Celebrating Volunteers Week 2023

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Forward Trust shares stories of recovery and giving back to celebrate Volunteers Week 2023.

Katie’s Story – Reach Out Volunteer

I was about 13 when I first got drunk. It’s funny looking back now, my relationship with alcohol was abnormal from the start. My other friends would just try a drink, but I wanted more. I was always the one who took it that little bit further. Always. We’d get bottles to share together but it was always me who finished the bottle. My friends knew when enough was enough and I would just keep going. When I was in my early twenties, I realized it wasn’t normal to drink like I did.

I remember one night thinking, “If I just have one or two, I’m OK. If I get really drunk, I’m OK. In the middle I feel strange and anxious, so I’ve got to choose one or the other and normal people don’t think like that”.

That’s when my mental health issues started. I had a very normal, happy childhood. I passionately believe I was born an alcoholic, but the trigger was my mental health problems. That was what took my drinking over the edge. I had a whole host of mental health issues, including agoraphobia. I would drink to be comfortable going out, but the anxiety would feed into the agoraphobia more. For about five years, I worked for social services, with people with learning disabilities, but I had to leave due to my mental health.

When you talk about alcoholism, you say there is “an invisible line”. There’s a point where you cross it and most people don’t really know it, but I can clearly remember crossing the line. I was 22 and had moved to London to try and solve my problems. I moved to get away from my own head, but my head followed me. I was very anxious at night time and one night I thought; “If I’m drunk, I’m not anxious when I go to bed – I don’t lie awake worrying, I just go to sleep. So maybe I’ll just do that, maybe I’ll just get drunk at night times.” And that’s what I did. From that moment on. So, to me, even though I didn’t realise what was happening at that time, I crossed an invisible line.

Not long after that, the day drinking began. I moved back to Kent after a year in London and my drinking really progressed. I couldn’t go out without having a drink. At that point, I was drinking about two bottles of brandy a day for maintenance. That wasn’t even just getting drunk. That was just to keep me “normal”. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I did get some help. I had to detox, and I stayed sober for quite a while, but it was awful. I stopped drinking for several years, but it was a constant white-knuckle ride. I had contact with the 12-step programme, but I didn’t engage with it. I was existing. I wasn’t living. It was awful. I wasn’t drinking but I hadn’t addressed the underlying behaviours. People call it being “dry drunk”. I was in this horrible, horrible state and I was self-harming because I couldn’t cope with my feelings.

I relapsed, and over the years I drank on and off. There were a few times I would go from drinking again to trying to stop, or not drinking and being a dry drunk. They didn’t feel that different to me, because I wasn’t addressing the root cause of why I was drinking, so it was the same situation. There were many years of stopping, starting, stopping, starting. As soon as I started drinking again, I would pick up from where I left off. Then it would just get worse and worse because it’s a progressive illness.

2020 was when things got bad. I had started drinking heavily again on a daily basis, before the lockdowns even started. Because of my agoraphobia, I had to persuade people to get it for me, or order alcohol online, praying that they would deliver it quickly enough. It was harder to hide my drinking from others, because it wasn’t normal to get booze delivered to your doorstep. And then Covid happened. It all changed during lockdown. Now I could order vodka from the shop down the road, and they would deliver it. Everyone was doing it. I didn’t have to make any elaborate arrangements to get drink any more. I could have a bottle of vodka waiting for me in 10 minutes. And it was like the rest of the world joined my gang. They were all stuck inside like I was stuck inside. I had access to everything I needed. In my head, I could be happy and comfortable inside, safe and drinking.

Soon, I was drinking two bottles of vodka a day. And although I tried to tell myself I was happy and comfortable, deep down I knew I was in serious trouble. I was self-harming. I was suicidal. I couldn’t see a way out. My partner was in bits and in the end, I got taken to hospital. This was at the beginning of the pandemic. I was in a five-day detox at the height of Covid and I couldn’t have any visitors. I joined a 12-step programme but within three months I relapsed again. This was rock bottom. I was instantly back to where I was before, back on two bottles of vodka a day.

That’s when I contacted Forward. I needed to detox under supervision because I was physically dependent on alcohol. I knew it would be dangerous if I just tried to stop. I had to wait a while for the detox, and that was really tough. My withdrawal symptoms were so bad they would wake me up in the morning. I couldn’t stand up by myself for more than five minutes. I didn’t eat, I lost my mobility, a lot of my hair, and the skin off my feet. I genuinely think that I didn’t have much longer left.

I finally got my detox in March 2021. The relief. It was so much more than it had ever been before because I was so desperate. It was so amazing to me, a new start.

A week later I started on the Dover Day programme (a day treatment service delivered by Forward) remotely, something I wouldn’t have been able to access in normal times, where I would have been expected to come in for treatment in person. It’s funny, because Covid lockdowns, and where they took my drinking to, could have been my killer. But they ended up being my saviour. Before the pandemic, my agoraphobia would have meant that I would have struggled to get help and stick with it, because so much of the focus was on coming in person into services. But because of the restrictions on meeting in person, all the support offered was available online, in the safety of my own home. I had a community of people who knew what I was going through, who could help me understand. And I didn’t need to leave my living room to speak with them.

I began learning what it meant to be an alcoholic. Before that, I didn’t really understand it. I knew I drank too much, but I just thought that was because I was weak. I didn’t understand that it was a disease and that I’d probably had it all my life. I learned there’s no quick fix. I knew I needed something more than the day programme, so I went back to my 12-step programme. I had another alcoholic to help guide me. The day programme gave me a structure to my day, it got me up in the morning and doing something. I’m incredibly lucky, I had very good group. There are six of us now who are still in touch, who are still in recovery. We chat and we see each other. Forward supported me through all that. Since the programme finished, I’ve been back and to support on the day programme every week. I enjoy that so much.

Since June, I’ve been working on Forward’s Reach Out service as a volunteer two days a week. Reach Out is an online chat service, for people who need advice or just someone to talk to.

We take calls from people with drug or alcohol problems or mental health issues and signpost them to services. Sometimes we just chat through what’s going on for them right now. For me, that’s such a huge thing to be part of. To be giving back. My recovery has not only saved my life, but it has put me in a position to be able to help other people. Hopefully I can stop them from getting to the point I was.

I feel that I’m doing what I was always meant to do. I still have my struggles with my mental health, but recovery has helped me more in that respect so much. So now in my day-to-day life, I feel great. I have a few challenges, but I know that a drink won’t solve that. It will only ever make it worse. I’m getting some counselling for my agoraphobia. I’ve started walking the dog a little a little bit and I have a little job across the road in a restaurant which I love. It’s still a process, but I feel now I believe I can do something about it. Before I was in such a hopeless state that I didn’t see a future. I didn’t see anything. But now I do.

I want to be able to tell people that there is help. So many people die because they don’t know there’s help. I want to tell them that it is a disease, it’s not just someone being weak. I like to think one day we can be in a world where you can go to the doctor, and they can explain that addiction is an illness. That they tell you that you are sick, but that there is help, there is hope. That was the biggest thing for me.

As soon as I saw that there was hope, it made a huge difference.

This blog was originally published by The Forward Trust. You can read the original post here.

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