Storying Sheffield

I’ve Come Back to Tell You That There’s Light

I’m 66 years old… The first thing about my life I remember is my brother and sister going to school – I’d have been about 4 years old and it was one of the best times of my life. I remember it vividly as if it were yesterday. Just me and my mother – we got on really well… I wasn’t fighting for her affection with my brother and sister, and I could play with all the toys in the house without arguing. It was really good – I really enjoyed it, going on trams and stuff like that…

I was 13 when I started drinking, drinking alcohol straightaway. The next few years, from 13 to 16, that were when my life was very exciting – everything was new, everything was exciting. 17, 18, that was the same. I was still drinking all this time – building up all the time, but it was no problem to me. It wasn’t causing me any problems at all.

I got married at 21, had my son round about 22, 23, and my life sort of changed then. I had to get my sensible head on and get a career, and stuff like that. But… unknown to me at the time I was, like, living… living my life to meet the emotional wants and needs of this fictitious person in my head, do you know what I mean? I… I wasn’t being myself. I was being what I perceived life wanted me to be, or what my father wanted me to be. So I wasn’t happy. Although I was successful in my work I hated my job. I hated most of my jobs that I got. But I was just going out and doing what I thought was my duty – to go out and earn as much as I could.

So I just started drinking more and more… and then I lost everything that I ever… ever valued. My wife left me… took my son away. I didn’t lose my job – I held on to that by the skin of my teeth but my career went backwards. And that kept on, I was just miserable, I drank more – once my wife had left all the restraints were off, and I just drank myself into an alcohol depression.

I carried on. I got to be about 30, 31, and I realised what I was doing was wrong but I was too far in this depression, and then I got to the stage where… I nearly lost my life a few times… I was at a real low ebb, physically and mentally, and I haemorrhaged really badly. I was just bleeding all over the place… and I was took into hospital. But I signed myself out – they did try and talk me out of it for hours and hours but I wasn’t having it. So they said ‘If you go you’re going to die…’ So I just went home to die. It just seemed… it just seemed an end – a merciful release.

So I went home to die, and after three days I wasn’t dead. I thought, well, I better go to see the doctors. So I went to the doctor and she just got me straight in hospital…. I didn’t know anything about alcoholism at all then but I knew what I was doing was wrong, I knew it was killing me, but I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know how to get out of it, I didn’t even know what a detox was.

So I had a detox explained to me, and I went for this detox. I really wanted it – you know what I mean? – I would have done anything to get out of the misery that I was in, I would have absolutely done anything. So they sent me in for this detox, and luckily for me it was a bit quiet on the ward then. I went on to a mental health ward, and they called me a breath of fresh air because I was deadly serious and did everything they ever told me.

That was the best thing I ever did because I got on a mental health ward and I learnt about mental health. Whereas before it was a taboo subject and I would have probably ridiculed those people. But once I got to know and understand them I had empathy for them. I began to realise then what mental health was, it’s an illness, so I saw it in a different light altogether. And I made a lot of friends, but I realised early that I’d got one advantage over them – that I could make myself right, whereas they couldn’t. And all through my career, as I’ve been going on to mental health wards to interview people, and one thing and another, I’ve bumped into them, time and time again. They’ve gone back in, and they’ve had a lifetime of that. So I feel privileged that I was able to get out of that.

The first realisation I had was when I was on the ward, and I knew there and then what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to get myself right and I wanted to do what I was good at, and that was listening to people. I’ve always been good at listening to people. People have come to me with their problems because they know I keep a secret… So, that’s what I wanted to do, and I knew I was going to do it – and two weeks after coming off my detox, I did my first training course. I just threw myself into it after that, for years, just training and training to be an alcohol counsellor, and anything to do with that. I soon realised that alcoholism is just a symptom of many other things.

So I did that, and I went for the more experiential training because I’m not a very academic person. Later on in life I did some more academic training when I went on cognitive behavioural courses. But all the others were experiential, because I thought that was my strong point, and it was also working on myself all the time, so with working on myself I could understand myself – and that’s how I got better because I understood myself and I learnt to like myself. I learned to run towards my pain instead of away from it. And I learnt to do that correctly when I was feeling strong – it’s no good doing it when you’re feeling down. And I went through all this, and all the bad things that had happened to me. I forgave myself – I came to some sort of compromise with myself. I forgave myself for all sorts of things I’d done… because… I’m not an evil person, but sometimes we do things and hurt people without realising what we’re doing, and I’d done a lot of that.

The first time I felt really, really proud of myself is when there was a problem with the family. Before, I’d have been the last person they’d phone because I’d just make a mountain out of a molehill, just to drink on it. Now I’m the first person they phone if something goes wrong. And I feel proud of myself – and that’s something I’d not done for years – years and years and years. So it felt good.

So I’ve just built on that, worked on that, and I had a career – I was an alcohol counsellor, then I worked in a dry house, and within three years I was the manager, and I had a twenty-six year career just in that one dry house. I’m retired now – I was made redundant one week before my sixty-fifth birthday – I suppose that was lucky because I got a few quid.

The last two years I was under a hell of a lot of stress because the dry house was struggling to get funding all the time, so I got a lot of stress from work, and I’d got my mother-in-law living with us because she suffered really badly with dementia, and she was getting worse, and my wife’s sister was dying of cancer – both at the same time. So it was like a crescendo that last two years, it was just problem after problem after problem. It was every day – it was just one problem after another – and they both died within a fortnight of each other. Then I retired about a month after – and I went from having twenty-four hours of just caring for other people and no time for me… I just went from full-on to nothing. I always knew you’d got to plan your retirement – because of my job, you know, I’d worked with lots of people who’d suffered because they’d not done that – but I hadn’t had time to do it. I hadn’t even had time to think about it.

So I was lost. I went from having no time to myself to having loads of time for myself, which made me a bit maudlin – I wasn’t meeting my emotional wants and needs. So I sat down and conducted a plan, and I’ve… I’ve stuck to that. Part of it was volunteer work, and one of the ways I’ve done that is with Drink Wise, Age Well SMART meetings. I trained up to be a SMART facilitator, so I go in and I’m first reserve now – if anybody’s off or anything like that, I step in. I want to get my own meeting, I think, me and somebody else are starting at the end of this month – and I’m working as a befriender to people, where I go and, sort of, pop in and give a bit of motivation, do a little bit of motivational work with them, try and get their enthusiasm up.

So, it’s getting that balance right – it’s just balancing out now. I’ve been retired just over a year, and I’m just about ready to take the ‘L’ plates off. I think I’ve… I think I’ve cracked it. I don’t just go to help people, I go to help myself – I don’t do it for nothing. But I’ve realised money’s not much… yes, you need it – you need it to survive, but it’s not a be-all and end-all. You spend a third of your life at work so it might be best doing something that you love doing and you’re passionate about.

My advice to anyone who’s struggling like I was, is never give up – never give up. No matter how far down you get, how depressed you get, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – and I see that’s what part of my job was. You can’t see light at the end of the tunnel – but I‘ve been there and I’ve come back to tell you that there’s light, and I’ve come back to help you on your journey to get there. And that was my role. And another thing is to keep people motivated. So, if you’ve run out of energy, if you’ve run out of motivation, have some of mine by all means. And that’s what you can do, you can share motivation. That’s what a group does – you spread it out to people. A group is like having an injection – an injection of motivation. You might walk in a bit flat, but when you leave you’re about a foot taller, you know… if that makes sense.

I do feel very strongly about alcohol. I used to drink a lot on anger, so I’m not allowed to get angry – I try not to get angry. But alcohol is something I get very angry about. Alcohol is the biggest killer, after nicotine. It’s far more dangerous than all the other drugs put together, and if alcohol was invented today, it would be a Class A drug – you’d get jail for selling it. I once told a landlord that in a very heated argument, and he… wanted to rearrange my face. I see no difference between somebody selling alcohol and somebody selling crack. There’s no difference for me – it’s just how society perceives it. It’s just that it’s been around for centuries, people have relied on it for all sorts of things. You’re not going to get rid of it. You, you can make it a death sentence but it still doesn’t put people off – they’ve tried it and tried it in various countries all over the world, and it doesn’t work. So it’s about… I see it as about educating people, which luckily is happening more and more….

I get a lot out of Drink Wise, Age Well – you get a sense of belonging for one thing because you’re talking to other people with similar problems. If you’re a drinker nobody understands you except another drinker. So if you’re in a group, you don’t have to write a chapter, you just have to say a sentence and people will understand you. That comes down to meeting your emotional wants and needs because some of that is to understand and be understood, and you get that straight away. You get that sense of belonging – being with a family, a gang, whatever… You get that feeling of belonging, and that’s… that’s good. You can see you’re not alone… and you get that hope… and you get that injection of enthusiasm and it stirs you on to do great things.