From the very first time I had a drink in the park with my mates at 14, I was always the one who went too far. When I drank, I felt happier and was more comfortable – frankly, better – at socialising. I loved it, and as a teen it was great fun.
I’d always had inexplicably low self-esteem. Even though I had a really close and loving family who always encouraged and supported me in everything I did, somehow I never felt that I was quite good enough. I was surrounded by high achievers at my Manchester grammar school, but I was averagely popular, a reasonable student, not overly sporty, and not super popular with girls.
Things got much worse when, just before my GCSEs, I almost died when I contracted meningitis and septicemia. The meningitis affected my brain, particularly my short term memory. I didn’t know what was wrong with me – I was frightened all the time and just didn’t feel like others around me seemed to feel. Perhaps I made the mistake of looking at other people’s outside and comparing them to my insides.
I was referred to a psychiatrist, and labels such as ‘bipolar,’ ‘psychosis,’ and ‘mood disorder’ were thrown around. I was prescribed various medications, but it was only when I had a drink that everything felt easier. I drank with my mates whenever I could, and would switch between groups of friends to make sure I was always at the party – a telltale trait of someone with a drink problem. I also started to use a lot of cannabis and dabbled in ecstasy at the weekends.
“I drank vodka alone in my room just wanting to be in my own oblivion.”
When I went to university it all came to a head. Everything was too much for me. I put a brave face on it and tried to persuade everyone I was ok, but I wasn’t engaging, wasn’t going to lectures. I drank vodka alone in my room just wanting to be in my own oblivion. When I was sober enough, I answered calls from my family and made out I was fine – but my family knew I wasn’t coping. Eventually, I couldn’t do it any longer and admitted to my dad what a mess I was in. He did what any parent would do and said ‘we’ll come and get you and that’s what he did.’
At that point I still wasn’t really ready to accept how big a problem I had with alcohol. I thought I just liked to get drunk – to me, alcoholics were the guys there who had been drinking a bottle of vodka a day for 30 years.
After 28 days in rehab I tried my best to stay sober. But when my mates were all going out at uni while I had dropped out and was instead sitting in village hall AA meetings, that was difficult. Within five months I was drinking again, and started taking cocaine too. I discovered it helped hide how drunk I was.
My life was a mess for the next few years. I started a job away from home, thinking it’d be a fresh start, but instead I felt lonely and isolated. Each night I’d buy half a litre of vodka, tell myself I’d stop when it was gone, then get in my car to get more. It’s a miracle I never caused an accident.
I lost my job and was forced to again go back home. My parents didn’t know what to do – I’d already been in rehab. There was a lot of chaos, arguments and upset during that time, but I felt somehow detached from it. I was drinking a lot and taking cocaine and cannabis all the time, trying to find a level where I was not too drunk and not too high. I’d go out at night and not know where I’d left my car, or simply wake up having passed out in a bad area of the city. In the mornings when I did make it home, I would come downstairs making up a story about who I’d been out with – in truth I’d had so much to drink I had no idea what I’d done.
“I don’t think she said anything that anyone hadn’t told me before, but now I was finally ready to hear it. I cried for the first time in years.”
My younger sister eventually got through to me. In essence she told me: “I don’t like you, and I don’t know you any more. You’re making your family ill. I want my brother back.”
It was done in a very loving, non-judgemental way. She just made me realise how my behaviour was affecting other people and how ill I had become. I don’t think she said anything that anyone hadn’t told me before, but now I was finally ready to hear it. I cried for the first time in years.
I was just 21 and went into rehab again – this time with a totally different attitude. There were people there who had been in and out for 20 years, and I decided it wasn’t going to be me. I was there for three months and after I left the next 18 months were all about recovery. I went to AA meetings and volunteered five days a week in rehab, doing everything from answering the phones to facilitating group therapy sessions and taking clients to the gym.
I reached a point where I wanted to get on with my life and stand on my own two feet. I found a job in marketing, moved away and enjoyed myself, but after a decade or so of stability I wanted to do something more meaningful. I’d remained involved with AA and supporting other people in recovery was the thing that really inspired me. I wanted to dedicate myself to it.
The idea of becoming a counsellor appealed, and so I started meeting people, spent time in America and observed the sector. America is streets ahead – there’s no shame around addiction, there’s plenty of treatment available, and it’s okay to say you’re in counselling our therapy. It really inspired me.
“I’m happily married and my wife and I have just had our second child. Through my work I’m doing something every day that really matters.”
I came to see that the type of rehab clinic I wanted people to have access to didn’t exist in the UK, and so I set about creating it – and now my rehab centre, Delamere, opens in Cheshire in January 2020. At my centre, we’ll acknowledge that it takes courage and humility for people to enter treatment. And we’ll acknowledge addiction can happen to anyone. So often addiction is based in past trauma and people need help to overcome that trauma.
For me it was a way to deal with crippling anxiety and depression, but I now know my addiction is a coping strategy that has stopped working. I’m happily married and my wife and I have just had our second child. Through my work I’m doing something every day that really matters.
Finding new ways to cope has not been easy and I still work hard on myself. I ensure I work on my own self-esteem and find helping other people through tough times is a really useful way for me to remain well – it helps me as much as them as I feel useful and know I’m making a difference. Spending time with my family and doing other things that make me happy is also important.
Above all, I’ve learned it is possible to change, it is possible to grow beyond addiction. I can’t wait to help others see that too.
Martin Preston is founder and CEO of Delamere rehab clinic. For more information, visit their website here
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org