It is not hyperbole to say that without the Island Day Programme I probably would not be alive today. I may only be thirty years old, but when I was first put in to contact with the Island Day Prorgramme (IDP) I was drinking at least twelve cans of lager a day. At 2.5 units per can that’s thirty units per day. Or 210 per week. A weekly recommended amount is 14. As Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern said, while talking to the BBC, "It's a tragedy that we're actually seeing cases of young people in their 20s dying of alcoholic liver disease, when this can be prevented. The so called 'alcopops generation' have grown up in a society where alcohol is available at almost anytime, anywhere, at incredibly cheap prices and promoted non-stop.” This was certainly true of me. For years my routine was to wake up and drink until I felt “myself” again. Only then could I operate like the other humans I saw. Go outside, communicate, socialise. Alcohol and myself had become so inseparable that I couldn’t even remember what being actually sober felt like.
At the age of twenty-five, I watched the tragic and heart-wrenching documentary Rain in My Heart, which can be viewed on YouTube. It follows the stories of four people whose lives have become ruled by alcohol, and their attempts at recovery Very early on a 26-year-old participant in the programme dies. This shocked me so much that I finally made contact with my GP and told him I was really scared about my drinking and what I felt like it was doing to me. I had a blood screening and I can still remember him exhaling as he looked at my liver function test. He told me, as bluntly as I needed to hear it, that if I didn’t sort myself out I was in serious trouble. I was put in touch with Tower Hamlets Community Alcohol Team and at my assessment they breathalysed me. I was ten times over the drink-drive limit. “That’s not bad for 11 in the morning!” the nurse said. I could only laugh, while assuring him that I definitely had not driven there. After some consultation and checking that I was serious about getting sober they funded me to stay in a detox for twelve days, and then I completed three months at IDP in South Quay, a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf.
This involved me going there four times a week and spending the day in a mixture of group and one-to-one therapies where we discussed our childhoods, why we drank or used, our anxieties. All those things men (although it was open to women, it was all men there while I attended) just never talk about. There I learned a lot about myself and why I had got myself in to the state I had, that I wasn’t alone in feeling the way I did, and seriously challenged myself beyond what I previously thought I was capable of. IDP was run by RAPt, the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, meaning that a lot of people referred to it had either just come out of prison or were doing the programme to break out the cycle of recidivism. It was there I saw first-hand that something as simple as finding it difficult to read, then subsequently being written off at school could lead someone down a path of seeing themselves as worthless and into an endless cycle of addiction, crime and rehab. To say I stuck out would be an understatement, but I got on with the people I went through the programme with. I think we all really appreciated and found funny how different our backgrounds were, and yet we’d ended up in exactly the same position.
It was also at IDP that I first graduated from something, having failed on several occasions to complete my undergraduate degree while drinking. During my ceremony other patients who’d graduated before me came back and we all shared how much I’d grown from the frightened and shaky boy straight out of detox on day one to the far more relaxed and confident person I’d become. My graduation from university was to come a couple of years after I finished the IDP programme, and it didn’t match the sense of accomplishment I felt that day I finished IDP.
Since then sobriety has been tough at times, but I’ve had what I learned during those months at IDP to remember and get me through the hard moments. If I was 25 and went to see my GP today to say I was very worried about how much I was drinking, how ill I felt, and that I was unable to stop I don’t know what would happen. IDP had its funding cut and closed down last September. RAPt still continues to run its services in prisons and other areas of the country, but the support offered by IDP is no longer there, and this is by no means an isolated case. Blenheim, a drug and alcohol recovery charity, stated that from 2011 to 2016 in London alone there was a 50% cut in funding for drug and alcohol recovery services. DASL (Drugs and Alcohol Services for London) in Newham closed in March 2016 after serving the community for 35 years (www.dasl.org). These closures do not only impact upon the initial stage of detox and rehabilitation, but also on-going support, such as training and help to find employment. These are the things which really change peoples’ lives, and improve society as a whole.
All over the country similar services are facing closures. In December 2016 the O’Connor Centre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme also shut after its funding was cut by Staffordshire County Council, and the Baytrees Residential Detox Centre in Portsmouth closed in May that same year. This increasingly common story is certain to continue as the effects of the cuts of austerity Britain deem more and more of these services superfluous.
At the same time that the government is suggesting, in another cost-cutting measure, with-holding treatment from patients unless they improve their lifestyles. While at the moment these proposals mainly centre around smokers or people who are obese, it does not take too much of a leap for this to include every aspect of a person’s life that is unhealthy, of which alcohol addiction would undoubtedly fall. However, people don’t choose to drink themselves to death because it is fun, and many do want to stop. But in a climate where almost all services to support them to do this are shutting down, this is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain. As with many social care services, it is now falling upon the third sector to plug the gap which is being left by these disappearing rehabilitation services. It is getting to the point where the only options for many now with substance misuse problems are AA or NA. They’re both good and helpful organisations, but from my own personal experience I had to be literally forced by my detox clinic to attend my first AA meeting because I was so against the idea before I went to one and saw that, contrary to my imagined impression, there were people there just like me. There were, unbelievably from my perspective, some people even younger than I was.
But AA and NA can’t help you through those first dangerous weeks of giving up, where you need medical supervision. Without access to that there’s no way the theoretical 25-year-old me of today would get sober enough to attend an AA meeting. If I’d not got given up when I did, I never would have been able to finish my BA, I never would have done an MA and I never would have got to do a PhD. I probably never would have given up drinking. There are potentially thousands upon thousands of people with the potential to achieve great things out there, but who need the same help I was given to allow them to realise it. The fact we’re closing down these opportunities for people to save their lives is something we need to be collectively ashamed of as a country.
Elliot Snook is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University. He is currently conducting a project on the state-led gentrification of social housing in east London. Prior to this he completed a BA in Sociology (First Class (Hons), followed by an MA in Social Research (Distinction) at Goldsmiths, University of London. He can be contacted at E.Snook2@newcastle.ac.uk and tweets from @elliotsnook. He is particularly interested in developing work within urban theory and the sociology of space. He runs a blog about gentrification and the housing crisis at www.elliotsnook.com.