I had always described my childhood as “unremarkable”.
It wasn’t until I was required to examine my upbringing and every other aspect of my life with a psychiatrist during a second stay in a mental health unit in my 40s that it became clear it had been far from ordinary.
I’d thought nothing of spending half of every week during my early years with my aunt and uncle in a town seven miles away from my home in Northumberland. Of course, it was a bit of an unusual set-up, but I just accepted it and later in life understood the reasons for it.
My younger brother had been born just 13 months after me, and my older brother was coming up four. My dad was at work, and it was tough for my mum to have a new-born with another crawling and a toddler wanting to be into everything. My aunt and uncle’s two sons were at school, and she was able to look after me and give my mum a break from her domestic demands. I had two homes – two sets of parents, and two sets of brothers, effectively – and was dearly loved in both. I don’t ever remember being told I was loved, but I knew I was. To this day, my mum has never said “I love you”. She has shown more times than I care to remember that she does, but has never uttered those words. A few years ago, I asked why she has never said it, and her reply was simple: “It just wasn’t the done thing, then. Times were different.” I have to accept that.
Times are different, and I tell my three boys every time I see them or speak to them that I love them. I feel it’s important. They mean the world to me. That should really go without saying, but it might also be hard to believe when you look at how I repeatedly put one thing before them – alcohol.
My life had been ruled and ruined by booze for decades. In the early days, I just didn’t realise it. In fact, in the early days it was a solution, rather than a problem. It was a solution to my painful shyness. It gave me a confidence I had never known. I started drinking when I was 15, not long after the sudden death of my dad. I can’t say that his suicide was the catalyst, as my friends were doing the same, but it definitely helped to dull the pain and anger I felt at that time. I was angry with my dad, and I was angry with the people who had put him in such a desperate place where he thought taking his own life was the only option.
He had been missing for several days before he was found in his car with a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. My dad was found on the Thursday, and I was back at school on the Monday. What had happened was never talked about – not by my friends, not by my teachers, and not even within the family.
Despite being a reasonable scholar – always in the higher sets, but never one of the stand-out students – I had been riddled with self-doubt and insecurities, and now I had grief and growing up to cope with as well. I did badly in my O-Levels that summer and was only just accepted at Sixth Form to do A-Levels and re-sit many of the exams I had failed. While I had longed to be a journalist from a young age, home-life wasn’t great as the family struggled to come to terms with my dad’s death, and I just wanted to run away. I’d considered applying to the Royal Air Force or joining the merchant navy. But I chased my dream – possibly more so because my careers teacher said I’d never make it – and I was accepted at journalism college in Darlington and became one of their youngest students.
I’d done work experience at a number of newspapers in Northumberland and on Tyneside while I was still at school, and my portfolio must have impressed the decision-makers at the National Council for the Training of Journalists, who took on just 100 students a year across the country at the time. I went on to have a 30-year career in newspapers, was twice North-East Hard News Journalist of the Year, and held roles such as chief reporter, news editor and deputy editor on various daily publications. Good things were expected of me . . . bad things got in the way.
To the outside world, I had the perfect life. A good job, a wife who idolised me, three beautiful sons and a dream home in the country. But there was something missing. I didn’t know what. I filled that hole in my soul with alcohol. The last 15 years or so have been blighted by it – from weekend binges, to problem drinking to full-blown and life-threatening addiction. I couldn’t live without it, and I had great difficulty living with it. It took over my life, and it very nearly took my life.
On May 22 in 2019, I went into residential rehab at Littledale Hall, a seriously ill and thoroughly broken, penniless divorcee. In many ways, an utter failure, certainly not trusted or respected. I had planned to return to my home in Hartlepool, and the job that was being kept open by my employers, after doing the seven-and-a-half-month programme. Not long into my treatment, it became clear that going back to my old life held with it a real danger of slipping back into my old lifestyle. I gave up a career I loved and my home, and decided to relocate to the Lancaster area for a further six months after leaving Littledale to give me the best chance of staying well once I went back to the North-East to be with my boys. I was looking for somewhere to live while I continued on the road of recovery, and in every way, the Adullam housing programme seemed made for me. Unlike a number people I met in rehab, I had somehow managed to hold down a job and look after a home, so the idea of moving into supported housing scheme with a dozen others did not appeal so much after living with 30-odd during treatment. The Adullam house – a three-bed semi where I’d live with two others in recovery – was ideal. Because of Covid and its implications, I spent nine months there, but did my best not to let the restrictions knock me off course. Before lockdown, I was volunteering at a church cafe and for Citizens Advice as an advisor, and then I began helping each week delivering food parcels to those in need. I took part in several courses and gained a number of certificates in subjects I’d never even considered.
I moved back to the North-East in September last year, and now share my home with my eldest son, Thomas, who is 21. I see my younger boys, Jacob, 13, and Joshua, 11, regularly, and I’m there for them. Before I got well, I was not allowed to have them stay with me overnight or unsupervised, or have them in my car. I could not be trusted to stay sober and be fit to look after them. Today, I drive them to and from their football training and matches, they stay with us, and I could not be happier. The unstinting help and support I received from Kath and Sarah at Adullam was as invaluable as it was incredible, even after returning home. They truly are angels sent from above, guiding, encouraging, understanding and loving. I was part of the weekly Celebrate Recovery group, where I am able to look at my habits, hang-ups and hurts, how they have affected others, and how I could make amends to those I have caused pain.
In my life in addiction, I was a selfish and thoughtless father, son, husband, uncle, friend and colleague. My relationships with people were based on what I could get from them – “what’s in it for me?”. I was dishonest, deceitful and often downright devious. Almost every time I opened my mouth, a lie would tumble out as I tried to cover up one wrongdoing with another. It was a lonely and miserable existence. I’d led a sometimes sinful, shameful and dangerous life. I have put myself in deadly situations, and really should not be here to tell my story. I was a hopeless, helpless, useless alcoholic. Today, I’m not. I’m an alcoholic in recovery who hasn’t had to take a drink, who has hope, can be helpful and can be of use.
I volunteer for a charity which is heavily involved in community projects, and have undergone training to be a mentor for troubled young people with a charity called Safe Families, and an independent visitor for an organisation called Changing Futures, where I hope to guide youngsters away from making the kind of bad choices that blighted my life. There simply aren’t enough words to express my gratitude to the staff at Littledale and Adullam for helping me to turn my life around and put me in a place where I can be the father my boys deserve, and be there for others.
I lost many things during my addiction, my marriage and my home, but losing the respect and trust of others hurt more than anything material.
Today, I am a work in progress, but I am beginning to regain trust, and I am once again becoming the dependable and honest person I was always meant to be. I hope by sharing my story, my thanks can be known and others can know that there is a life beyond their wildest dreams out there. I never believed it was possible. It is.