshine. But by 8pm that same day I was ploughing my way through nine litres of cider. I felt pathetic and alone. I'd wasted my time, my social worker's time and I'd wasted all that taxpayers' money. But it wasn't that surprising, was it? How can long-term alcohol abuse possibly be turned round with a stomach full of Valium and a week's respite?
How had my life got to this? Innocuous though it might seem, it was a few slugs from a cider bottle aged 14. Once it was in my bloodstream I knew something was amiss. It kicked in with a persuasion and dominance that felt very wrong. Even to someone as naïve as I then was, I knew deep inside a switch had just been flicked. It was anything but a laugh on a park bench with some mates. This was a liquid that answered to the prayers of the shy and socially awkward. Salvation had been found and it tasted of fermented apples.
Any addiction is a progressive illness, its ever-tightening grip insidious. Merely school holidays at first, by sixth form there were weekdays where the night before proved too much for Latin the morning after. I walked away from my studies.
Dropping out of A-levels, I didn't know what a devastating effect this would have. I'd cashed in a possible university place and steady career, and for what? The bottle. The drinking was gaining momentum, becoming the keystone to my waking hours, and in the process it was losing me friends, girlfriends and what little pride had been there in the first place. As this doesn't happen overnight, it's not easy to recognise you're on a downward spiral. But the years passed and I sat around drunk, unable to hold down menial work because the booze was a full-time job in itself. I was waking up each day with such a blistering hangover, both physically and emotionally, that an eye-opener would take away the shame and the shakes so that I could start again. I drank to celebrate the good times, numb the sadness, socialise or ease the loneliness. A simple set of rules that allowed for round-the-clock intoxication.
By 25 and a physical wreck living alone in a bedsit, I was referred to social services. Having waited weeks for my initial appointment, I was then assessed and put on their books. Then began the process of somehow trying to make sense of the mess I was in, and with my key worker, a plan was drawn up, a plan that couldn't possibly have been achieved overnight, over weeks or months; at least not for the truly desperate and out-of-work living alone. Be that as it may, the second there was the merest semblance of health and hope, the professionals moved on, regardless of the fact that hardly any progress had been made.
Several rude awakenings in police cells followed for being drunk and incapable, but these weren't enough to stop me. Worse was just round the corner. Unable to afford the rent for my bedsit because I'd pissed all my money up the wall, I ended up selling The Big Issue and shelter for the night became either someone's floor or a squat. I never knew true loneliness until daily life was watching others from the pavement. A loneliness exacerbated because friendships were only ever about who had money for drink or drugs; my money gone or stolen and they were gone. I knew somehow I was in society because I could see it all around me but dreams of being part of this now seemed fanciful and all the time was that gnawing away of all hope. I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. Mercifully this period was short, but long enough to see other drinkers and users turn yellow and die alone on rancid mattresses, a mess of swollen livers and collapsed veins.
Social services continued in the background. Letters from a GP, me starting anew at the back of the queue, hoping that each time would be the last time but it was always the same, being let go before there was remote improvement. I refuse to blame the social workers. They remain equally helpless in a flawed system that is haemorrhaging scant funding. It's depressing for all involved. Their hands are tied by budget constraints, yours by an addiction never remotely tackled.
Last July the NHS Confederation said alcohol misuse was a significant and growing problem in England, estimated to cost the NHS £2.7bn a year. In a report it was stated that there is often a lack of performance monitoring, or studies to ascertain whether local social services represent value for money. It was also suggested that those dependent on alcohol often need immediate, long-term and practical support.
Certainly I received the immediate support – that week in hospital – but to be placed back in the same environment that had had me drinking wildly again in the first place with zero aftercare was rather optimistic. In retrospect, it was a futile gesture that achieved nothing.
Recently I spoke to Richard Webb, the joint lead for mental health and substance misuse for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. I stated that lives and money were being wasted as things currently stood. For the most part he concurred, feeling that social services should be working to a common set of standards and that my years of experience highlighted this. He added that although progress has been made there is still much more for public services to do to improve support for everyone who needs it.
He said that social services need to learn more from people who have been using them and listen to their view of what works and what does not. He felt they could improve their planning, prioritising effective treatment for those who have alcohol or drug issues in their lives, adding that it's not only about a treatment or a rehab programme, it's also about helping someone to put their life back on track. Perhaps most tellingly, he didn't think this would cost much money.
It's immaterial whether you think I'm passing the buck by blaming inadequate services. Late summer, I stared into the pan for the last time, bile dribbling from my mouth, the morning gags making my torso heave. And in an instant, I knew I'd had enough of all the bullshit, all the referrals, appointments and disappointments. Enough of all the loneliness, blackouts, paranoia, faux pas and perpetual health concerns surrounding my vital organs. I at last wanted more from life.
In retrospect, I expected my rock bottom to be a bit more exciting: flashing blue lights, a helicopter hovering above and swat teams at the ready, a megaphone in the middle distance demanding I come out with my hands above my head. But no. As it was, it was just me in a flat, exhausted, all fight gone. I just crawled back to bed and let those emotional ricochets that I spoke of earlier fly at me again. But somehow their potency had gone. The very fact that I'd lost the will to fight meant the battle was finally over. A few days' retching and hallucinations were nothing compared to the torture I'd put myself through all these years.
It's been a hellish journey. I've been close to death so many times that I'm now just determined to think about what's to come and be thankful I got out alive. And knowing I can now see my three-year-old daughter again despite drink playing such a pivotal role in the break-up between me and her mother, to have been invited round to watch her open presents not just this Christmas but for many more to come makes it all bearable. I couldn't begin to explain how much I've missed her over the past couple of years, chance glimpses of her in the supermarket as I bought drink making me sick with loss. I refuse to ever go missing from her life again because I've grown up at last and in so doing, I'll watch her grow up, her future negating my past.
But I can't lose the feeling that none of this need ever have happened. We need a new approach to alcoholism treatment. The social services need to spend their money wisely, saving a fortune in the process because what currently exists is a patch-and-mend approach. Thorough treatment for those abusing alcohol will surely alleviate the financial burden that this abuse costs the NHS. Ironically in my case, being let down by the current structure so many times is what seems to have saved me. I can't possibly guarantee eternal sobriety, but deciding finally that I can no longer rely on outside help as things stand, I'm experiencing an inner resolve hitherto unknown.
* The writer's name has been changed at his request.Reuse content