I was born the youngest of four brothers. Not long afterwards my dad left us and started a new life in a different part of town. My mum was left to raise four sons on a council estate in the west London suburbs. She loved us and worked hard but our home was complete chaos. My brothers were delinquent teenagers while I was the snot-nosed baby, still at primary school. By the time I was ten I had seen a lot of drinking, drug use, casual violence and huge amounts of conflict. It was unsettling at times. But it also seemed sort of fun and wild. I think I developed a sense at an early age that the pub was where all the action was.
I think I developed a sense at an early age that the pub was where all the action was.
My mum started dating Archie, a local milkman and self-styled neighborhood hardman. He was from Edinburgh and claimed to have played professionally for Hibernian. He moved in with us for a couple of years and was always nothing but pleasant to me. To a nine year old, he was tons of fun. He used to take me out on his milk round and pay me 50p for helping out. But he was an alcoholic who did crazy things at night. Once he found my eldest brother drinking with his mates in the local pub and attacked them, biting a chunk out of someone’s leg. He was often to be found in our toilet at night, unconscious with his head in the toilet bowl and vomit splattered on his face. I found it upsetting and scary. In the end, he had a big row with one of my brothers over some stolen raspberry ripple ice-cream. My brother pulled a carving knife on him, Archie punched him in the face and, shortly afterwards, he moved to Jersey. We never saw him again. My mum recently told me she’d had to pay his air fare just to get him to piss off.
My mum struggled financially. She worked as a secretary at a local builder’s firm. We got Family Allowance to support her income but she still had to resort to a loan shark to pay for my school uniform when I started at secondary school. The unscrupulous lender was a grey haired man in a cheap suit who would come round every Friday night to collect his dough. He would always outstay his welcome and flirt with my mum on the sofa while I was trying to watch Play Your Cards Right.
My brothers would bring strange, mad people in and out of the home. They would smoke spliffs, drink cans of Tenants Super, watch films that were unsuitable and disturbing to my child eyes. Sometimes they would take acid or have it off with their girlfriends while they were babysitting me. My mum would go out to a disco called Le Chat Noire at night with her crazy friend Peggy. I guess they were trying to meets ‘fellas’ as my mum referred to them.
Meanwhile, my dad had built a successful life elsewhere: he started an advertising agency with his brother and married a younger woman. He rode the economic boom of the eighties – driving around town in a Bentley, wearing designer suits and eating in trendy restaurants. He is well spoken and refined. When I saw him at weekends I felt out of place, awkward and grubby. He loved me but I felt like he looked down on me a bit too. Once, me and my mum were stood at the bus stop in the rain on the way to school when he drove past in his swishy motor. He didn’t see us. Both of us saw him but said nothing to each other.
Anyway, I started drinking in my early teens with pals at the park. By the time we were 14, smoking weed and drinking lager was our full time hobby. I was no worse than anyone else in my gang: in fact, I was one of the least bad. Maybe my role as the relatively sensible one made me a bit complacent as I transitioned into adulthood. I liked getting out of it – who didn’t? But I never thought I was the sort to develop a problem.
Maybe my role as the relatively sensible one made me a bit complacent as I transitioned into adulthood. I liked getting out of it – who didn’t? But I never thought I was the sort to develop a problem.
I was the first person in my family to go to university. Whilst there the drinking and drug taking went up a notch or two. I always gravitated naturally towards fellow hedonists. As a result, I had no credible way of judging the relative scale of my problems. Everyone I knew was a fuckhead.
Then I started working in the media where getting battered on company time is very much part of the gig. It was a huge amount of fun to have a job where getting trashed was actually respected. I was a creative person and told myself that all the drinking and cocaine was a positive and essential part of my identity. Outside of work I spent all my time at the football, travelling all over the country with mates getting wasted under the pretence of watching West Ham. I am not the only member of that gang who has ended up in a long and complex recovery.
I was a creative person and told myself that all the drinking and cocaine was a positive and essential part of my identity.
The reality of my problems crept up on me in my late 30’s as I struggled to juggle the conflicting pressures of career, family and fun. With two young children and a huge mortgage, I think the sense of responsibility started to overwhelm me. Maybe it was fear of my kids having to experience a similarly unstable childhood to my own. I took on more work than was humanly possible to keep up with. Drink and cocaine seemed to help me keep up with the ludicrous pace – and help numb the constant feelings of fear and anxiety.
When my wife pulled me up on it I was hostile and angry. I didn’t like being judged. I told myself she was boring and controlling. I told myself that I was expressing my belief in personal freedom by doing coke at 10am and hitting the boozer at 11. I started to lie about my habits. I started to be extremely secretive about my drink and drug use. I was going out of my way to arrange everything – even picking up my kids from school – in order to make time to sit alone in the corner of the pub necking whisky and lager punctuated by incessant cocaine breaks.
In the end, I became extremely aware of how depressing it had all become. I knew I was pathetic. I knew I was failing the people who loved me. I knew that I had a life that was worth saving. But I didn’t know how to save it alone. I tried constantly to quit drink and coke but failed every time. So I sought help from a therapist. She was a former drink and drug addict so she understood my pain and knew how to communicate with me about it.
In the end, I became extremely aware of how depressing it had all become […] I knew I was failing the people who loved me. I knew that I had a life that was worth saving. But I didn’t know how to save it alone
The first thing she told me was that I had to quit completely and forever. “If you want to cut down, good luck – but I can’t help you,” she explained. That had a huge impact on me. I had to make a unilateral decision. Moderation was not something I was capable of. I knew she was right. The decision became black and white, which suited me: give up or carry on. To carry on would have only led me to one place: the collapse of the beautiful life I had built and, probably, an early grave.
I had just turned 40. I was overweight and sloppy. I was letting my work slip. But the main thing was my relationship with my wife – a woman I had been best mates with since I was a teenager – was crumbling. She had never shown me anything but love and I had let her down badly by devoting so much time and energy to booze and drugs. I valued her and my kids more than anything in the world and believed that love was all I needed to get through the pain and fear that had always bubbled away inside of me.
Now, six years on, I am healing. I am not a perfect husband or father. Who is perfect? But I make progress every day in every aspect of my life. The large parts of my week that had been consumed by wanton hedonism are now filled with learning, rest, discovery and joy.
Now, six years on, I am healing. I am not a perfect husband or father. Who is perfect? But I make progress every day in every aspect of my life.
I work at home, I pick up my son from school, I play football with him in the garden. I meet my daughter for coffee when she gets off the bus. I see my therapist once a week. I see a psychiatrist every few months just to check up on my brain. I focus on work and podcasts. I am physically fit and strong – I see a personal trainer twice a week and go for runs in the park.
I still feel anxious sometimes. I fret about how happy my life is and suspect that God might try and take it all away from me. But I think those thoughts a great deal less than I used to. And when they do visit I don’t even contemplate drinking or snorting them away. I have the mental tools to think them away. I am open about my thoughts and feelings and vulnerabilities. I have no shame and I try to have an open heart.
In June 2015, when I stopped drinking for good, I started learning how to live a good life. Six years on, I am still learning and getting a little bit better at it every day.