Today I’m 15 years alcohol free. I don’t want or need to drink to escape life anymore, whatever life brings my way, good or bad. Addiction recovery, for me, both in a physical and emotional sense, has been a long, slow process of change and growth. It started a long time before I eventually stopped drinking, which may sound strange to some readers.
I first made efforts to stop drinking in my early 20’s following a serious suicide attempt, by renewing my interest in keeping fit and sporting activities. I’d stay sober for short periods and used exercise to fend off depression. Whenever I stayed sober my brain would come alive and begin to function and I became interested in learning and developing myself educationally and vocationally. I left school with no qualifications and so had to start by doing basic lessons in English and maths. At the time, I didn’t realise just how deeply psychologically addicted I’d become to alcohol and other drugs, and would relapse into binge drinking every so often.
I ended up in trouble with the police yet again for fighting while out drinking with a friend and was sent to prison for 12 months. This was the second time I’d been sent to prison within a 2 year period after nearly 10 years of court appearances, virtually all of which were for alcohol and drug related offences. I had been receiving fines and community service punishments from the courts since the age of 15. I was 25 years old when I was released from prison in September 1990 for the last time. After another 6 months of increasingly excessive drinking, I reached out to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and was introduced to the depth of my alcohol dependency.
It was the start of a long struggle towards acceptance and surrender. However, I did stay sober for increasingly longer periods and went to college and then on to Higher Education, before ending my studies prematurely due to serious problems with depression and occasional lapses into drinking.
I eventually realized that I had to stay sober regardless of any difficulties with my health, depression or relationships. I continued to take part in therapy when available, engaged with AA, and went back into education to obtain a professional qualification. I was nearly 40 when I had my last drink of alcohol. Since then I’ve continued to have difficulties primarily with my physical health, but also with depression. Yet my commitment towards sobriety, emotional and spiritual health, healing and growth, and being helpful to others, has increased year on year.
I’ve recounted some of my story in brief in the hope that I can make some comparisons with a journalist named Erwin James, who is the author of a book I’ve just finished reading called ‘Redeemable – A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’. His autobiography is a moving story of redemption and rehabilitation. James’s childhood was tragic and included neglect and abuse leading to deep self-loathing, alcohol dependency, rough sleeping, violent criminal behaviour, and eventually to the murder of two people. He served 20 years of a life sentence and describes his journey through the prison system giving an honest account of his process of change, primarily through therapy, education, and with the help of others. The book is a powerful testament to the value of psychological therapy with a dedicated and compassionate therapist in an effort to change a person’s life for the better. Erwin James is now an accomplished author of three books, a freelance writer and a respected columnist and contributor to the Guardian newspaper. He was released from prison in 2004, and is now a patron of several worthwhile charitable organisations.
As I was reading Erwin James’s life story I identified with aspects of his experience, in particular, his emotional insecurity and low self-esteem, his difficulty with intimacy, and his relationship with alcohol and anger. His family circumstances while growing up have been described as ‘brutal’, and were more extreme and neglectful than mine were. In relation to modern research he would score much higher than me in terms of ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACE’s), but we both emerged from adolescence deeply insecure, feeling unloved and empty, with a tendency towards anger, depression, alcohol abuse and self-destructive behaviour.
Like James, a lot of my dysfunctional behaviour involved drunken violence towards others, but in my case it also involved violence towards myself in the form of various acts of self-harm. I also abused other drugs to the degree of using them intravenously, although intermittently, over a period of several years during my late teens and early 20’s. Consequently, I contracted the Hepatitis C virus.
Both of us ended up with a string of criminal convictions by our early to mid-20’s, most of which were alcohol related. We were also in and out of various types of manual employment, with only a basic level of education. However, at this point James’s offending became mainly acquisitive and involved serious violence in the process of his crimes. He also experienced extreme rootlessness related to unreliable parenting (he was taken into the care system between the ages of 10 – 15), and a rough sleeping lifestyle.
At 25, I was in prison for wounding a doorman, while James went on the run and joined the French Foreign Legion to escape a double murder charge. The killings took place during violent muggings and robberies. He then spent nearly two years in the ‘Legion’ before handing himself into the French authorities and eventually facing justice in England, and a life sentence in prison.
Near the end of my time in prison, I started some education classes and realised that I was intelligent and had a good capacity for learning. Upon my release I enrolled on an Access to Higher Education course for adult learners at the local FE college. James also discovered his intelligence and his ability to read and learn while in prison, encouraged by a prison psychologist who gave him books and motivated him to engage in classes.
We both took part in therapy during our late 20’s, James seeing a woman psychologist for a couple of years while in ‘HM Prison Wakefield’ (a category ‘A’ prison, nicknamed the ‘Monster Mansion’ due to the high-profile, high-risk status of many of its inmates), while I went to AA meetings, and engaged with different therapists via the NHS for alcohol addiction and problems with my mental health. I also spent a couple of months as a patient attending an alcohol treatment unit (ATU), mainly involved in therapeutic group work.
James acknowledges that his therapy while in Wakefield, and the dedication of his psychologist, was the primary influence directing his process of rehabilitation over the remainder of his time left in prison. Therapy, education, and the care and commitment of others were his saving grace and turned his life around. At the beginning of his prison sentence he lacked any hope or ambition towards life. Through therapy, education and reading he began to hope for some sort of future and started to have a degree of faith in himself. He became determined to live a meaningful and purposeful life while incarcerated in prison, and developed the conviction that he owed it to his victims to do so.
Therapy, for both of us, involved taking responsibility for our past behaviour, acknowledging the truth, and making the effort to understand our childhood and adolescence and its impact upon us as adults – in particular regarding our self-esteem and difficulty with anger in relationships. James had to face up to the gravity of his crimes as part of his rehabilitation process, which included developing some empathy for his victims. This was a very painful process for him – and he still lives with guilt today by the sound of it.
My process has been similar, understanding my past and my part in it, learning to own my behaviour and emotions, and developing a willingness to atone for any harm that I’ve done to others.
I think that, for both Erwin James and I, atonement has mainly been in the form of indirect amends to society. By all accounts James was involved in various good works during his time in prison – he learned braille and produced reading materials for the visually impaired during his sentence, wrote letters for those less literate than himself, and volunteered as a listener for suicidal inmates. He continued to do volunteer work upon his release and has been a trustee for the Prison Reform Trust, as well as being a patron for various different charities. He now sounds like an individual worthy of respect and is a productive and responsible member of society. My impression is that James is someone who’ll continue to be willing to atone for the mistakes of his past.
I too have made efforts to be a productive and helpful member of society during my time ‘in recovery’. I’ve worked for various charities in a voluntary capacity since my late 20’s, in an effort to better myself and be of benefit to others, particularly the disadvantaged and disempowered within society. I’ve continued to work at self-development educationally, psychologically, morally and spiritually. In doing so, I’m now in a position to give back to others from a place of relative maturity and wisdom. I wish to continue working therapeutically with others and humbly assist them as a wounded healer offering authenticity, empathy, kindness and hope for their future.
I’ve also discovered a certain creative capacity for writing, although much later in life than Erwin James did, and I’m not claiming to have anything like his success or literary skills. However, it’s a pastime that’s helped me to grow and learn and is something I can offer in a therapeutic way to others.
Recovery, for me, is a much greater holistic endeavour that just not drinking or abusing other drugs. It’s a process that started in my 20’s and has involved waking up and growing up mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Therapy in its various forms, 12 step meetings, education, voluntary work, community involvement, and the help and support of others, have been the key ingredients of my ongoing process of healing, change and growth.
Erwin James has also been through a long recovery and rehabilitation process and his book is a powerful example to others that redemption is possible… no matter how dark life has become – hope and a journey towards light and a worthwhile existence isn’t beyond anyone.