When I look back to my childhood, it was kind of inevitable that I grew up and became a heavy drinker. I was born into drink. Alcoholism was always going to happen.
I was born in Lincoln and grew up on the outskirts, on a council estate called Birchwood. I was brought up by alcoholics, basically. My mum and stepdad were heavy drinkers. My biological father was also a drinker but he never quite went over the edge with it. He managed to pull back before it got a hold of him.
I remember it as a happy childhood, mostly. I’d always be outside playing, building dens, the usual boys’ stuff. I had a lot of nervous energy, always restless. I could never sit still for a minute. I was a cocky kid, something of a joker, but I suppose I also had a lot of fear in me. That said, if I was scared to do something, I’d egg myself on to do it – vandalism, shoplifting, starting fires…
Everyone worked really hard in my family but there would always be parties going on. There was always drink around. At parties, the kids were allowed to sip from the bottles. I was eight when I first got massively drunk at one of those parties. I went round the room, taking a sip from whatever was available. I got violently sick. The room was spinning. I thought I was going to die. But I woke up the next day and thought, ‘I want to do that again.’
After that, I drank whenever I got the chance. My stepdad had a 25-gallon container that was always stocked up with home-brew beer and I’d regularly dip into that. By the time I was thirteen, I’d be getting drunk every weekend. I was doing two paper rounds, earning £20 a week. Back in the 80s, that was easily enough to get drunk on. At fifteen I started drinking in pubs when I could afford to. If money was in short supply, I’d have drunken parties in the woods with my mates.
I always wanted to be an electrician like my dad and, after leaving school, I started working as an electrician’s mate for my friend’s dad, who was a site agent. After a year he gave me an apprenticeship. I was drinking every day by this point. I could afford to. The bloke who was employing me would say to me that my drinking was getting in the way of my work. I couldn’t argue with that. I’d ring in sick most Monday mornings, having had a right skinful over the weekend. I’d started taking drugs by this time, smoking weed and taking ecstasy and amphetamine sulphate. Snorting loads of speed meant that I could drink to my heart’s content, without getting sleepy. I’d hardly ever sleep on the weekends. I’d just keep going.
Though my twenties and thirties, I continued to drink every day. It played havoc with relationships. They never lasted long because my drinking would get in the way. I pretty much lived from day to day. I didn’t give much thought to the future, a wife and kids, that sort of thing.
I finished my electrical apprenticeship at 23 and started earning a lot more money. I started travelling with my work, places like the Netherlands, Finland and SE Asia. I couldn’t drink on the job so I’d get the shakes all day, finish the work as quickly as possible, then head to the nearest bar.
Back in England, I never rented a place. Mostly I sofa-surfed or stayed in bed & breakfasts. Occasionally I’d stay at my mum’s.
After the age of 28, I was in such a bad state that I couldn’t work any more. I was still drinking heavily and I’d started injecting myself with speed and cocaine. I started going nuts. Amphetamine psychosis. Paranoia and delusion started kicking in. I’d start hallucinating. That went on for a whole year. I had no money coming in at this time so I’d finance my drinking and drug-taking with various criminal activities.
That led to me living on the streets by the time I was thirty. Moving from town to town, I’d go shoplifting and get arrested, spend a few nights in the cells. I was drinking continuously and I always managed to gravitate towards someone in town who would sell me drugs, including heroin. I lived in a tent for a while. I lived in disused factories and warehouses. I was homeless for about two years in all. I was insane, basically. I didn’t care what was happening to me.
Twelve years ago, when I was 31, I moved to Brighton. I’d been unwell for months and then picked up a blood infection. I ended up in hospital where they did these tests and told me I had heart disease. They had to operate on me. I was clinically dead for a while.
After the council sorted me out with temporary accommodation, I made up my mind to give up the drugs. But I continued to drink heavily. I met a woman around this time. She got a council flat and I moved in with her. That relationship went on for a few years. We got engaged at one point and even booked the wedding. We drank a lot together. Some of those times were happy. But the happy times became less and less evident. Eventually that relationship hit the rocks.
I’d be drinking 24 cans of lager a day, with whiskey on top. I was in and out of hospital. Even when I was drying out in hospital, I’d sneak out and go to the pub. I went into the pub next to the hospital that often I got an NHS discount at the bar. The doctors would see me in there and say, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You shouldn’t be out of bed.’
There’d be times when I’d try to detox without medical help. It was indescribably horrible. My body would reject the alcohol, then the withdrawal symptoms kicked in. The hallucinations were hellish and they seemed as real as could be. I was puking blood. I was having seizures. My weight was down to 52kg.
It got to a point where my body was in such a state that I could no longer drink that much. My health was deteriorating fast. I had two further periods of serious heart disease. I had open-heart surgery four times. I’ve had bits of my legs removed. I’ve only got one lung that works properly.
The big turning point came for me at 34. I’d managed to get on the housing list and move into my own flat by this point. Things were going OK. Then my mum died at the age of 52. She died of heart disease brought on by alcoholism. She’d been drinking vodka every day for many years. I went nuts at that point, blaming myself for a lot of things. I really hit the drink at that point. Again, I’d stopped caring. And my visits to hospital were getting more regular.
When my sister got the money from my mum’s estate, which wasn’t very much, she used some of it to book me into The Priory (Brighton). That saved my life, basically. I was in there for 28 days and started going to AA meetings. I thought I’d cracked it but I kept being told that I needed to put a lot more work in, which was the truth. So, after The Priory, I carried on at another treatment centre. That was it. I haven’t had a drink since.
I was into music from an early age. The adults around me had very varied collections so I listened to all sorts: Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Carole King, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, Sinatra, Yes, ZZ Top…
I got my first acoustic guitar when I was five. My dad used to play a bit and he taught me. At that stage, I never learned to play songs all the way through. I’d just jam with my dad, playing along with whatever song he was playing – The Sound Of Silence, stuff like that.
At eleven, I got a bigger guitar and joined the music group at school. Through my teenage years and going into my twenties, I was in local bands with mates.
Years later, while in recovery, I picked up the guitar again, at times playing obsessively, using music books to learn the songs of The Beatles, Radiohead, Pink Floyd…
I got involved with Cascade Creative Recovery in Brighton and started playing guitar in their choir. I was doing open mic nights in pubs which I didn’t enjoy too much. It was a big thing for me to go into a pub and play live. I was daunted, very nervous.
Then I had a chance meeting with Molly Mathieson who runs New Note. At the time she was looking for musicians for New Note Orchestra which was about to launch. I went along to their first rehearsal. I was a bit nervous about that because I can read chords and a bit of scale but I can’t really read music properly. I was worried that I wouldn’t be good enough to play in an orchestra. After meeting the others, I settled in to it.
New Note has been brilliant for me. It’s really broadened and improved my guitar playing, taking me well out of my comfort zone. But it’s been particularly important in terms of providing a sense of community both within New Note itself and, in a wider sense, within the community of recovery bands in Brighton and the surrounding areas. In recovery, I need to be vigilant. I need to be doing something every day and music is a major part of that.
The feeling we get when the orchestra is playing together is just incredible. There’s a great sense of achievement when a piece of music we’ve all helped write comes together. It’s a beautiful thing. Then we get to perform those pieces in front of a few hundred people. I don’t get nervous about performing in front of crowds any more. I even got to sing Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side with Herbie Flowers at Spiegeltent in Brighton. That took some courage.
In recovery, what I’ve realised is that a big part of it is about giving back. You can’t just hold on to your recovery and keep it all to yourself. You need to help others with what they are going through. Hundreds of people – doctors, nurses, counsellors, people in the fellowships, sponsors, volunteers – have helped me along the way to get me to where I am now, helped me to stay in sobriety. I’m so grateful to every last one of them. Every day I remind myself that I’m grateful for my life and what I’ve got.