Outreach Recovery Support Trainee

LGBT group facilitator

Recovering alcoholic

Darren’s story

I had a relatively happy early childhood. I was raised in Maidstone, in Kent, in a big family: I’m the eldest of five brothers and sisters and also have three half siblings, so it was always a busy household. My dad worked really hard: he ran his own businesses, and worked seven days a week, with maybe two Sundays off a year. Every couple of years, we’d go for a week’s holiday to the Kent coast: my dad had a camping and caravanning shop, so we’d test out his equipment. My friends we would be jetting off to Disney Land and Spain, while we’d be in the Romney Marsh, huddled in a caravan in the depths of winter.

But even then, I knew I was different to my brothers and the other boys at school. I didn’t like the rough and tumble of the school playground, and wasn’t interested in playing football. I didn’t know why, but I was more comfortable hanging around with the girls.

When I started secondary school in 1990, I was beginning to figure out that – maybe – I was gay. It was scary: no-one, especially a child, wants to be the ‘other’. And back then, the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and the government had brought in Section 28, banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, a few years earlier. I’d grown up during a media backlash against gay people, and as a result, I ‘knew’ that being gay was wrong.

I hid my sexuality from my family for years – there was just no way I could tell them. I could barely admit it to myself, let alone close family.

The bullying started when kids in school either picked up on my anxiousness or figured out I was gay. There were a couple of beatings, but most of it was verbal, which can be even worse: snide, insidious comments that really got to me. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that on my first day at secondary school, I went to a Jason Donovan concert at Wembley with my older sister. As I sat down, I noticed that the girls behind me were in my form class at school. It wasn’t exactly the coolest concert to have gone to, and the comments started the following day. They continued for most of my time at school.

As a result, I have few memories of my childhood. A counsellor I saw recently told me about toxic stress syndrome: because I was hyper-alert so much of the time, worrying about being bullied or people finding out that I was gay, I was rarely able to relax and form good memories.

I hid my sexuality from my family for years – there was just no way I could tell them. I could barely admit it to myself, let alone close family. After all, if I was treated that way when I wasn’t even out, how much worse could it be if I came out?

Eventually, I finished school and went to college, which I quite enjoyed. Although I still hadn’t come out, people seemed to know and it wasn’t a problem. And that was where I discovered alcohol. It was an environment where it seemed everyone was always up for having a good time. We were down the pub every lunch break and any other opportunity, and after they’d had a drink, everyone seemed less judgemental. Between 1995 and 1997, I spent most of my time in pubs and night clubs, and at illegal raves. It was a blast.

Not long after I’d begun by new life in Glasgow, my dad became very ill with cancer, and I moved back home to help out. The first job I got was in a pub.

My life took a big turn when I was 19. I’d been working for Barclays Bank for a few years, doing data entry, and had gone full time after I finished college. In 1999, my department was outsourced to a company in Glasgow, so I travelled there to train the new team before being made redundant. My redundancy pay was around £10,000: an unheard-off amount for a 19 year-old back then. While I was in Glasgow, the new company offered me a job. It was a great opportunity to make a new start and be open about my sexuality. With money in my pocket and new job in a big city, I was feeling hopeful.

But not long after I’d begun by new life in Glasgow, my dad became very ill with cancer, and I moved back home to help out. The first job I got was in a pub. It meant I was around alcohol all the time, and with my dad in a very bad way, and none of my family knowing about my sexuality, I had found my place: somewhere I could drink all day, leading a superficially fun lifestyle, to forget the pressure at home. Pubs, hotels and bars remained my place for the next 20 years.

Alcohol soon took over every part of my life. I just wanted to drink all the time, and it I wasn’t at work I was in a pub or down the nightclub. I began losing friends, and I wasn’t there for my parents; I wasn’t able to take my dad to hospital appointments because I was either drunk, or too hungover to drive. But even though I could see what was happening, I knew I wasn’t ready to give up that lifestyle.

Things went downhill in 2006, after my dad passed away. On his deathbed, he asked me to look after my mum, so I took out a mortgage with her. But at the age of 30, I didn’t really want to be tied down, living with my mum. So, in the midst of my drinking and, looking back, in the depths of depression, I jetted off to Kavos. It was utterly ridiculous: a 30 year-old working in Kavos for the summer, like I was 17 again.

I drank all summer, and when I came home, my mum had moved to another town, so I had to move as well. I found another bar job in a different town, and carried on drinking. I began moving from job to job – I’d start feeling uncomfortable, thinking that if I moved I could start again, maybe try drinking at weekends only. Of course, I was fooling myself: anyone in addiction knows that managing your intake of alcohol or drugs is impossible.

I was hugging the toilet bowl at 6.30 every morning, throwing up bile between sips from half a bottle of vodka.

But I knew I needed to change: my health was suffering, I’d made a few suicide attempts that landed me in hospital, and I’d gone on the missing list for weeks at a time. My mum was put through hell, thinking I was dead. As a self-confessed mummy’s boy, to put my mum through that – I look back in shame.

After ten years of this, I hit rock bottom. I didn’t know where to turn, or how I’d managed to make such a mess of my life. I’d look up old friends on social media and see they had high-flying jobs, while I was hugging the toilet bowl at 6.30 every morning, throwing up bile between sips from half a bottle of vodka. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’d become an angry, bitter, twisted human being that wasn’t really living – just barely existing. I was a broken man, and knew I couldn’t go on. So on my 40th birthday, after I’d just been discharged from hospital following a binge, I walked into The Forward Trust’s Dover hub.

While in hospital, the psychiatric nurse had told me I needed to get help because I wasn’t going to be able to take much more. When she said that, my first thought was that I was never going to be able to live without alcohol: I was living and working at a pub; how could I do that without drinking? And alcohol was the one thing that had been by my side for 20-odd years. But on the other hand, there was absolutely no way I could go on, because my body, mind and family wouldn’t cope.

It’s a scary thing, asking for help. I was 40 years old and thought I shouldn’t have to need help with anything. And it wouldn’t just mean giving up the drink: I’d be giving up my home and job as well. But I made my way to Forward, circled the block a couple of times, nipped into the pub for a drink to calm my nerves, then walked into the hub and put my hands up. And that’s where my recovery journey started.

As soon as I arrived, the practitioner I spoke to, Steve, seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. He conducted a formal assessment, but it felt more like a conversation and I got the sense that he really wanted to help me; that it wasn’t just his job and I wasn’t just a number. And I felt that since he was being genuine with me, I could be open and honest with him. It was the first time I had been open with myself, let alone another person. It was scary, but cathartic, with so much relief that I’d finally told someone what was going on, and they were willing to help me.

The recognition in others of my own mental and physical health made me feel less isolated.

Steve suggested I start a weekly alcohol group programme at Forward’s Dover hub, which was where I met others who going through similar things. They talked about losing sensation in their fingertips – I hadn’t felt my fingertips for years – forgetfulness, dizziness, aches and pains; everything resonated with my experience. The recognition in others of my own mental and physical health made me feel less isolated and not so much of a weirdo. I quickly realised that I could learn from these people who were in the same boat as me, so I stuck with the programme and attended every Tuesday morning.

My keyworker Stacey also put me on an alcohol reduction plan which, surprisingly, I stuck to. By then, I’d moved back in with my mum, and before she stated work each morning before work she’d nip to Tesco, buy my big bottles of cider, and over the course of three months reduced my intake to nothing. I did this while still attending the group every Tuesday, and soon started feeling the benefits: I was sleeping better, and feeling less alone.

After this, Stacey recommended I do Forward’s Dover Day Programme, a 13-week full-time programme, with only the weekends off. I was a reluctant at first, as it seemed a huge commitment: nearly four months of the same people, in the same room, every day – and without a drink! Not realising how important the psychosocial side of recovery is, I thought I would give it a week, and then say it wasn’t for me. But when I listened to people’s stories – people from all walks of life – I realised we had so much in common. And as they were being open and honest with me, I decided to do the same. When I read out my life story, I dreaded getting feedback – when you’re insecure and anxious, the last thing you want is people looking you in the eye and telling you what they think. But they were so nice, and I thought, this is my opportunity to do this right. I decided to give recovery 110%, and if I ended up relapsing, at least I’d given it my all.

The Dover Day Programme prepared me for the outside world – without it, remaining sober would have been 100 times more difficult. But it also challenged me to look at myself and my prejudices. In my addiction, I was very argumentative, but it encouraged me to think about things differently. I am so thankful for that, because I’m now in a wonderful job working for Forward and I’ve got a lovely house. None of that would have been possible without Forward’s intervention, help and support.

While I was on the Day Programme, I was living at home with my mum, which wasn’t ideal: in early recovery, you need your own space. So I managed to get into Shepherd House supported housing in Folkestone. It was brilliant: you get your own flat, so you feel independent, but they do daily meetings and groups. After about six months, in August 2019, I moved to The Cedars supported housing in Canterbury, which offers second-stage support including job coaching, volunteering and help finding housing. I volunteered with Catching Lives, a homeless charity, Dignity in Dying, and Forward. I started facilitating Forward Connect groups, which are opportunities for former clients to get together for peer support, which was amazing. These experiences really helped me to start figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

I was starting to get itchy feet: I was ready to get going again, and felt a bit frustrated.

By February 2020, I was ready to live independently, and started looking for a permanent job. But when Covid arrived, there were no jobs to be had. That first lockdown was tough, but thankfully, the staff at the Cedars were great, and told us not to worry about moving on or looking for jobs. I was starting to get itchy feet: I was ready to get going again, and felt a bit frustrated.

However, I was able to continue facilitating some Forward Connect meetings after they moved online, and started volunteering on a phone service checking in on local older people, which I loved. This helped to see me through until lockdown eased, and I began looking for work again. I applied for a job with Forward as an Assertive Outreach trainee, and found out I’d got it two days before Christmas. Getting the job enabled me to move out of supported housing, and start leading a normal life.

I started working for Forward in February 2021, and I love it. My role involves reengaging people who may dropped off their methadone or Buprenorphine scripts. The staff are amazing, and chatting to clients every day and hearing their stories is very fulfilling. During my addiction, I never dreamed that having a nice home and a normal life without drink would be possible – I didn’t think I was worthy of it. Now, I wake up every day with a smile, because I love my job so much: it doesn’t feel like work. I couldn’t be happier.

Life outside work is great too. I’m still in touch with my friends from the Day Programme, one of whom also started working for Forward the same day as me, so we’re in contact daily. I can go and visit friends and family without being preoccupied about where the next drink is coming from. I have a sister who lives in Germany, and I’ve never visited her and my niece and nephew. I’m planning to fly out and see them, so recovery is bringing me closer to my family.

I love my walking: I’m fortunate to live near the white cliffs of Dover, and can go hill walking every weekend without wanting to stop in a pub. I love getting out into nature –it’s one of the things that now bring me pleasure.

I also co-host a LGBT recovery meeting that we started recently. It came about after I did a share at a recovery meeting, where I talked about how I’m still coming to terms with my sexuality, as well as accepting it in others: many of us are brought up to think that being gay is wrong, which can take a long time to unlearn. The group has really taken off: we have members from Canada, New Zealand, and the USA, and a WhatsApp group that is always buzzing. Thanks to these connections from around the world, and I can get support whenever I need it. I have no doubt that after the pandemic, I’ll be visiting my new friends overseas. I have formed more genuine friendships in recovery than I did in 20 years of active addiction.

My family are comfortable with my sexuality as well – it doesn’t come up much. It’s fully open and accepted, it’s just not a big deal. I took my mum for dinner recently, she asked me to get my ‘gaydar’ out! It was the first time she’d said something like that, and we had a good laugh about it.

Nowadays, as long as I’m happy and fulfilled in my job, have somewhere safe to stay at night, and can see friends and family, I’m satisfied. But I have started thinking about fostering kids who have had difficult starts – having something fulfilling in my personal life as well as professional one would be amazing.

My advice to others is ask for help: it’s really hard when you’re in active addiction, but getting guidance as to your next step is so important. And if one thing doesn’t work out for you, keep trying: in my case, I found that AA fellowships weren’t for me, but SMART recovery was. There is so much support out there, so try everything; if it doesn’t work, try something else and maybe come back to it later. And when you find something that works, stick with it: you can live your best life.

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