At the age of 12, John* was drinking four cans of lager a week, by 15 he was living above a pub and by 28 he was gripped by a near-fatal alcohol addiction.
The now 49-year-old from Enfield, London, has shared his heartbreaking story in the hope it will encourage family members and friends to reach out to those they suspect are battling addiction, especially at Christmas - a time notorious for boozy behaviour.
In an interview shared exclusively with HuffPost UK, John recalled: “I was forced into treatment for my addiction after being hospitalised and at death’s door. I had no one looking out for me.
“This Christmas, if you think a loved one is struggling with an addiction, give them the gift of support.”
Christmas is difficult for people with alcohol addiction for multiple reasons.
“It brings with it an excess of feelings,” Stephanie Keenan, digital manager at Addaction Scotland, told HuffPost UK. “With television broadcasts focusing on togetherness, either with family and friends, it can highlight what people do not have in their lives.
“Alcohol misuse is a coping strategy for problematic drinkers. It is the only tool that people have to manage how they feel.”
Then there’s the way alcohol is presented in society. “The media often normalises problematic alcohol misuse with adverts broadcasting special offers,” Stephanie added.
“With alcohol being at the forefront of supermarket advertising, it’s difficult to walk anywhere without some reference to it.”
Combine this with the fact the party season acts as a “smokescreen” for a person’s drinking problem, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Andrew Misell, a director at Alcohol Concern, explained: “If everyone else is knocking it back, someone whose drinking might normally stand out as problematic can blend in more easily.
“Someone with an alcohol problem can actually become quite a popular companion for social drinkers – they’re someone who’s always got a bottle open or is always ready to pop to the pub. But clearly that’s not a healthy situation for anyone involved.”
John’s drinking drove his loved ones away (“alcohol came before my child and my partner,” he explained) and, by the time he was 28, he was admitted to hospital with pancreatitis - or inflammation in the pancreas - and told by doctors that if he drank again he would almost certainly die.
Looking back, he realises how isolated he was at this point in his life which is why he’s urging loved ones of people with drinking problems to show their support.
How is best to address a loved one’s problem drinking at Christmas?
It’s thought that one in five people have a family member with a drug or alcohol problem. As well as causing major concern, it can also have a negative impact on a family’s health, wellbeing, finances, social lives and relationships with others, explained Stephanie.
That’s why tackling the problem is key to moving forwards.
Stephanie said it can be difficult to start a conversation about a loved one’s alcohol use. However once the ice has been broken, crucial steps can be made to help them get better.
As a starting point, she said it’s best to avoid mentioning the person’s drinking when they are under the influence of alcohol, as this could result in arguments and increased emotions on both sides.
The conversation should be focused around the fact you love and care for them, and are concerned about their health and wellbeing, rather than being confrontational or judging their alcohol use.
“Look for opportunities to talk to them about their drinking, such as when they express regret or talk about something bad that has happened when they have been drinking,” she explained.
And, ultimately, if they continue to deny their problem or are rationalising their alcohol use, “end the discussion and try again another time”.
Thankfully, John managed to get on the straight and narrow - he was voluntarily sectioned, stayed in a mental health unit and then transferred himself to private rehabilitation. Now, he’s celebrating 21 years of sobriety.
In this time he’s worked hard to undo all the damage his addiction caused and has rebuilt a relationship with his daughter, who is 23 and has just finished university.
Now, the focus is on staying sober. But it’s still difficult, especially at Christmas when the prospect of a tipple is never far away.
“It’s surprising how many people think it’s OK to pressure friends and family into drinking,” added Andrew from Alcohol Concern. “Even if you’re feeling festive and would love a drinking buddy, if someone you know seems at all reluctant to have a drink, or if you know that they have struggled with alcohol in the past, drop it.”
Addaction has issued tips for remaining aware of people in recovery, such as: offering alcohol alternatives at parties and family gatherings, and being mindful of the alcohol content of sauces, as these may cause those on medication to have a negative reaction (such as vomiting).
Additionally, it’s worth noting that if you feel the need to have alcohol during this time of year to enjoy yourself or “have fun”, then it might be worth thinking about your own drinking and seeking some support.
As Andrew put it, “it could be any one of us, so sympathy and support is what’s needed when a problem occurs”.
For tips on how to help a loved one who you think is drinking too much, check out this article with advice from leading alcohol charities. You can also find specialist local services using Alcohol Concern’s local services directory. Some people benefit from joining support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery, and for family members there’s Al-Anon.
*John’s name has been changed to protect his identity. With special thanks to UK Addiction Treatment Centres UKAT for providing the interview.