I had a pretty standard childhood growing up in Liverpool. There was nothing traumatic going on but I look back now and realise I always felt there was something wrong. Mostly I remember suffering from loads of anxiety. It presented itself in different ways – hair pulling, scratching of arms and so on. I could never put my finger on it but it was almost as though I was having to put on a show, wear a mask.
Most people didn’t know how I was feeling because I didn’t even know myself. I was either very happy or expressing loads of tears, nothing in between. In fairness, going through high school I was a good student and not really troublesome; cheeky, but I followed the rules. But the disquiet inside me grew and worsened over time.
Drinking made me feel great. It took away the anxiety
It wasn’t until sixth form that I took my first drink. Like many girls my age, I went from living a life full of rules at school to one which was relatively free and easy. It was almost expected of me to go out and drink and have a good time. Of course, I didn’t realise then that as soon as I started drinking my life would become more and more unmanageable. I scraped through my A-levels, enough to get me to university, and continued on there with my party lifestyle.
Drinking made me feel great. It took away the anxiety and I saw no reason to curtail something that brought me so much pleasure. Somehow I still managed to get through life, pulling things out of the bag at the last minute. But the nights out and the partying always came first.
My life couldn’t go on like this forever and it was in my early 20s that I started to experience more and more mental health problems. I also suffered from Crohn’s disease and this, together with my inability to communicate my feelings, and experiencing near-constant chronic anxiety, was starting to seriously infringe on my ability to lead a normal life.
I just didn’t have good coping strategies. I used to look at other people and ask myself how they were able to go through that situation without being a crying mess all the time, when everything I was going through was like a 999 emergency. But I wasn’t in a position where I dared show my vulnerability, or let people know that I was really struggling.
In my infinite wisdom, I tried to reinvent myself by doing something that I always wanted to do: becoming a teacher. For a short time after I’d qualified, I considered this to be the happiest time of my entire life.
I was, however, still experiencing a lot of ill-health. I had a unresolved emotional pain and my bad coping skills were continuing to make life very difficult. My low mood and anxiety soon started to get worse. Eventually, I couldn’t bottle things up anymore and I sought help from my GP. Tragically, none of this made any difference. Resources for addiction within the NHS remain limited and most of what I had to say fell on deaf ears. So I just started drinking more and more heavily.
Drink came first, above everything else. My relationships with other people were in ruins.
You have to understand that although alcohol is harmful, it is still a sort of coping strategy and it was all I knew. It was my medicine and my crutch. The problem with drinking, though, is that it’s progressive; it will always get you in the end, and it got me. Where once I could use the booze to give me confidence and peace of mind, it soon started to make my life worse. Drink came first, above everything else. My relationships with other people were in ruins.
But I didn’t want to see that I had a problem. My perception of who and what an alcoholic was at that time was archaic, not anything I related to at all. I didn’t think that I – a person with a career – could possibly be an alcoholic. I tried to control it but failed dismally. My drinking increased and my mental health deteriorated. I soon lost everything I held dear and was forced to walk away from a job I loved. I had to accept I had a real problem.
Once more, I tried to access addiction and mental health support but had little success. I ended up being bounced between different services and mostly being told that I didn’t have a problem. All the while, I was getting more frightened and alone. In the end, my family took control as I was becoming a danger to myself and others. They decided to keep me in the house for long periods of time. By this time the Melissa that everyone knew was gone. I couldn’t communicate, I couldn’t look people in the eye. I needed chemical interventions to survive.
A turning point came when I visited The Brink – a recovery community café for people in addiction. This was my first experience of witnessing people who were properly in recovery. I responded well but still didn’t have the emotional resilience or the tools I needed to handle life.
The Brink told me about Clouds House, a rehab centre, and I was fortunate to get a place there.
My last drink was in August 2017. It was a horrendous experience. My mum had to administer it to me like a medicine, to avoid putting me at risk of having a fit. On that day, everything changed. For the first time, I could see what I was and what I was suffering from. More importantly, I could see clearly the pain I was causing my mum and other family members.
The Brink told me about Clouds House, a rehab centre, and I was fortunate to get a place there. It fundamentally changed my life forever, from the minute I stepped inside. I still use the tools they taught me on how to deal with my addiction and how to ‘do’ life.
Learning from other people and listening to how they got through life’s difficulties was important. I used to keep things to myself, but I realised this was partly what got me into my mess with drinking. In order to stay healthy, I had to do the exact opposite of what I had always done and learn how to share and connect with others. I learnt that feelings weren’t facts. That sometimes, picking up the phone and asking someone else about their problems is often a good way of getting out of your own head. You have to find out what works for you.
I was sick of the stigma surrounding alcoholism
At Clouds House, I was introduced to The Amy Winehouse Foundation and moved into Amy’s Place in London, a self-contained living arrangement for young women aged 18-30 with addiction problems. This provided me with a bridge towards independent living, with additional support if I needed it. Whilst there, I took part in some activities raising awareness of addiction, which ignited something within me. I was sick of the stigma surrounding alcoholism and the stereotypes that most people had around the disease.
At the time, it felt as though everyone was talking about mental health but addiction was still very much a taboo. But I knew this was something that needed talking about.
My chance to do this came when a key worker at Amy’s Place mentioned a podcast competition at the BBC that was being held in memory of Rachael Bland, who presented a series called You, Me and the Big C before she passed away. The winners of the competition would be given the opportunity to create a new podcast which would shine a light on an unseen and unheard of community where the narrative needed changing.
The thing about recovery is that it can help you revisit the things you have lost. It can help you tap into your creative side and explore who you are. And it can give you an opportunity to be whatever you want to be. I was already writing and thought: “What have I got to lose?
Having no experience of podcasts, I asked my friend Jade to help. We had been mates for some time, having met at Clouds House and very much shared our recovery journeys. It was a partnership that felt safe and which I knew would work. Neither of us expected anything to come of it, but we won.
We were left absolutely terrified. What had we got ourselves into? What would people say about us? We had absolutely no experience of podcasts and worried we could be putting ourselves out there to be completely ripped apart by others far more competent than ourselves. But we knew that either we could stay frightened, and miss out on an amazing opportunity, or we could remind ourselves why we were doing it in the first place. We reasoned that if this project could help just one person who was terrified, alone and battling their way through addiction, it would be worth it.
We knew our podcast was an opportunity to change this: to put lived experience at the centre.
The podcast is very much mine and Jade’s baby. It’s called Hooked: The Unexpected Addicts. We choose all the guests and every part of it is our making. When I was at my lowest ebb, locked in my house, I spent ages trawling my way through the internet trying to find help for my problems. Just about everything out there was written by professionals or academics or was just tittle tattle from the media. There was hardly any information from real people who had ended up in addiction. We knew our podcast was an opportunity to change this: to put lived experience at the centre.
We never expected it to do well, but it has! Not just in listening numbers but also awards – we won the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for the Radio Programme of the Year. And I have written a book based on the podcast.
This critical success of the podcast has been an absolutely bizarre experience for us. It’s lovely, but I think of it as an added bonus. The real success for me is the impact it has had on people. We get lots of messages from listeners, some of whom say they feel less alone after listening or are now able to reach out for support. That’s our real achievement: knowing we have helped others stuck in a place we once were.
We realise that our success is not because Jade and I are any more special than anyone else, or because our recovery is so great – far from it. I think it’s just because our work has a certain honesty. Being visible in recovery is not for everyone, but for some reason I seem happy to bare my soul and speak out about my experiences. It’s not about trying to preach at people or tell them what they need to do with their lives: we don’t claim to have that expertise. We are just an alcoholic and an addict who had a bad time and who now want to share their experiences, and I think people respond well to that.
It has been an honour to be involved, particularly because the times are changing and people are happier to talk openly about addiction. But it’s important that we continue to talk about it because addiction isn’t going anywhere!
Recovery is about so much more than stopping drinking. It’s about finding out who you are, learning how to be there for other people and showing up for stuff. To be a good sister, a good daughter. Don’t get me wrong; some days it’s still tough. I still need to access the tools I learnt back at Cloud’s House, just to get through the day. But the support networks I now have ensure that I never have to go through those dark days ever again. I know that the things I have in my life today are all because of my recovery. It’s allowed me to be the version of myself that I never thought possible. A version I always wanted to be.
If I was to talk to someone who has addiction issues, the first thing I would say is to be kind to yourself, and to those around you, and that it’s going to be OK. I know from experience what it is to feel like the worst person in the whole world. But trust that recovery will work for you – if it works for me, it will work for anyone. Don’t be alone with it – connect, don’t isolate. Ask for help.