Regular visitors know how much I will stand up for the NHS, which does a great job for so many people, and whose basic values and principles are currently under attack from the top-down re-organisation that David Cameron said would never happen.
They know too that I have an ongoing interest in the issue of alcohol abuse, and its prevalence in the UK. So though it is rare for me to criticise the NHS myself, I am happy today to give the blog over to Johnny Selves, who contacted me after my Panorama programme on alcohol a few weeks ago. Aged 44, from Hampshire, he runs his own software development consultancy.
Awareness and education are most definitely at the root of dealing with what to other countries seems to be the UK’s alcohol obsessed society. But our NHS, and the labelling in our society of addiction as self-inflicted, weak, selfish and unintelligent behaviour,is shamefully letting down those who desperately need and want help.
I had a background of habitual/social drinking going back twenty years, coupled with a temperament that has made me prone to anxiety and “relief” drinking (“self-medication”). In the autumn of last year the stress of work, personal frustrations, the annual onset of winter blues, and an adverse reaction to mis-prescribed anti-depressant medication conspired to create a perfect storm and devastating decline into near catastrophic alcohol abuse.
The initial tipping point led to a visit to A&E, where I was given general advice on cutting down and dealing with anxiety. I was discharged and sent on my way.
To me it was obvious that this was just the start. A few weeks later, my (then) GP angrily instructed me to stop drinking, go to Alcoholics Anonymous and keep taking the anti-depressant medication. This was appalling advice. I had already reached a point where simply quitting overnight on my own was not possible. AA, as wonderful an organisation as it is, is an abstinence support group. They do not offer (or claim to offer) professional help for dealing with giving up or the very real and dangerous effects of withdrawal. The anti-depressant medication coupled with alcohol was continuing to give me dreadful psychological side-effects, and the fact that I was having difficulty with them made me take them sporadically, which exacerbated matters.
Over the next few months, things got steadily worse. I would have a week, maybe two, where things appeared to be getting better. But both my physical mental state had suffered such blows that these remissions came to inevitable ends. I sought the help of more GPs, who gave a range of different advice, including gradually reducing the amount I was drinking over time and visiting a local drop-in centre, where the key-worker I was assigned barely spoke English. I was advised that as a last resort, an NHS detox facility would be able to help. When the time for this final option came, I was dismissfully told that my drinking still wasn’t really bad enough to warrant their care and that in any case they were not an A&E facility. Needless to say a few weeks later a letter did arrive, offering me an appointment a further three weeks down the line. It was now clear that the NHS would not be able to make me better. For the first time in my life, both my body and mind were starting to fail. It seemed that the only thing that would help the excruciatingly painful and intolerable feelings was alcohol.
A few days later I entered a private clinic. I knew that at last my road to recovery had begun. My illness was not complicated, not untreatable. It required medication and professional care, just like any other illness. When I left the clinic, my life was mine again. I now had the ability to finish the job that the doctors and nurses there had started. The journey was not over but at last I was back at the helm.
So as I said at the beginning, the significance of my story is twofold.
The stigma of alcohol abuse in society creates dreadful complications in dealing with what is, in no other measure, an illness. It makes it difficult for people to concede when they are ill and difficult for people to seek help in the same way that they would with other illnesses. I was lucky to have the love and support throughout of my parents. The strongest of my friends too were with me to the end. But others looked on in genuine bemused bewilderment.
But far more tragic is that possibly thousands of people, who, even after they have acknowledged that they are ill, are unable to get the treatment that they need, because, by its own admission, our beloved NHS is simply not able to provide it. In my case I fear that had I not been able to get private care, that my next encounter with the NHS may have been following a serious accident, for a liver transplant, or worse.
It is estimated that 34% of people in our prisons are severely dependent on alcohol – and without doubt a huge proportion their crimes are linked to their addiction. How better it would be if the money spent on incarcerating them could be spent on NHS facilities and resources.
But the real cost is a human one. Broken homes, broken dreams, broken hearts.