'It was a living hell'

17th April 2009 at 01:00
It took a suicide attempt for 16-year-old Jon to realise that his drinking was out of control

`No-one should ever feel like that'

Here he tells his story - and how he found sobriety.

It is an alarming story about teenage drinking and 16-year-old Jon is lucky to have come out of it alive. He knows that - and he is glad to be back in control again. But the last two years have been a nightmare.

"It started as a social thing with my friends, then it just developed into a kind of habit and then it was just what I did every day," says Jon, sitting in a tiny meeting room in the local social work department.

Jon's project worker Alison, from Barnardo's Gemini Project in Aberdeenshire, is listening in silence in the corner. The room is scattered with a jumbled collection of children's toys and Pooh Bear is grinning on the table.

His problems started when Jon (not his real name) got involved with a new group of friends outside school. "They were my age and older, some of them, which was a big part of it because they could buy drink," he says.

"We'd always buy two-litre bottles of cider and we'd all have one of those and then we'd have shots or whatever. It could be up to like 12 to 15 shots on top of the cider. It was any drink - it wasn't anything in particular - it was whatever was there.

"For quite a while, I did shoplift alcohol, and that also became a problem. I was involved with the police a few times because of it," he says, looking pale and serious.

The drinking would be outside in the streets in a large group: "To start off with, it was just at night on the weekend, then it got worse, to the point where it was first thing in the morning by the end of it."

Jon had started drinking in third year and by the time he was in fourth year, he was drinking in school. "I was expelled. I got a few exclusions, like suspensions because of the drinking, but it was too big a part of my life to just say I am not going to do that in school. It was too hard to say that.

"I was drinking in school on a daily basis. I was drunk in school and I don't even remember getting expelled because I was drunk."

As his drinking became more out of control, relationships at home deteriorated. "It did destroy my relationship with my parents, and that obviously got me quite depressed in itself," he says.

School hardly flickered on Jon's radar during this time: "That just didn't matter at all. It just wasn't part of my life. I mean, I was hardly at school towards the end. As I say, when I was there, I was drunk."

He describes what happened to prompt Barnardo's involvement: "I think that would have to be the suicide attempt. I took about 100-odd pills one night, and I was in major pain. Somehow, I slept for a few hours and then in the morning went down to my friend's house and my mum came and then took me to hospital."

He recovered within a few days: "I think it would have to be drink that caused it overall, because it was depressing me and it was kind of a rough patch with my family as well."

At this point, he was put in touch with Barnardo's Gemini Project, which supports young people with problematic substance misuse in Aberdeenshire's 17 academies. Three project workers each take a cluster of schools and anyone can make a referral to the service. In schools, guidance teachers, teachers, school nurses and students themselves can make referrals.

Jon's project worker Alison trained as a nurse and has worked in Oakbank School in Aberdeen - a residential school for secondary- age pupils with emotional and behavioural problems - which closed last year. She's also worked in prison with alcohol and drug users and joined Barnardo's four years ago.

"There were all sorts of tactics when I was drinking, how not to take it overboard," says Jon. "There was also plenty of infor- mation about drink. But I think the main thing was helping me to cut down the drinking, so that I could just break the habit and stop really."

Alison is currently working with six young people and sees them one-to- one, once or twice a week, depending on their level of need. "The most important thing is getting to know the young person," she says.

"We are what's termed to be a `tier three' organisation, which means we work with people who have quite a significant problem with drugs and alcohol, rather than the early intervention preventative type work. So by the very nature of it, they will have quite a high degree of drug and or alcohol use."

Project workers offer support to young people between the ages of 12 and 18. "It can be in schools, it can be at home. I am happy to meet them wherever they're comfortable, that's appropriate to meet them," says Alison.

She likes to start by finding out what makes these young people tick - getting to know what their needs are and about their learning style, so she can help them understand how alcohol affects young people. But it's really about finding out what's underneath it, because usually, if somebody has a drug or alcohol problem that significant, there's an underlying reason for it.

"While I would never say it's anything like counselling, there is an element of scratching the surface and seeing what's underneath. Then usually you are referring them on to someone else.

"Many young people can have bereavement and loss issues, so you could be referring them on to somewhere like Cruse, which has a young people's worker, or mental health issues and that would be the young people's department at Cornhill Hospital in Aberdeen.

"And there are relationship issues - obviously liaising quite closely with social work and anyone else involved, because there is a high degree of liaison with other agencies," Alison explains.

Over the past year, most of her work has been with youngsters who have alcohol-related problems, and she explains how drinking may impact on their well-being - "usually their physical health, their mental health, bearing in mind that in the teenage years bodies are still developing, brains are still forming (obviously that affects the physical development as well, to some extent); educationally, relationships, sexual health, offending behaviour - all sorts of different aspects of their life".

With Alison's support, it's clear that Jon is getting his life back on track. He's now studying at college and continuing his sessions with her. "It's still helping me, because it would be so easy to just fall back into the whole drinking thing," he says.

"I am just glad, to put it simply, that I am now in charge of my own life. I can make the decision to drink and then not take it too far. I can just straight up say no to drink - whereas, before. well, yeah. " he pauses.

Jon's no longer living at home but is on good terms with his mum and dad: "I do speak to my parents now and that is going fine. I am getting along with both of them pretty well.

"College is fine enough - it's not my favourite source of entertainment. But the thing is, it is an investment for the future, where- as before, with school, I never saw that, I couldn't see that."

"It's easy to talk about the whole drinking thing now, but it's really hard to imagine what it was like at the time.

"It was a living hell. It just wasn't right. No one should have ever to feel like that, depressed all the time - not caring if you get hit by a car and half-considering, as you walk down the street, whether jumping in front of one would be a good idea. Stupid things like that - it just wasn't right."

Like most 16-year-olds, Jon does not have a clear idea what he wants for his future, but he's enjoying life's simple pleasures.

"I am a bit of a freak with this but, you know, sticking my head out of the window in the morning tasting the air - for some reason that just makes me happy. There are stupid things that make me happy - simple things."

Looking at both sides of the problem

Barnardo's Scotland works directly with 10,000 young people in Scotland across 60 different projects to free children from poverty, abuse and discrimination.

Children's services manager Kathy runs the Gemini project, offering an intensive programme of support to young people with problematic substance misuse.

The service is funded by Aberdeenshire Council through the Alcohol and Drugs Action Team, which has set a "road for recovery" strategy to work on substance misuse with all age groups in Aberdeenshire, particularly young people.

When it first started six years ago, Gemini focused on drug misuse, but 18 months ago it expanded its remit to include alcohol. It works co- operatively with other agencies which offer support to children and families affected by substance misuse.

"We draw on cognitive behavioural principles to inform young people. We give them a better opportunity to make safer choices about what they choose to do - their levels of drinking, their levels of substance misuse. We look at peer influences and at the social environment in which they are taking drinks or drugs," says Kathy.

"I think previously young people may have got automatically excluded. But now there is much more positive thought put in to say `What are the issues?'; `How is it impacting on school?'; `How can this young person be supported?'

"We feel that what we are doing is really embedding what our service offers and professionals are getting much more confident in terms of coming forward and referring young people to us. It's becoming much more visible in a positive way within the educational environment," she says.

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