I drank so much I had to learn how to walk again

Glaswegian, George Robb talks to Dan Mushens about working in a prison, developing PTSD as a result of witnessing multiple suicides, and how the effects of alcoholism meant he had to learn how to walk again.

George Robb

“Growing up in the Southside of Glasgow during the seventies and eighties was a great time and I’ve got loads of good memories. I did well at school and went on to have some good jobs.

I loved all the punk music that came around in the late 70’s, my friend Jim was in a band called Johnny and the Self Abusers and we’d all spend our weekends watching them play gigs in the local pubs and clubs. Jim went on to be the lead singer of the band Simple Minds and had a lot of success.

Football and music seemed to dominate people’s lives back then and we’d always be out and about doing something.  We’d either be playing or watching football, taking turns to have house parties or going to gigs.

Midge Ure was a friend of my sisters, he’d often come over for a few drinks and a sing-song. It was just a great time to be alive and I sometimes feel I was blessed. The rest of my life didn’t turn out to be so rosy however.

When I left school I went to college and got my A-levels, I got a job maintaining trains at the St Rollox coachworks, I was there for over ten years until we were all unexpectedly made redundant.

It’s always a worrying time when you have no job, but I never got too stressed out about it. I could handle those kinds of situations back then. This is a big contrast to how I am now.

I got a part time job in a pub called the Dart Inn in Rutherglen to keep some money coming in until I found a new career. My mates all drank there and it was owned by Kenny Dalgish, the Scottish footballer who was at that time playing for Liverpool.

He used to send up tickets for all the boys to go down to Merseyside every other weekend to watch his Liverpool team play. I had loads of friends back then and I was always out and about working, playing golf and having fun.

“I became a Prison Officer at Glasgow’s notorious HMP Barlinnie. I worked there for over twenty years and witnessed things that no one should ever see.”

I was happy go lucky and life was good. I got married in my early twenties, became a father to two boys, and things were going well. After working in the pub for a year or so, I decided to get into the same profession that my father had been in and I became a Prison Officer at Glasgow’s notorious HMP Barlinnie.

I worked there for over twenty years and witnessed things that no one should ever see. I always treated the prisoners with respect and I think they appreciated that. Even today, I occasionally see some of the ex-prisoners around and they’ll say hello and me and ask how I’m doing.

In a prison environment, it’s hard not to judge people, but I always tried to be fair to them. Saying that, I had my nose broken a couple of times – but two broken noses in more than twenty years isn’t too bad in that line of work.

Newspapers are full of stories about prisons being a breeding ground for crime, and that they are riddled with drugs with the same old faces coming in and out like a revolving door. Well I’m sorry to say it is all true, that’s exactly what it was like for all the years I was there.

Drugs were everywhere and I’d often find parcels thrown over the perimeter wall, while other people had them smuggled in deodorant cans and things like that.  I remember some of the prisoners who were on methadone would sell it to other prisoners, but not before they had swallowed it themselves first and vomited it back up. I witnessed some of the worst aspects of human behaviour.

Interestingly, I got to know some of the big name prisoners like Paul Ferris, Tam McGrath and Gary Moore. It sounds crazy, but I got to know their human side even though they were cold blooded killers. But it’s the violence, murders and suicides that I saw inside prison that made a lasting impression on me.

I witnessed multiple suicides, most of them were by hanging using ripped bed sheets, but some people jumped off the top floor landing onto the slate ground floor forty feet below.

I managed to save a few of them, but with the others, all I could do was cut them down. I received two commendations from the governor for my intervention by being the first responder and saving two people’s lives.

I saw people slashed, knifed or beaten up most weeks. Boiling hot water thrown in people’s faces happened sometimes too, the smell of that burning flesh will never leave me.

The worst part of the job was the dirty protests, when prisoners would smear their excrement over the walls of their cells. The stench could be smelt from the other end of the block. As their cell was being jetwashed, they’d be doing the same thing to the holding cell they were in.

“I began to use alcohol in excess to forget the things that I’d seen”

Seeing these things is bound to affect you in some way; you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. A culmination of things also happened which led to my own world of crisis causing personal destruction.

I began to use alcohol in excess to forget the things that I’d seen and I ended up having an epileptic seizure at work, a pretty bad one. I had always liked a wee drink socially, but this is when the heavy drinking started. I was self-medicating.

After all of those years working there, the prison service decided to discharge me on medical grounds. Having a seizure around prisoners could have lead to me getting killed and they couldn’t take the risk. Part of me was pleased because I could feel things were getting out of control, but with too much time on my hands I drank more.

As time went by, I neglected myself and I didn’t eat, I was malnourished and I was hospitalised on several occasions for months at a time. The damage from drinking too much led to me developing alcohol related brain damage (ARBD).

During one of my stays in hospital, I had a violent seizure and experienced uncontrollable body movements. I have no recollection of this but I apparently hit a nurse and I was taken to court on an assault charge. The judge dismissed the case instantly.

“At my worst, I was in such a state that I literally couldn’t walk”

Although still married at this time, my wife and I separated and I left the family home to move into my own wee first floor flat. Presently, I can barely maintain my tenancy without help and I struggle to walk up and down the steps to my front due to poor mobility and severe anxiety.

At my worst, I was in such a state that I literally couldn’t walk, my legs just couldn’t take my weight anymore and I still have trouble getting around now. I basically had to learn how to walk again and I was using Zimmer frames for a short while.

For years I had nightmares and would be too scared to go to sleep. I now have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the things I witnessed. I’ve been too anxious to leave my flat for the last couple of years, but things have been getting a bit better lately.

Today, I’ve got a good team around me and I feel like things are beginning to get better. I have a really good care manager from the addiction team as well as support from Penumbra who visit twice weekly. They’ve only been involved for a few weeks but we’ve achieved loads of good outcomes already.

I had a small relapse on 6th December 2018, but I genuinely don’t want to drink ever again. If I can manage to find myself a ground floor flat to better enable me to get out and about, I’d consider that a massive bonus.

I have ARBD, PTSD and suffer from extreme anxiety, but I’ll get better, slowly but surely. I know I will.”


Dan Mushens is a recovery practitioner for Scottish mental health charity Penumbra.

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