Richard’s story of alcohol rehab

Two people embracing in group therapy

Whenever people get in touch with us at UKAT, one of the first things they always ask us about is what life in rehab is really like. Many already have their own preconceptions about what to expect. Some are worried that rehab will be like some kind of prison where everything is restricted, while others think that it is just a glorified health retreat that won’t be effective in helping them come out of isolation and build connections.

To help everyone get a better understanding of what rehab involves and what the day-to-day experience is really like, we spoke to one of our UKAT Alumni members Richard, who stayed at our Recovery Lighthouse centre. We hope that Richard’s account will reassure and encourage other people to reach out and begin their journey to recovery today.

How did your addiction to alcohol first develop?

“I developed an increasingly chronic alcohol addiction over the course of about five years, but I realise now that I was an alcoholic for over ten years. There were three things that happened in my life which really fuelled the illness. My dad died, my wife developed breast cancer and my daughter developed an eating disorder. I just couldn’t handle it.

“A few years after that, I eventually entered rehab. I had sought various therapists in the last three years and went to one Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting a week, but I could only do about three weeks without a drink before I would relapse and things would worsen.”

Richard’s story is similar to many clients we meet. Their addiction develops slowly, with difficult events in their lives acting as catalysts that worsen their dependency. Due to this gradual development, it is only later that many people realise how long they have actually been addicted. Richard explains:

“I’d been drunk in meetings before, so I was definitely a functioning alcoholic. But I didn’t consider it alcoholism because I had a job, and I knew that if I had a problem, they would get rid of me. My problem was right in front of me in a San Pellegrino bottle full of wine, but I was being paid. So as far as I was concerned, I didn’t need help.”

Why did you decide to go to rehab?

“It wasn’t my decision to get help. It was my wife and a very good friend who intervened. Lockdown prevented me from going to work, so it was hard to avoid alcohol. When things were bad at home I had tried to book into an Airbnb, and I knew exactly what I would do when I got there, but lockdown prevented me from doing so. I couldn’t go home and had nowhere else to go, so agreeing to rehab was the last resort. I was tired, and because my wife and friend had already contacted UKAT, the research side had been done for me. My wife sat next to me and said she wasn’t moving until I made the call.”

While it is important to note that nobody can be forced to go to rehab before they are ready, Richard’s story shows how crucial an intervention from loved ones can be. It is often only when made to face your addictions by the people closest to you that you will really begin to see that you need help.

Did you have any preconceptions about rehab?

“I had no clue. To be honest, I only had in my mind famous people going away to The Priory for a few weeks and talking positively about it. I had never thought about what actually happened there. I had paid for private counselling, so I expected that would be a part of it, but I didn’t know how many people there would be or any other details.

“We had looked at different centres and decided on Worthing so that I could be near the sea. When I signed up, there was a bed available for the next morning, so I had one night at home before I went in. I wanted to go in for two weeks but the admissions advisor insisted on a minimum of four weeks. It was made very clear from my assessment that four weeks was needed if I wanted it to be a meaningful rehab stay.”

At Recovery Lighthouse, we follow a 12-step recovery programme, and you will need to dedicate at least four weeks to your treatment in order to complete the initial steps. However, it is worth noting that depending on your situation and history, this is the minimum recommendation. The longer you are able to commit to rehab, the more you will get out of it.

What was a typical day in rehab like?

“There is a structured daily routine that we’d follow. A typical day once I woke up would be to take my medication, then make a hot drink and go into the garden for a chat before the morning group started. This would be fifteen minutes of guided meditation, followed by group therapy. We’d stop for lunch and then in the afternoon we’d have a recovery-specific activity. This could be relapse prevention, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation walk or art therapy. Then twice a week I had one-to-one therapy. Each evening, there was a process meeting; this took place over Zoom because of lockdown. We’d all congregate in the main lounge area, and we would watch and participate in a fellowship meeting (I liked the fact it was a mixture of fellowships – mainly AA, but there was also Cocaine Anonymous (CA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Saturdays were pretty free to read and relax with other clients, then Sunday evening was an hour of Big Book study. There is also an ongoing piece of work that you’re preparing during your stay, such as your life story presentation or something for your step or care programme.”

(Big Book is the affectionate term given to the main text used in Alcoholics Anonymous.)

What did you like most about rehab?

“The best things about rehab are the structure of your programme once you’re in there, the supportive community and the compassion and professionalism of the therapists. In a way, the most difficult hurdle is walking through the front door. Once you walk through the door and it’s shut, then just really try to embrace it and accept that it’s the right place for you to be. I still do guided meditation every morning, and I still refer to the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) handbook. In particular, the rehab acronyms like HALT, which is a relapse prevention tool where you stop to ask yourself whether you are feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It’s a way to stay mindful and self-aware.

“Rehab wasn’t just about giving me four weeks’ therapy and saying “there you go”. It was so much more; I’m still able to call and reach out to the therapists even though I’ve left. The weekly aftercare on Zoom has also provided me with really valuable advice. I’ve only missed two sessions and can feel the difference when I don’t attend. I like that you are encouraged to continue group work because I’ve learned that the opposite of addiction is connection. I have really thrived in the aftercare sessions because they remind me of where it all started, and the new people remind me of how far I’ve come.”

At UKAT, we provide a range of different treatment and therapy approaches to attend to different clients’ needs, as well as the nuanced nature of addiction. Every client has their favourite approaches which help them make breakthroughs, but as Richard affirms, a major part of recovery is connecting with other people. Nobody has to deal with their addictions alone.

Was there a difference between treatment you received in rehab and those you had tried before?

“The AA meetings felt completely different because I was fully engaged with them at Recovery Lighthouse, whereas before, I just sat at the back and didn’t want to understand or accept what was going on. I only went to get my wife off my back and didn’t get a sponsor when advised by my then therapist, which I now realise hindered my progress.

“A sponsor would have been hugely beneficial because they are like a spiritual guide; they have been through it themselves, so they understand what you are going through. It really clicked for me while I was in Recovery Lighthouse, and it was a revelatory moment. While reading the Big Book, I realised that all fellowship meetings are in some way like a group therapy session. You are understood and accepted straight away, which is a revelation because you’ve spent so long thinking nobody understands you. The first session was frightening but listening to others made me understand I needed to be there. I didn’t like it, but knew I was in the right place.”

Many of our clients experience a similar breakthrough moment to Richard. Addiction feeds off denial. Denial often causes rifts in families and friendships, which enables addiction to isolate the person. Being able to recognise and admit you need help is always key to recovery.

Did you get on well with the other clients?

“Yes, we still have two WhatsApp groups – one for those I met in the first two weeks and one for those I met in the second two weeks. I even saw someone who was in Northern Ireland recently that I built a relationship with there. Of course, some people have dropped off, but the core, around eighty percent, are still active. We all celebrate each other’s milestones too.”

Has rehab made a difference to your relationships?

“To be honest, they didn’t really change while I was there because I’d lied so many times to my wife. She didn’t believe that it was going to work because when I was previously getting help myself at AA and through therapy, I was getting worse rather than better. I called my wife and mum every day, and if they were there, then I would speak to my two children too.

“While I was in rehab, my wife had a long call with my key worker, who confirmed to me that my wife’s trust had completely gone. As there was a lot of scepticism, it was only once I came out and it became apparent that I was making changes that things started to improve. Initially they thought I was acting curiously, and it took a long time. But in the end, it was an indescribably better relationship than before. I still find it incredible how it works, and because I’m a pragmatist, I don’t really understand how! But I’m so glad it does.”

The damage that Richard’s addiction caused to his relationships is something that we see all too often in our clients, but seeing families come together again through the recovery process is one of the most rewarding aspects of addiction treatment. At UKAT, we provide full support to our clients and their families to guide them through the rehab process and to help them rebuild their relationships.

How do you define addiction?

“The two things that upset me the most about addiction are that it’s a disease that tells the sufferer that they don’t have it and that it makes them act in a contradictory moral way to how they’d like to act. It’s a powerful, self-destructive, irrational impulse.

Addiction is a mental disorder with physical side effects. It’s a mental illness – the disease sits in the mind and impacts and influences everything you do. Through all those years, the scariest thing is that I just didn’t comprehend why I was drinking more and more and isolating myself.”

How have people treated you differently since you left rehab?

“The most prominent change has been setting healthy boundaries. The physical benefits of my health are so obvious that people will comment and say that I look really well, but I need to put boundaries in place and say that although it is amazing, I still have anxiety, so I’m still working on things internally.

“Some people decide not to drink in front of me, and others don’t. Again, I am very clear about people being comfortable being themselves, and if there comes a point at which I’m not comfortable, I now have the confidence and self-awareness to tell them.”

How have you treated people differently since you left rehab?

“For me, the pivotal moment during the twelve steps is when you do step nine – making amends to those who you’ve harmed. This entails literally saying to people that you fully regret your behaviour and that you’re doing everything you can to change it. Saying this to my boss and Managing Director was really stressful but also cathartic. It’s making daily amends to those closest to me, by staying sober and behaving decently, that makes the lasting difference. I haven’t been able to make amends without crying because they’re emotionally charged, but when you do them, people realise you’re serious about it.”

As can be seen from Richard’s account, addiction recovery is not always easy, and there are difficult steps along the way. However, it is always through opening up and being honest with the people in your life as Richard did that you can begin to start again and build a healthier and happier life free from addiction.

Final thoughts

Addiction is a powerful force, and it takes commitment and courage to take the necessary steps to change your life. What is most important is that you recognise a change is needed and that you reach out for help.

We have had so many clients like Richard at UKAT who didn’t acknowledge there was a problem or that they needed help for years but whose lives have now been positively transformed. For anyone who is still unsure about rehab or is worried about what it involves, we asked Richard for one insight about rehab that he wants you to know:

“I think the one thing that surprised me very quickly is how much laughter there is in rehab. As painful as some of the treatment and self-realisation can be, there are still times when I miss being there because every single person in rehab gets you and supports your journey.”