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Essex residents share stories of addiction and recovery for new campaign

Healthwatch Essex has launched a new campaign encouraging people in Essex to seek support if they are battling with addiction. It is fronted by and co-designed by people in recovery from drug, alcohol and gambling addiction.

The campaign will see posters placed across the county in public areas and medical facilities, featuring photographs of the participants illustrating how their lives have changed since they entered recovery, accompanied by an online social media campaign. 

33-year-old Alex Clark from Colchester battled a severe drug addiction from her teens and into early adulthood:

“I would go to work, be doing cocaine at work, picking up more on the way home, and then drink at home and smash a few sleeping tablets to knock me out. Then I’d struggle to get up the next day; sometimes my kids went to school, sometimes they didn’t.

“I just didn’t care. I don’t know what came over me. All that mattered to me where I was going to get my gear and how much money would I have left over for alcohol. I had to hit rock bottom to pick myself up again. 

“It’s amazing to me that I’ve survived at all, but now I want to use my experience to help others. I think that having access to people who’ve been there and really understand what it’s like is such an important part of recovery.”

40-year-old Chris Gilham from Brentwood developed a gambling addiction which also saw him hit rock bottom and contemplate taking his own life. 

“I was totally consumed mentally by it, 24 hours a day. I’d wake up in the morning and I would be thinking about my first bet and, even when I wasn’t actively gambling, I was thinking about it. I would struggle to sleep, because all I could see when I closed my eyes was a roulette wheel going round and round and round.

“I started to drink heavily as well and it spiralled to the point where I started to consider taking my own life because I could see no other way out. I wanted to make sure that my family was provided for, but when I checked my pension I wasn’t sure it would pay out if I took my own life, so I made a plan to gamble with my own money and a huge bank loan, which would have brought in £200k. Then I planned to take my own life that night.

“Fortunately, I lost the bet and, with it, all the money. I knew I couldn’t then take my life, leaving my family in such a bad place, so I thought, ‘the only thing I can do, is try to get help’.

“That was four years ago now and life is so much better. I no longer gamble, I lead a good life and I’m happy. I now do lots of work to try to raise awareness of gambling addiction and the support channels available and this campaign is very much part of that.”

48-year-old Lisa Walker from Rainham, also struggled with addiction for many years after her gambling spiralled out of control following a big win of £127,000 at a casino in Essex.

“I had always gambled but, after that win, my gambling escalated. At one point I remember gambling £4,000 in one day at a bookmakers and I knew it was a problem but I just didn’t know how to stop. I also felt a huge stigma of being a woman with a gambling addiction.

“In the end, I spent some of my £127,000 winnings but then, instead of paying off my house, I gambled the rest. Not only did I lose it all, I re-mortgaged the house three times, took out bank loans and credit cards to the point where I ended up, in 2012, standing on my own in Romford County Court declaring myself bankrupt. I was homeless with my children and it was just awful.

“I’m now back on my feet and am starting a women’s addiction support group for others who are struggling with gambling. I want people to know that they aren’t alone – don’t struggle in silence – there are a lot of people out there that are willing to help you. Pick up the phone – take the first step and talk to someone about your problems.”

Samantha Glover, Chief Executive of Healthwatch Essex, said:

“The challenges of the past few years, with multiple lockdowns, restrictions and financial challenges for many, compounded by the stress of the pandemic itself has been very challenging for people battling addiction. It’s also been a time when people may have been sucked into addiction because of the stressful or isolated circumstances they may have found themselves in.

“It was against this backdrop that we felt it important to gather people’s experiences of addiction services in Essex. The work we have done over the past year has helped us form a picture and the participants were so keen to help others that this campaign emerged out of that work. We hope that sharing their stories widely and highlighting the importance of the peer-led support which all of our participants found so valuable, will help others realise that recovery really is possible.”