I am 57 years old and have been a heavy drinker for many years. Up until my menopause, I was highly functioning, admittedly in complete denial of the problem, and selectively ignored any reference to my habit.
Sarah has explained to me the type of plateau I was on, then I started to slide down the other side of my personal mountain. I felt hormonal, anxious, and afraid of what I saw a chapter of my life in which I would start to disappear, old, haggard, and alone.
Then lockdown. Like many others, I was furloughed, and had more time and opportunity to drink, given the stage I was at, it was almost like a warped gift rather than a disadvantage or a worry about isolation, I had isolated myself already with wine. By the time the first lockdown was lifted, I had replaced food with wine for both lunch and dinner. One evening in July last year, I had a blackout and fell down the stairs. When I came round, I knew I had to call for an ambulance, there was blood everywhere from a head injury. The paramedics were compassionate and thorough, that all changed when I arrived at A & E.
Carrying a shedload of shame, guilt and fear and shocked into sobering up, I was then bundled onto a trolley, left for an hour, seen by a nurse then wheeled into to a room with a tub in it, was roughly stripped and put into tepid water. I had not been examined but was told I had to have my hair washed to get rid of the blood. As I watched the water turn red, I saw clumps of hair swirling around in the water, matted because the blood had dried as I must have lain at the bottom of the stairs for a while. Not strands, handfuls. My personal hygiene had not been good I saw no point, but I had always had thick long hair, one of the only parts of me that I could admire, my body had shrunk, almost skeletal, this event was my last part of complete breakdown of self respect, and I cried for the first time for many years.
Back in the hospital bay, I was then given the statutory tests, heart, BP, bloods, put on a drip and left again, my head was still bleeding, but the wound had been covered. Time was vague then, but eventually I did have my head looked at by a doctor I think, a CT scan was arranged, where thankfully there was no serious injury.
I was transferred to a small ward, women only, I found out all were there because of alcohol problems and consequences they were all over 50. I was asked to get into the bed. The others were laying still, quiet, detached. It was very eerie, I wanted to say hello, to engage I suppose, somehow that didn’t seem appropriate. My balance was extremely poor and needed assistance. Left again with another drip, I asked for a glass of water. I waited more than an hour for that. Eventually a doctor came and asked me questions about my drinking, and assessed whether I was a fall risk, I was, and he would arrange for a mental health worker to visit me.
During the rest of the night, I wanted to go to the lavatory, was told they would put me in waterproof pants, so to stay still, I simply could not go through that humiliation, and wanted to get out of bed. I did make it to the toilets, hanging onto the rail at the side of the corridor, with two nurses, one in front and one behind. I constantly apologised for wasting their time.
The next morning, I had a talk with one of the mental health team, there was no advice, no mention of how to handle my drinking, or which came first, the drinking or my issues that I drank upon. He ticked boxes. After this very cursory meeting, I was then told that a Physio would visit to address my imbalance and whether I was fit to walk unaided, climb stairs, my house has lots of steps, with a view to me being discharged. That exercise consisted of again a nurse behind me, the Physio in front of me, and I managed with real difficulty to climb two steps. That was it.
I also then summoned up the courage to talk to the others. They were in different stages of alcohol dependence, one was very late stage. They had tried to stop, three had been here before, two were extremely disadvantaged, had no transport, no internet, and old broken phones. One had had a very good job, until her world fell apart, and was now so shut down that having gone through instruction to seek help she had tried, but could not succeed, and had now given up, she said she was only in hospital because someone had found her collapsed in backwater of the town. She had wanted to be left.
I was told by the next doctor the obvious, I had to stop drinking. I asked if I could have a detox plan, that was not possible, no course of tranquilisers so that I didn’t have a dangerous withdrawal, but only that I should taper off the alcohol. One sip of this toxic substance that had been my crutch for so long, would never be enough, I told him this, he shrugged, and told me that was the only option. I cried again, if that was going to be the only way to stop I was doomed.
I asked him about support from the mental health team, he said he had nothing to do with that, but they probably would be in touch. Then I was discharged, given my crumpled clothes, and told to go home and the discharge team would visit the following day. I had thankfully got my bag with me, and able to afford a taxi home.
I lived alone, in a fairly hazardous house for someone who had been through a head injury, and yes, it was self-inflicted, but not intentional, I felt judged and even more of a hopeless case than ever. I was a drunk, middle aged write off. That was the impression I got, and I guess I deserved it. I sat down, and then started to have intentional thoughts of ending everything. I was useless and worthless. This may sound like a pity party, but I truly didn’t see any other way out.
I was shaking, couldn’t walk without having items to hang onto, struggled to do anything but get a plastic beaker of water. I hallucinated, I was too frightened to go up the stairs, get a toothbrush or toothpaste, which was never offered to me in hospital, just a dirty, smelly piece of broken humankind. I don’t live in squalor, I am not disadvantaged or deprived, to the outside world, I wore the mask of a middle class, middle-aged woman, with a good job, nice house and chattels, never needy, always quick to ask how others were. No matter what social strata we are on, the outcome of being hooked on alcohol is the same, pride certainly has got in the way with me, when I experienced this, I had no pride or respect left for myself.
The next day the discharge nurses arrived. They were efficient and brusque. They did get my toothbrush & toothpaste, along with some soap and a towel, told me I could wash in the kitchen sink, looked at my downstairs cloakroom, decided that for now the seat was too low for my limited mobility, ripped the toilet seat off, and installed a plastic temporary steel framed contraption over the pan, and told me to sleep on the sofa for the time being. They watched me trying to walk, unaided, two steps at best, and got a walking stick out of their car, and told me that would help. I asked again about the severe withdrawals I was having and was told to call my GP.
This is a précised version of the event, but the disjointed, unempathetic way I was treated and those other women, will stay with me. I wanted to stop drinking so badly but given what I had experienced felt that I would simply end up a statistic.
I did call my GP, as the withdrawal hadn’t killed me in the 48 hours from my last drink, he would not allow a prescription, nor a home visit, lockdown had ended, I was given a number to call, for alcohol problems, and the number of AA. With the addition of an offer of anti-depressants. There was no encouragement for both my decision or willingness to seek help. I am not entitled to more than anyone else, but reassuring words when I had summoned up the courage to call would have been something. I then assumed that whoever I rang would make me feel as though I was wasting their time.
I am now alcohol free, once I told my family about the depths I had sunk to, I was overwhelmed with the look of relief on their faces, and in turn the help they gave me. My sister knew about Sarah, and then organised an ice breaker meeting with her, and although it has been very tough to face my fear, with unlimited time during the six weeks and more with Harrogate Sanctuary, I have realised that I lost the right to choose with alcohol, that I am not a bad person, but with any alcohol inside me, a very sick one. I was lucky, once I had fessed up, I did have support and financial help to access care that would work for me. It haunts me daily the lack of immediate intervention within the system, and how those other women could ever get out of their hell.
I have got honest, I have regained my confidence, I have told friends, I have got my self-respect back.
This is a long read, and maybe not the way it is for others when admitted into hospital, perhaps they have accessed aftercare, in that ward on one of the darkest nights of my life, every other woman in there looked as scared.
I shall reveal my true identity a little further down the road, but for now, I am not as frightened of revealing that I had a drink problem, as I am of the repercussions of describing my experience with the NHS. I do have the greatest respect and sympathy for what all the staff have gone through with COVID, but I think very few of us wanted to be a burden to them or highlight any failings. Please can we start to feel able to address this with kindness and as Sarah says, remove the taboo status that surrounds it.