By Andy Irwin
One hundred days ago, I stopped drinking alcohol. I stopped because, for ten years, my dependence on booze meant that I lost a lot of time. I made bad choices and lost touch with a bunch of people I cared about, and who cared about me. I frequently made a scene or woke up far away from where I was supposed to be. ‘Alcohol-dependent’ is a strong phrase; ‘alcoholic’ is a strong word. ‘Problematic drinking’ is the phrase the pros I’ve spoken to have used to describe my relationship with alcohol based on the descriptions I’ve given about my drinking habits and binging patterns.
Since I was seventeen (I’m twenty-seven now), the longest period I’d previously gone without booze was eleven days in January 2010. Short dry periods had always followed extended periods of excess and a sense that I was spiralling out of control. A couple of years earlier, I made a spectacular mess of myself at college and almost dropped out. A couple of years later, I left my first full-time job because I was drinking so much, so often, that I couldn’t hold myself together. At the same time, I almost walked away from my best mate over an argument I started. If it wasn’t for him being the bigger man, he would have been added to the long list of people I no longer speak to because I chose an all-night session over visiting him for a weekend.
Booze was a mask for more than ten years for me, as it is for many people. The side effects of my mental ill-health are deliberate self-isolation, making plans and cancelling them and being deeply uncomfortable with almost any social situation, including with people I’ve known and loved for years. In my mind, booze gave me gave me a mask of confidence to play Captain Funtime and pretend everything was fine. I’ve since realised that it didn’t give me cover for anything and Captain Funtime wasn’t fooling anyone. One hundred days ago I was hit by the reality that I was on my way into the ground if I didn’t act urgently. I could realistically see the path to losing everything important. I could see a sparsely attended funeral somewhere in my forties where people who’d given up on me years before console my mum and tell her that it’s a shame things have ended up this way.
I have a really strong desire to live a decent life. I want to know more tomorrow than I did yesterday, and I want to leave things in a better way than I found them. I came down to work in London in 2014 doing a job that I love, and since then the battle to take control of myself has been more intense and more critical. So, I stopped drinking. I went through withdrawal, and started making a plan to get better. It turns out that shaking and sweating your way through sleepless nights listening to 90s dance music is easier than getting a decent service referral.
My GP, who is good referred me to a specialist addiction service (although he thought it was a good idea to offer me Valium at the start of my little journey to sobriety – “just in the short-term, you understand”). Things started off well until I had my next two appointments cancelled and not rescheduled. The experience with that service was topped off when I was invited instead to take part in a trial to see if alcohol misuse is linked to the overproduction of something or other in the gut…that was day 55.
I found another group close to where I work with an excellent record and reputation, but I couldn’t use their service because I live in the next borough. Private therapy in London costs anything between £200-£300 per month. A twelve-week programme that I checked out last week (based on the cheapest therapist I found in my area of London) would cost £550 and waiting for NHS-referrals can take months – which is the problem.
We should absolutely be encouraging people to break stigmas and talk about their mental health, and they should be taken seriously every time they do. But we should also be able to guarantee that people can access the support they need quickly and easily, and we should be assured that this support is available and free to acess. A non-judgemental, listening society where people care about how one another are doing is key, but raising awareness of mental ill-health and breaking stigma only takes us so far on the journey to making things better for people.
I’m in a very privileged position, it’s not easy for me to get better but it’s easier for me than it is for some people, and so part of my journey is going to be about advocating to make things better. This is Mental Health Awareness Week, if you are invested in the battle for better mental health treatment, support and care in the UK – we have a general election next month. Tell the people running in your constituency that mental health care is important to you. I’m going to spend my next month doing just that.