Alcohol-Related Brain Damage – ARBD
Recovery Practitioner Dan Mushens speak to Jim Duffy about the day he lost his job, living with alcohol-related brain damage and how it needn’t be a life sentence.
“Although I’ve got memory deficits, I remember that day as clear as if it were just yesterday. It was my day off work and I’d been pottering around the house and tidying the garden, I saw two men approaching the drive-way, it was my gaffer and his colleague. Immediately, I knew this wasn’t a social call, I knew the game was up”.
Jim had been a BT engineer for over twenty years and in 2001, he was part of a specialist team installing the communications for sporting and music events at Hampden Park Stadium in Glasgow. He speaks candidly about life as a functioning alcoholic and hiding bottles of cider underneath the passenger seat of his old works van. He recalls knowing the location of every lamppost-mounted bin in Glasgow, or at least the ones where deposits could be made from the comfort of the driver’s seat. Even more tellingly, he also knew the day and time of the week they were emptied!
His boss approached and said “Jim, this won’t take long mate, if we can have the keys to the van, we’ll be on our way and we can discuss things in more depth in the morning”. Jim was surprised, surprised that he’d been able to hide it for as long as he had. Wanting to discuss it there and then, he invited them into his house for a coffee where he was given the news that in the morning he was to be relieved of his duties.
For years, Jim had been drinking on the job at every opportunity and believed he was doing so in a discreet and calculated manner, the truth was that it had become blatant and was common knowledge amongst his colleagues. Questions had been raised over the quality and speed of Jim’s work, the company had now collected the evidence they needed and Jim was soon to be unemployed, “an alcoholic without a function” he recounts with a wry smile. “I had been the company’s union representative for a long time but I literally couldn’t defend myself due to the sense of shame and embarrassment, I had no fight in me. I accepted that this moment in my life, was the beginning of the end”.
“It was the thought of being unemployed that scared me” says Jim, “I’d been working full time since I left school and I had a partner, a daughter, a big house and a hefty mortgage to pay each month. Reflecting on that life defining day, one of many which I’ve subsequently had, faced with a future of daytime TV, a remote in one hand and a bottle in the other, I desperately wanted to address my issues. One of the main concerns at this time was the fact I knew my memory had been deteriorating for some time but I didn’t want to discuss it due to the fear of what it may mean”.
The morning after his van was taken away, Jim went to the office first thing, signed the relevant paperwork and shook the appropriate hands before heading straight to see his doctor “to get the ball rolling”. “The years that followed were hard and the effects of that day rippled through every aspect of my life” says Jim. “My marriage ended in divorce, I lost the house and my relationship with my daughter deteriorated to the point that contact is still sporadic”.
Jim recalls a plethora of meetings, appointments and assessments spanning many months, which resulted in being told he was suffering the effects on Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD). “I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about when I was told I had ARBD” Jim admits. “It’s not a term that you
hear much about, but when you hear the words ‘brain’ and ‘damage’ in the same sentence, you sit up and
ARBD is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms which describe the physical injury to the brain due to heavy and prolonged alcohol use and the lack of proper nutrition. The two main disorders are Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. Characteristics include thiamine deficiency which is a B1 vitamin, poor concentration, confusion, poor balance and coordination as well as a lack of self awareness and insight. Jim has experienced them all at some point or another but is keen to stress that one in four people will recover completely following a two year period of total abstinence and a good nutritious diet including thiamine rich foods.
The road to recovery is unique to each sufferer and is seldom a straight forward sprint to the finish line but more like an arduous cross country trek on a sponge like terrain. “I wanted to abstain but it wasn’t easy, even with the best of intentions, peer support at AA meetings and various medications, I relapsed time and time again. I was in and out of supported accommodation, detox and rehab services as well as hospital wards. I had spiralled into a world of chaos with no meaning or purpose and at my lowest, I thought I was senile and past the point of redemption, I saw myself as a snowman whose future was slowly disappearing”.
Scotland has 32 local authority councils. Jim feels fortunate that Glasgow have a specialist ARBD unit who helped him through his journey. However, Glasgow is something of a rarity and the number of other local authorities with designated ARBD team sadly doesn’t reach double figures.
Today, although he is no longer drinking alcohol, Jim is currently living in a supported living service at a purpose built ARBD complex in the east end of Glasgow. “It’s nice to have that reassurance, to know that support staff are around 24 hours a day should I ever need them” says Jim. They’re not intrusive and they respect my privacy, but the staff prompt me
at certain times of the day as my short term memory can be poor, I’ve come to terms with it and have adapted accordingly”.
“The way I see it, is I’m fortunate. I’m now in my mid-fifties and eventually I’ve been able to stop drinking leading to opportunities presenting themselves to me that otherwise wouldn’t have”.
For example, Since 2011 I’ve been a trustee on the board of the ARBD Focus Group whose aim is to raise awareness of the condition, influence public policy and improve services”. Jim speaks very passionately about this role, he considers it his duty to promote this under-discussed condition as he knows how little information was available when he was diagnosed.
“It needn’t be a life sentence” Jim says with a stern face. “I may need a little support now and again but my quality of life is what I decide it to be. If you break your arm, you adapt and get on with things, if you have toothache, you endure the pain until the tooth’s treated, If you have ARBD, you need to focus on what you are able to do and adapt”.