Traumatised and Brutalised -An Alcoholic’s Journey
John Thomson awoke at 3am on 7 June 2010 in a homeless hostel in Ipswich. He was smeared in his own vomit and soaked in urine, lying alone on a filthy bed, dishevelled, dehydrated and desperate.
John was an alcoholic in the final throes of active addiction and the vodka bottles littering the floor of his room were all empty. For the next few hours, he paced the room, gripped by rising panic. At that time in the morning, there was nowhere to buy more alcohol and John felt himself going into withdrawal.
“The physical pain of withdrawal is almost unbearable and it can kill. Your heart races uncontrollably and you experience a feeling of sheer panic. You have convulsions and hallucinations, your stomach churns, your eyes can even start to bleed. People can die from heart failure as a result of having no alcohol in their system. And there is only one thing that makes the pain stop – alcohol.”
Pain, humiliation and despair
As soon as the shops opened that day, John staggered into his local store to buy more vodka. Taking one look at him, the shop assistant refused to serve him. John’s feelings of panic increased. He has only a hazy memory of how he managed to acquire the alcohol he craved, but acquire it he did and later that day, drunk and consumed with pain, humiliation and despair, John tried to kill himself. His attempt failed after he became wedged in the open window, unable to propel himself through it. Smiling darkly at the bleak humour of the situation, John collapsed back into the lonely squalor of his room.
A spectacular fall from grace
Five years earlier, John’s life had been a completely different story. A talented TV producer, John had risen up the ranks of Scottish Television in his native Glasgow to become an assistant producer in the sports department. His lifestyle reflected his successful career. He owned a beautiful home and was married to a beautiful wife. He rubbed shoulders with the sporting elite and, on more than one occasion, dined alongside royalty. It was in 2006 that John’s life began to fall apart and by June 2010, he had hit rock bottom.
Lucky number 13
On the day that John tried to take his own life, he found himself being given a second chance. He received a phone call from his community psychiatric nurse, Ed, who had spent the previous eight months trying to help John. Realising how desperate John’s situation had become, Ed took him to St Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ipswich. There, John completed his 13th consecutive detox to get himself clean from alcohol. He then discovered that 13 was his lucky number, because that particular detox was to be his last. John had his last alcoholic drink on the 7th of June 2010.
Although the pain of detoxing was the same as his previous attempts, John’s felt something change inside him during this particular detox: “Despite receiving large doses of Librium to help me relax, I was overcome by feelings of panic and pain. I’d had so much alcohol during my final binge that the drug had very little effect. I continued to shake, panic and dry vomit. I could not sleep and time seemed to stand still. I sat there, praying for the morning when I would be able to have more of the drug. But, on this particular night, something changed inside me.
“I had reached rock bottom and I realised that I couldn’t do this any more. I was finally willing to change. That night I saw a vision of a man and a woman at my bedside. They gave me a feeling of hope. When I asked the staff in the morning who they were, they told me that no-one had been in my room with me.”
The place of miracles
While the two-week detox helped John to combat the physical problems of alcohol withdrawal, his addictive tendencies remained and it was only by committing to a longer programme of residential rehabilitation that he could hope to address the deeper issues of alcohol dependency. Always before John had resisted the invitations to go into rehab, believing he could control his own alcoholism. Finally, he was able to face the truth, that he was an alcoholic, that he couldn’t control his condition and that he needed help.
It was 12 weeks before John was admitted to the rehabilitation centre in Weston-Super-Mare, somewhere he now refers to as The Place of Miracles. He spent those three months when he was waiting for admission living in his parents’ home, monitored constantly to ensure he had no opportunity to acquire alcohol.
“I had an overwhelming sense of emptiness,” explains John, “of not being able to feel. Alcohol seemed to fill that terrible void in my life. I knew I had a problem with alcohol but never would have admitted by being an alcoholic.”
John believes that he has an addictive personality that made it more or less inevitable that he would engage in self-destructive behaviours. At the age of 17, when he had his first taste of alcohol, John drank until he passed out. Throughout his life, a series of traumatic events and a stressful career fuelled his tendency to drink. As a child, John was brutalised by growing up under the Apartheid regime in South Africa from the age of 9. “I saw fear in the eyes of the people around me and they lowered their eyes and stepped off the pavement so we could pass them. It makes me really sad when I think about it now.”
At around the age of 16, walking home from rugby practice, John witnessed the aftermath of a family shooting: “A girl came racing towards me, screaming as she grabbed my arms and began shaking me. She was about my age, in a school uniform.” John entered the garage from which the girl had emerged and found a scene of carnage:
“In the back set of the car there was a boy, perhaps a bit younger then me, sitting upright. His head was slumped onto his shoulder and there was a hole in the left hand side, with blood trickling down the side of his face. He was very still.”
Also in the garage was a man, lying dead, with an automatic handgun clutched in his hand and woman, on her hands and knees, who had been shot. John watched helplessly as the woman died in front of him, her eyes never leaving his own. “I saw something I had never seen before, life ebbing away from another human being, a soul drifting away.”
Violence as a way of life
In the aftermath of the shooting, John says: “Life went on for me. No counselling was offered, either by the police or the school. Violence was a way of life in a country torn apart by fear.”
It is difficult to imagine the impact of such a gruesome discovery on an impressionable mind, but witnessing the death of the woman also awakened in John a belief in something beyond the human spirit that was to serve him in later life and act as a source of comfort in his darkest hours.
Like every teenager, John began experimenting with alcohol. But, unlike his friends, John consumed his eight cans of beer one after another as they walked to a party. He was 17. At the age of 19, John experienced another major trauma that was to affect him deeply. He was working for a civil engineering company in Johannesburg and had recently volunteered for the military police. Driving home one night with a work colleague, John lost control at the wheel of the car. John’s foot was torn off by the force of the crash and he later lost his leg, his colleague was seriously injured. John had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Despite his horrific injuries, John made a good recovery and returned to work for the same company. He adapted to his disability and found himself enjoying his work. But beers after work started to play an increasingly prominent role. What his colleagues did not know was that, after bidding them goodnight, John was returning to his parents’ home to carry on drinking alone.
Return to Scotland
In the early 1990s, John returned home to his native Glasgow. After lying about his qualifications, John secured a job with Scottish Television as an audience researcher for a new talk show. He loved it and quickly gained experience as a researcher on all kinds of different programmes. A higher salary meant that John could spend just about every night in the pub after work, often continuing his drinking at home.
Eventually, John was offered a position as news assistant on Scotland Today, the station’s flagship news programme. It was then that his drinking problem began to get out of hand. The pressure of working to deadlines and the stress of the job meant that there was an ingrained drinking culture in the newsroom. When he started working shifts in the newsroom, out of sync with pub opening times, John began to drink alone.
“Drinking with friends had lost its appeal. Deep down, I knew that what I really wanted to do was to loose myself in alcohol.”
It was around this time that he experienced his first withdrawal from alcohol: “One moment I was fine, the next I suddenly became panicky, anxious, unable to stop shaking.” Perhaps recognising the signs, a colleague instructed John to go straight home and rest. He didn’t. John went to the pub and ordered a pint of lager. After 20 minutes, and three pints of lager, the shaking stopped. It was a pattern that was to become very familiar.
Highs and lows
In 1997, John moved into the sports department as assistant producer. While he was there, he met and fell in love with Kirsty, whom he later married. Unbeknown to Kirsty, her husband’s alcoholism was tightening its grip. “Events from my past began creeping up on me – the parking garage with the woman, lying broken and bleeding in a field, the feeling of being alone, of being different.” John kept his problem drinking hidden from Kirsty, sneaking off for a quick drink whenever he could.
His career had reached new heights as he mixed with famous faces from the football world, even rubbing shoulders with royalty in his privileged position with Scottish TV. Then, one cold day in November, John disappeared. Exhausted after producing and directing live Rugby World Cup coverage from Australia, he bought alcohol and checked into a hotel room. He drank, alone, for five days before staggering home to face his wife.
Kirsty was understanding and supportive. John told her everything, promising to change as she held him close during his withdrawal. The following day, 10 minutes after Kirsty left the house, John was back in the local store buying vodka. It continued like this for months. John was admitted to the first of many hospital detoxes “a chronic alcoholic in the grip of the most misunderstood illness in the world.” He was diagnosed as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and bipolar mood disorder.
Their relationship gradually unravelled until, in 2006, John and Kirsty parted. John moved into his own flat in Glasgow’s West End where, over the course of 12 months, he almost drank himself to death. On Christmas Eve that year, John cut his wrists. He was found, on Boxing Day, by a friend, Marcus, who took him to his parents’ house on the East Coast of England.
Repeated detox attempts followed, all of which ended in failure. Alongside alcohol, John began taking large numbers of painkillers. His life became so chaotic that he was unable to hold down a job or pay rent. Family and friends gradually backed away and John found himself with no option but a homeless hostel.
A retreat from the world
When John finally entered residential rehabilitation in 2010, after his second suicide attempt, he was convinced he would be “cured” within four weeks, John actually spent five months undergoing intensive rehabilitation – everything from Tai Chi and prayer to one-to-one counselling and group workshops. No TV, radio, internet, mobile phones or music players were allowed. It was a total retreat from the world among people facing similar problems and challenges. They followed the Twelve Step Programme espoused by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is all about honesty – facing the truth about oneself and one’s behaviour.
“On the second day, my counsellor asked how I felt. I replied glibly “fine”. But, he persisted, he wanted to know how I FELT. That’s when I became fearful. The world had taught me that it was a weakness to share my feelings with others. I felt vulnerable and afraid. But, facing up to how I was feeling was the true start of my recovery.”
Hope and joy
At the end of that time, John would emerge from rehab transformed from despairing alcoholic fixed on a course of self-destruction to recovering alcoholic, determined to live a good life and share his new-found hope and joy with others. “The weight of the world lifted from within me during rehab and it was replaced by joy,” says John. “I felt inspired to sing during my treatment, to laugh and to write. My awakening re-opened a spiritual door for me that seemed to have been closed throughout my alcoholism.”
Since his emergence from rehab, John has returned to film production. His company, Greatful Productions makes films about recovery and other areas of care for people who suffer with other illnesses. John’s inspiration for his work is simple – hope can always be found, even in the darkest of hours. And John wishes to carry this message to others who still suffer. Greatful Productions can be found on Facebook and a website is on its way…
John has also embarked on a career as an author, self-publishing the first in a trilogy of personal memoirs called Seer. It tells the full story of John’s life and how he found a new hope and a new vision in his life when his sobriety awakened a special ability within himself. And it’s this profound experience which keeps John sober. Seer’s website can be found at http://jonnytommojt.wix.com/seer
Reflecting on his own story, John says: “There’s always hope, even when all seems hopeless. Within each and every one of us is something so special, so unique, so gently powerful and so beautiful. This ‘something’ is life. And today sees me a grateful man to be alive on this incredible journey. For me, life isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s through the struggles that I grow as a person. And with this strength and this gift of sight, I see the beauty in life now and I intend to do the best I can to help others see there’s always hope.”
One day I’ll meet my own end. And when that moment comes, I hope and pray I can say, with a smile on my face, “I did my best” And if my best was to help only one other person, then my best was good enough.”
© Uplifting Stories