Alcohol Awareness Week runs from the 19th-25th November and this year’s theme is change. For Alcohol Awareness Week Penumbra’s Daniel Mushens, Recovery Practitioner at our Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD) Supported Living Service, spoke to David Richardson, a Peer Volunteer diagnosed with ARBD. David discusses his personal journey of change; his life of alcoholism, adversity, and recovery.
“I died before being resuscitated in the back of an ambulance. I spent the next three months in hospital and the last nine years in recovery”
When I was at my worst, I could barely navigate the walk to my local shop without experiencing confusion and becoming lost. A shop that was less than fifty yards from my front door; in a community that I’d lived all my life!
Obtaining the funds to purchase alcohol largely relied upon small donations from members of the public; neighbours and strangers who I would quite simply ask ‘can I have some money?’ as I shuffled past them in the street.
Sometimes, I’d add ‘please’ but I found it wasn’t always necessary. I thought this generosity was due to my abrupt and bedraggled presentation coming across as intimidating and menacing, now I think it was just out of pity. Manners weren’t as high on my list of priorities as alcohol was during those bleak days anyway.
By the time 2009 arrived, I was in my early forties, unemployed, drinking twelve cans of lager and a three litre bottle of cider each day, alienated from my children and living alone in a tenancy I could barely maintain. I was the only resident living in a tenement flat which has since been condemned; soon to be demolished. To give you an idea of the conditions I was living in, back then my flat was so cold that I used to keep the windows open to let the heat in!
Strangers who I mistook for friends would visit and use my flat as a safe place to take drugs and drink my beer. They would arrive and offer me four cans as a method of securing entry, but over the course of the day would drink five or six themselves.
“ARBD reduces your mobility, and on one of the many days that I could barely stand up, I stumbled in the living room and fell through the glass-topped coffee table”
My ability to think clearly; add, subtract, make decisions, prepare meals and look after myself or function like most citizens’ function within a civilised society had become impossible. Now, I’m aware memory and cognitive deficits are a common feature of alcohol related brain damage (ARBD) – a diagnosis I now live with.
But back then, I considered this to be insanity, I thought I was losing my mind and to an extent, I was. I was even hallucinating – believing that an African family were living in my bedroom. This further fuelled the belief that I was going mad.
ARBD reduces your mobility, and on one of the many days that I could barely stand up, I stumbled in the living room and fell through the glass-topped coffee table –
resulting in lacerations all over my body. I didn’t seek any medical attention because I didn’t know how to.
Months later, I contracted tuberculosis and pneumonia which were likely caused by drinking alcohol from a shared vessel – a can or bottle – in the numbingly cold flat within the barren and desolate tenement block that I called home.
After many more chaotic scenarios like this, my addiction led to an alcohol-induced epileptic seizure and I died in the back of an ambulance. By the grace of god I was resuscitated and spent the next three months in hospital and the last nine years in recovery. Not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips since ‘I died’, and I have no desire to return to alcohol use either.
People will frequently tell me that my story and ongoing recovery is inspirational. However, I don’t see it that way. All I did was engage in the support that came my way from various people and agencies; do what the professionals recommended I should do and take things day by day.
But these intervening nine years have been testing to say the least, and attempting to explain how I’ve maintained my sobriety all but defeats me. It’s a mixture of everything; luck, desire, hope, support, structure, routine, open-mindedness and interventions from a plethora of good people. But mostly luck.
Due to my existential experience in the back of that ambulance, it placed an enormous strain on the heart and I now live with a non-curable defect – meaning that the chance of sudden death is very real and imminent.
Since then, a truck load of other crises have come my way as well. For example, my beloved brother William died of a heart attack followed in quick succession by the passing of my best friend. Ricky was told he had cancer one day, was in a palliative care ward the next and was dead by the end of the week. We’d been pals since childhood and even though I was devastated, I remember resisting that innate urge to use alcohol as a form of self-medication. My grief was raw and untouched. Something I was to draw upon more regularly than one would like.
“these intervening nine years have been testing to say the least, and attempting to explain how I’ve maintained my sobriety all but defeats me.”
Just a year later, tragedy struck again when my sister Sylvia discovered she had cancerous tumours in multiple parts of her body. At first, her left leg was amputated below the knee, but sadly the cancer had rapidly spread and her right leg was later removed as well. Soon after, she had both arms and breasts removed too. Weeks later – she died. Clearly this would be a traumatic time for anyone to deal with, but again I found the strength from somewhere to steer clear of my former comforts.
The adversity keeps on coming like waves relentlessly crashing against a rugged coastline. Last year my younger brother Gary – who fought his own battle with alcoholism – sadly passed away very unexpectedly. Within weeks, my older brother Alex then had surgery to remove cancerous growths and tumours. Thankfully he’s recovering at present.
My ailments read like a shopping list and the current medical hurdle I’m faced with overcoming is a diagnosis of diabetes which I manage with some changes to my diet. More challenges will undoubtedly come my way in the future but despite all these obstacles – I’ve still not allowed even a scintilla of alcohol to pass my lips since 2009.
It’s fair to say I reached rock bottom many times during my career as a professional drinker, I’ve been in the gutter and abused and neglected myself to within an inch of life. Far worse, I’ve lost an army of loved ones who I sorely miss each and every day.
Today, I avoid alcohol use by keeping busy and being open-minded. I like to have a meaningful routine of things to do to keep myself active. I play in a dominoes team, volunteer in a charity shop and use my concessionary bus pass to go on excursions all over Scotland with friends.
“Since 2017 I’ve been a Peer Volunteer for Scottish mental health charity Penumbra…Having that mutually lived experience is a bond that can have a real impact”
There’s something else which has undoubtedly had a further positive impact on my recovery too. Since 2017 I’ve been a Peer Volunteer for Scottish mental health charity Penumbra. I work alongside other people with ARBD helping them with their own recoveries that are often derailed by relapse. Personally, I never used the services of alcoholics anonymous but I’m aware that other forms of peer to peer support can be extremely beneficial.
Having that mutually lived experience is a bond that can have a real impact – in a way that other professionals can rarely offer. It’s another tool or intervention that can be utilised by someone should they wish to do so.
I’ve heard some critics say things like ‘peer volunteers are just support workers on the cheap’ but I don’t buy into that because it’s mutual – I get something out of it too!
And it’s not just about my own lived experience, I like to think that I bring more to the table than just my past. I don’t simply turn up; tell everyone who I meet my story and hope they’ll be inspired. Like I say, there’s a bond which is seldom mentioned, but it’s definitely there.
I think knowing when to share a piece of my story is a skill that I’ve learned over the last year or so. Firstly I listen to their story from their viewpoint, it might takes weeks before
I drip-feed a bit of my own understanding and unique knowledge of living with ARBD into the conversation. Progress is usually slow and small but is always worth-while in the end.
For example, It took months of going on the same bus route into the city centre every week with someone who couldn’t remember when to stand up to get off at their stop. I had a similar problem in the past when I was a stranger in my own community and would get lost as soon as I closed the front door.
This is a common manifestation of ARBD and can be really scary to the person suffering with it. After months of repetition; missing the correct bus stop, looking for reference points to help him remember when to stand up and ring the bell – he finally re-learnt this very basic skill that most folk take for granted. To be able to make a short bus trip into town independently is such a crucial skill to possess.
When I think about the peer to peer volunteer work that I do, it’s an absolute pleasure to do it. As long as I keep on striving to do good deeds; trying to help others, I feel like I’ll be rewarded with another day on this earth.
Dan Mushens is a recovery practitioner and David Richardson is a Peer Volunteer with Scottish mental health charity Penumbra