My recovery has not been all about skipping through daisies. After I started to emerge from the Twilight Zone I did not ascend into a rosy cloud. The problem with having taken to alcohol to knock myself into oblivion in order to escape from the pain, the stuff I was escaping from came up from it hiding place in its cave like a several headed monster. Like the Hydra in Greek mythology, if I cut off one head, it grew two more.
I had been in such a bad state when I arrived in AA. I was still homeless. I was housed in a very dangerous B&B full of the tortured who were preyed on by the merciless. As well as getting myself to AA, I had also gone to get professional help from the NHS. They packed me off to a private hospital where the NHS had a contract. They sent a taxi to pick up what remained of my belongings which could fit into a bin bag. They told me I would never have to go back there again. This was one of the first real turning points.
Suddenly I was in a comfortable environment with a first class restaurant and a conservatory in which we could take our coffee with our evening Diazepam.
I had to be admitted to hospital as it was not safe for me to stop drinking in one go after the extended battering I had given my liver. I had a catastrophic liver function test. I was shaky and paranoid. I was also traumatised not just by the original trauma but by the effects of being in a health and care system pitted with cracks. I was testimony to what can happen we fall through the cracks. I had stab wounds on the outside, and even deeper emotional wounds which remain there today, albeit less raw and open than they were. I was being detoxed safely in the hands of professionals. Alcohol withdrawal is extremely dangerous. For this reason, I take an exception with the amateur doctors in AA who exhort vulnerable people to “get to bed tonight without a drink”. If one is dealing with a chronic drinker of my type this could be signing their death warrant. Luckily I had enough insight still in there to seek professional help.
It felt like a dream. I had gone from homelessness, to being housed in hostels and temporary accommodation, to having delicious meals in a first class hotel cum psychiatric hospital. We were one small group of NHS patients in a hospital-full of actresses, Saudi princes and business tycoons. We were all in the addictions unit. In that respect we were all the same. It is a great leveler.
I had my first experience of a group therapy. I was amazed to find that our therapists declared themselves to be alcoholics and addicts. Though I had done a few AA meetings, I was still genuinely shocked to find it was possible to be healthy and lead a productive life after chronic alcohol and drugs misuse.
I don’t remember much about that first admission as I was smashed to pieces. I needed a lot of sleep. I needed to relearn complicated things like sleeping at night, getting up in the morning, and having a shower.
I don’t remember much about my fellow NHS alkies. I was pursued by an amorous American antique dealer from Kensington. I was quite up for that which is now I know, classic cross addiction. He was discharged before me but came to visit me reeking of alcohol. I knew enough after a week of intensive group work to know pursuing this was NOT a good idea. Beyond that I don’t really remember them. There was an ex SAS soldier who was now a Buddhist. He could kill someone with one hand but do so mindfully. I could see that in him. There were a couple of junior gangster types who were caught getting drugs into the hospital and swiftly discharged. There was a lovely cartoonist and a really manic, angry guy who had been in prison in the US.
I was told that I was now well enough to be moved onto the next stage with those latter two. I was going to be sent to rehab for three months in Kennington. I imagined an extension of the hospital, perhaps with a swimming pool, and rock stars sitting chanting on bean bags.
I was wrong….
I arrived in St Lukes in Kennington, situated in the former mortuary of a convent, still pretty mashed up mentally. I was terrified. My fear as was a frequent occurrence, manifested itself in my retreat into where I felt safest – my intellect and my belief that I was still occupying my old life of privilege (and I admit, superiority). This is AA is referred to as being in the gutter looking down on others in the gutter.
I arrived at lunchtime. All I remember is before I had even got my coat off, I was protesting at the state of the cutlery. “I will NOT be eating my dessert with a spoon. I know it’s apple crumble but I need a Dessert Fork”. The staff exchanged slightly amused but knowing glances that said “here we go again”. I did not in fact use a spoon for dessert throughout the entire 13 weeks I was in there. Not of course that I am stubborn.
The reality was that the hostel I had come from was NOT the Ritz, it was a doss house full of professional criminals and amateur ones like myself. My only food was the “breakfast” delivered every week in bulk by Social Services. I spent every other penny on alcohol. As for cutlery, I was subsisting on handfuls of social service cornflakes washed down with cheap vodka. This was NOT a world that prided itself on having the correct cutlery. However I needed to believe I was different. I could only cope with this scenario where all my belongings were in a black bag and I had four items of clothing from a charity shop to my name, if I believed I was someone else entirely.
There was a tough and pretty unforgiving regime there. We had a packed programme of individual counselling and group therapy. My key worker was a very wise lady from I think Sierra Leone. She cottoned onto the idea of using art to help me express myself. I drew a distorted redhead with SOS scrawled across her chest and clutching a bottle of vodka. This was my first self-portrait.
I made some friends there tentatively. I had the Cartoonist from the hospital. I got on very well with a retired teacher from Chelsea who had only recently come out as gay and had gone to pieces when his mother died. There was a posh bloke who insisted on reading the Telegraph. There were a few gangsters. There were only a few women and we had our own separate living area. One had severe OCD. One was a once beautiful young sex worker of 23 who did not have a healthy vein left in her body and deep pits in her groin from injecting heroin.
I started to feel safe with the routine. I did not find not drinking difficult as I felt secure. We were required to go to at least three AA meetings a week. A man with a walking stick who had been a client in that rehab, used to come and walk us across the river to AA in Belgravia where we would all sit on the ledge at the back. I still go there. I remember thinking how huge and intimidating that room was at that time. It wasn’t. It is quite a small room and these days full of people I have known for years.
We went to rough and ready meetings locally too. There was a meeting on a Friday in the Lambeth Mission where people were selling knocked off cigarettes. You could smoke in half of the room in those days. I sat in the “non smoking” area which made no difference as it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face because of the cloud of thick smoke. However, people were endlessly kind. They knew we were in treatment but they treated us as equals. To this day I somewhat prefer meetings full of people who have very little but would give you what you needed in a flash, than the socialite meetings in Chelsea from which I believe entire BBC series were cast due to the proliferation of actors and producers in the room. We flock to where we feel our tribe is. Mine at that time were the Throwaway People, the low rock bottom drunks for whom drinking was a great deal more raw than having one Mojito too many at a Versace show. The socialites had been to Hell and back too in many cases but their version of Hell was not one with which I could identify.
The regime at the rehab was strict and unforgiving. Anyone failing a breathalyser or drug test was out the door straight away. It was upsetting when this happened. It always had an effect on the rest of us and it was no surprise that they often brought others out with them.
The highlight of our week was the arrival of a van of food from Marks and Spencer. It was stuff at or just beyond sell by date. We would descend on the spoils and gorge ourselves senseless on slabs of cheesecake.
I adopted the house cat Susan. She would wait for me to get up. I was always up earlier than anyone else in order to have time on my own. She would accompany me to the bathroom, wait for me outside, then take me back to the lounge where she would sit on me while I had my coffee. I was told she had just walked in one day and settled into a routine whereby she would choose a Mum in the Women’s end and a Dad in the Men’s end and stay with them until they were discharged at which point she would choose someone else. Her Dad was a psychiatric nurse by profession for whom addiction was the consequence of a toxic working environment. I will mention him again later in this blog.
Some of the “therapy” was brutal. We had to be reviewed by our “peers”. Other inmates sat in a circle and told us in no uncertain terms what they didn’t like about us. We had to sit in silence and have our fragile egos further ripped to shreds. Every Friday there was something of a kangeroo court whereby we were encouraged to denounce other inmates if we had witnessed anything that broke or was not in the spirit of the rules. It was utterly nerve-wracking. I found myself under the critical gaze of one of the scariest staff at one of these sessions.
“You have something to tell us”
I genuinely could not think what he meant and said so. He continued trying clearly to break me and I continued on in ignorance. I could not think what he was getting at. He told me he required my presence in his office after the session.
With a lot of trepidation, I sat down in front of him and again had the “we know that you know what you’ve done” non-conversation. This was getting repetitive.
Eventually I heard the details of my crime. I had been present in a shop when an inmate bought a can of Redbull. Now I did not know what Redbull was as I had no interest whatsoever in non alcoholic drinks. I had no idea it was banned either as coffee wasn’t. I do remember that the woman who bought it, gave me her paper bag to carry back in my big handbag. Of course I thought I was being helpful but on reflection, how naive.
For this reason I now faced being discharged into oblivion. Only when I named names re others present in the shop, was I declared safe on this occasion but I had better watch my step. I now realise I probably would have handled life under Stalin as long as I made sure not to carry back anyone else’s shopping. My late friend Don’s crime in the same rehab but at a different time, was that he was seen to divert briefly on a walk back from AA into a bookshop to buy a Scrabble Dictionary. It was with such criminals that I was now making friendships.
I don’t see any of those guys at AA meetings. Most relapsed while in there and had to leave. What I know of those who made it through the regime, is that the retired teacher from Chelsea relapsed and was found dead in his house. The NHS psychiatric nurse, I found out, threw the “medal” we got on completing treatment threw his coin on a skip on the way out, went home and took his own life.
This is a brutal and corrosive condition. It is no respecter of class, educational level, class, age, sex. It is a solvent. It dissolves everything – our bodies, our minds, our identities, our self worth, our dignity and our families. Oh yes, we damage all those around us. My Mum came down to visit me in the rehab. She was so glad I was now in a safe place but she found it really hard to accept that I was in a place like that with people like that. She bought me clothes and took me to have my hair cut. She must have felt so powerless that this was all she could really do.
While I was in there I missed my Granny’s funeral. She had a stroke while I was in there and passed away a few days later. I also missed my sister’s wedding. There are things for which it is hard even now to forgive myself. There are beautiful wedding photos and I am absent.
However, at least I was safe and I was learning a lot about myself. I was managing to look after myself, and managed to distinguish day from night which for a long time had eluded me. I would wake up from an alcoholic stupor and genuinely not know if it was dark outside because it was morning or night.
I could at least tell the difference between dark and light now. I left after 13 and a half weeks to my new home in the social service hostel. I have written about this place previously. It was a dangerous, badly-run place.
From there, I got transferred to a Turning Point residential project which had just opened in Earls Court. I remember arriving there and a lovely Tanzanian who could speak Russian greeted me. She said “welcome to your new home”. I had genuinely lost touch with what this meant. The Turning Point motto is Inspired by Possibility. I had no longer any faith that I had any possibilities but having a stable home at last helped me believe that I did indeed have choices.
She took me to my little bedsit in the rafters at the Penywern Project. It was a beautiful space. It was beautifully decorated and I had been furnished with all the essentials in my little kitchen area including a kettle and a toaster. I actually had my own cutlery. I had a bed with a nice duvet. I remember very well that first night. I sat glued to the armchair as I was in total disbelief that this was now my home. I was too scared to sit on the bed as I felt sure someone in authority would immediately appear and shout at me. Downstairs we had a cafe. It was all architect-designed with real thought for dignity and creating an environment in which we could reconnect with our own humanity.
There was an official opening and the local MP Michael Portillo attended. Mum and Dad came down for it. I have a great photo of my Mum taking Portillo to task over something that had made her seethe that he had evidently done.
We were kept inside for a while which I now know is because local were protesting at the mental people bringing down house prices in their street. The woman in the centre of this I later met in AA. She was a former Bunny Girl who had done time in Thailand for drug smuggling, clearly a pillar of society. We have a expression for this in Scotland.
After she got to know me in AA she saw me coming out of our building and asked me what was I doing “in that terrible place”.
“I live in that terrible place”
“But it’s full of…(hesitation while searching for the right expression)… ‘special people’.
“Yes, I am one of those ‘SPECIAL’ people”
There then followed something of a stream of non-conscience roughly on the lines of
“well it wouldn’t be so bad if they were drug addicts, I mean they are mentally ILL, think of the house prices, and did they HAVE to paint it hospital green, I mean could they not have found a place for you South of the River, this is KENSINGTON”.
I walked away.
This was my first overt experience of stigma, and the ignorance and fear around mental illness. It was also an early experience of the sheer snobbery of some who were still in the gutter looking down at others in the gutter.
I became determined there and then to challenge this ignorance wherever I found it. It was an indicator that finally I realised I was no better and no different from any other resident in that hostel. I WAS one of those “special people” and I was proud to be so. It set me on the path that I am still on today where I reclaimed my voice and am not afraid to use it.
I suppose I should thank that former Bunny Girl for reconnecting me with my need to challenge injustice. Actually, I would rather thank Victor Adebowale and Turning Point for helping me reconnect with myself as a valid human being. Being treated as worthy of a safe and pleasant living environment really got me on the right path.
From then on it was to be two steps forward one step back, but at least ultimately I was travelling in the right direction.