COVER editor on hitting rock bottom, rebuilding his life and navigating stigma
The age-old cliché of drunks on a park bench with cans of Special Brew, or an early morning hipflask in a suit pocket: these are the images that often spring to mind when people speak about ‘alcoholism'. And yes, of course, it does exist.
However this is not my experience. Many of you know I come from a music and clubbing background. For almost eight years I worked for DJ Magazine, reviewing club nights and festivals, DJing around the world and booking talent for line-ups. This brought a lifestyle that sounds far more glamourous on paper - or in print - than in reality. ‘Guestlists', ‘backstage', ‘after-party' were words that formed my vocabulary for almost a decade, and I was lucky enough to perform in places such as Ibiza, Brazil, Tokyo, Thailand and The Philippines, regularly scoring free tickets for Glastonbury and so on. But with it came a darker, more self-destructive side.
Rather than ‘always on', the music world can be an ‘always on it' culture, where who you know and how long you can go form your list of industry credentials, while ‘working overtime' means a 6am finish or a long-haul flight to a different time zone with an all-night party or two in between.
Away from the loud music, drink-fuelled socialising and green room hobnobbing I witnessed the loneliness of unfamiliar hotel rooms and hangovers in departure lounges. Without realising it, I was self-medicating my social anxiety and numbing the adrenaline of a DJ set to thousands of people; rarely wanting the party to end for fear of returning to the real world.
During my time at university I discovered a passion for electronic music and invested in a pair of turntables, this, combined with my journalism post-grad degree, allowed the stars to align for a career as a jobbing dance journalist. Armed with the perfect excuse to never fully grow up, I cavaliered through my 20s with a Peter Pan-like attitude, living for the moment, and, ultimately, refusing to take on any real responsibility.
Consumed by ego and surrounded by likeminded people, it was not long until I was getting deep into credit card debt, exhausting my overdraft and developing bad habits that were hard-wiring themselves into my thought-patterns in way that, little did I know it, defined my entire sense of identity.
Then around 2017, things started to unravel. My reckless approach to life had left a four-year relationship in tatters and its demise had a devastating impact on my friendship circle. Not long after, my mum was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.
Following a period in which I vowed to stop drinking and be there for my family (this lasted about a month) my mum's deterioration was fast and by the end of the year I was in the grip of an emotional, financial and, some might say, spiritual crisis. I needed a career change, but I was unsure of which way to turn.
Everything I thought I was - or had once wanted to be - no longer felt like a functioning reality. Staring down the barrel of inevitable change, gripped by uncertainty and ripped apart by grief, my understanding of self was a tangled web of denial, resistance and desperation. Luckily I have a good family - in particular my big sister, Hannah - who not only stuck by me through my darkest hour but delivered a heavy dose of tough love when it was most needed.
The reason I can speak so openly about my experience today is because that is how it was. I have not had a drink for almost 18 months, my mental health has drastically improved and I am on course - if all goes well - to be debt free by the end of 2020.
The past year-and-a-half has been a voyage of self-discovery that I have very much benefitted from - one that I hope can perhaps help others too.
But another reason I feel compelled to share my story is because as an industry we speak a lot about ‘burnout'; the term, which has been officially classed as a legitimate diagnosis by the World Health Organisation (WHO), still carries a sense of ambiguity for some.
My ‘burnout' was caused by a perfect storm formed by an unhealthy relationship with the music industry, lifestyle habits, financial insecurities and a series of personal events, including a family bereavement.
As a music journalist/DJ in my 20s, I, like many, carried on as if I was invincible, like I was in some way immune to the dangers of burning the candle at both ends. But of course, little did I know, life always catches up with us in the end, and we are destined to pay a price for the choices we make - especially the bad ones.
Embracing a life of sobriety in the financial services industry - or any profession for that matter - inevitably comes with a degree of self-consciousness. Social drinking, especially at industry events, is the norm and it is more unusual to not drink at all than to drink a little.
‘Problem drinking' is on the whole largely misunderstood and carries with it many misconceptions. I was not someone who drank every single day, I held down a successful career and, on the surface, my life was seemingly manageable. However, telling someone that you no longer drink at a drinks reception without causing suspicion - or at least curiosity - is sometimes no easy task.
There is less stigma surrounding a long-term health condition - societal consensus is that misfortune can befall any of us - however the decision to give up alcohol permanently often spurs a myriad of assumptions and occasionally these can be negative.
It's funny how things work out, however. I would be lying if I said that my dream while at university was to become a life insurance journalist. However, given everything I've been through, I cannot think of many places that I would rather be right now.
The corporate world is rapidly changing, and the group risk and employee benefits market has a huge role to play in helping employees feel supported in the workplace. Aside from the obvious pressure of work-related stress, the social environment and cultural habits of some professions can also present challenges, but these have been overlooked or buried in the sand in the past. They are not easy conversations for HR to have with employees and someone in a bad way usually has to be ready to make a change.
I was personally encouraged to see Aviva recently extend its corporate cover to include social media addiction as well as drink and drugs, while COVER's recent involvement with Getahead Festival - a 24-hour wellness event and club night aimed at raising awareness and tackling burnout - was another example of things moving in the right direction.
Ultimately, the first step towards recovery from burnout requires an individual to be open, honest and willing - and this always needs to be a personal choice. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. However, as an industry, if we can make the right tools available to those who are ready to use them - help breakdown stigma, encourage healthier habits and remind people that it is ‘ok to not be ok' - then the closer we will be to making the working world a much more hospitable place - come what may. We're only human after all.
For more information about 'problem drinking' visit drinkaware.co.uk
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