In 2013 my father was diagnosed with advanced oesophageal cancer. His tumour was inoperable and his decline was rapid. At the time I was living overseas, studying at graduate school, and for a short while I came home to be with him in the last weeks of his life. When he died in September of that year, I returned to my life in the United States and was encouraged by a mentor to seek bereavement counselling. Thankfully, the institution I studied at and worked for made access to mental healthcare affordable and relatively straightforward under a health insurance plan I received as an employment benefit. I took the advice of my mentor, found a therapist who I felt I could stand to work with ( I was very resistant to the idea), and attended sessions as regularly as I could.
Though we never learned exactly the reasons why my father developed oesophageal cancer, I quickly learned that lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking alcohol could be potential triggers. My father had smoked and drunk heavily his entire adult life; perhaps there are some that would consider his drinking patterns symptomatic of alcohol dependency. For my part, I’d struggled with alcohol since my early teenage years. I’d binged during my teens and early twenties, and then slid into the equally dangerous habit of drinking daily. As the years went by I frequently found myself drinking alone and at inappropriate times because I needed to, rather than because I wanted to, though of course I managed to justify the urge as the latter to myself. There were moments of great embarrassment and shame, and instances where I put my own safety and that of others at risk. It was sheer luck I didn’t cause any permanent damage to my life or anyone else’s. My family and friends had expressed concern, and tried to help me face the fact that I might have a problem, but it was entering therapy, initially for bereavement counselling, along with the reality of what may have contributed to my father’s early death, that finally helped me to admit the truth of being an alcoholic. Though it’s been very difficult at times, I’m relieved to say I’ve been sober six years. My advice to others would be to accept help when it’s offered to you, even when you feel skeptical, or it may require you swallowing a great deal of pride to do so; you do not need to hit rock bottom before you allow someone to give you a hand up.
A few years ago I often thought of my route to sobriety as a happy accident. My dad died and I just so happened to be in a place where grief counselling with a very smart therapist who saw through my BS immediately and sorted it out. But it wasn’t an accident. I was incredibly privileged to be in the position I was: at university, in employment, with support of those who cared. Most importantly, I had easy and affordable access to mental healthcare, and I credit this, among other those things, with changing my life for the better. I would also add that education and awareness of what support is available is key; again, I was in the privileged position of being surrounded by people who knew what I might need and how to help me get it, where many are not. It seems vital to me that this kind of information finds a way to reach everyone. My wish is for greater sustained investment in mental health services in the UK. More money to meet all the operational needs of these services (including human resource), education programmes in marginalised communities, awareness campaigns, as well as support and training for mental health professionals to help them reach people who may not know or understand what they do, and for what those professionals do to actually speak articulately to different communities so the people within them can truly benefit on their own terms.