THE STREET TO RECOVERY
Kevin Kennedy – Curly Watts from TV’s long-running Coronation Street, and so popular he drew in 22million viewers for his TV wedding – has now been sober for 15 years. He shares his experience of alcoholism and rehab, strength of recovery and hope for the future with Addiction Today readers.
Sometime in the morning, I came round. I’d blacked out from the drink, with no memory of the night before. As soon as I opened my eyes, before I’d even focused on the room around me, I knew I had done it again. After all the promises, even swearing on the Bible and all the pleas for second chances, I’d still gone ahead and lost it. The four hideous horsemen – shame, remorse, self-disgust, and, worst of them all, fear – had found me, again.
The sickening realisation that yet again I’d let down the people closest to me, flooded through me. Mentally I started a damage control survey. However, even though I hadn’t worked anything out yet, one overpowering thought loomed up – I wasn’t very far away from needing another drink, badly. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand upright without one, but one thing I was certain about, was that I wouldn’t be able to get out the front door if I didn’t have something to drink.
Now, before I did anything else and even though alcohol had got me into all this trouble, I started to work out where that first drink might come from…
I couldn’t find my wife Clare; she finally left me. Somehow I got to work, driven at my wife’s request by ‘Heather’ from Alcoholics Anonymous. Always punctual, this day I could not get out of the car…
Brian [Parks, the producer of Coronation Street] insisted Clare come in and she relented. Brian told Clare that he was shocked at how bad I seemed to be – “he’s in a terrible state, he’s very poorly”. When she did arrive he explained to her exactly what they were going to do; that the studio had booked me into the Priory Hospital nearby, and that I was going to be taken there to recover properly – that this was to be no short-term ‘drying-out’ but the full package of rehabilitation. They were going to need Clare’s assistance to get me there.
Also, they had started to make plans to write me out of the storyline for six months. Brian Parks saved my life. He chose rehabilitation rather than sacking me. It has to be said that this ‘american way’ might be because they get back a better product, making it purely good business.
I suppose I knew, even though I was non compos mentis, that this was it: The End. As I was helped over the threshold and into rehab, I could never have imagined that it was The Beginning.
DAILY SUICIDE: WHAT IT WAS LIKE
Over my 20-odd years on the Street I never fell out with anyone on set. Some people find this odd, but there’s an obvious reason for it. The set-up, the intense working conditions and the pressure that comes with being a Coronation Street actor doesn’t really allow for feuds or prima donna behaviour; there simply wasn’t enough time. I loved being on the show and I genuinely loved the people I worked with.
Actors are very protective of each other, both on stage and on set. There’s no doubt that people were aware of my drinking long before I was, and that I was looked after by the actors and crew. I’m grateful for that. Alcoholism, as I’ve always said, is the only disease that tells you you haven’t got it when you have. As part of that denial, I hid my drinking on set. If I wasn’t too shaky, I’d be fine, and I’d manage a few scenes before lunchtime. A pint or two at lunchtime was legitimate; at lunchtime I could go to the pub, then if I had a couple of Rovers scenes in the afternoon, maybe no more than three or four lines in each, I could get away with it. When I heard the word “Action!”, certain things happened to me mentally and physically. Adrenaline took over. My professionalism took over.
I was drinking a lot once I’d finished work by now and some mornings I found it a bit much. I tried to curb my behaviour as much as I could but I would still end up feeling awful after a night out. As the drink took hold, I am ashamed to say that by then there were some days when all I wanted to do was say my lines in the right place with some sort of emotion behind it and go to the pub. I really didn’t care enough by that point.
I can’t watch any episodes from that time.
WALKING TALL: WHAT HAPPENED
A lot of people in recovery, I would learn, talk about their final days of drinking as a time when the writing was on the wall, and that it was just a matter of time before they accepted who and what they were. That they needed help.
The car pulled up outside the Priory on Friday 14 August 1998. I had to be helped to the front door by Heather and Clare as I couldn’t stand up. I was wailing and sobbing because I was beaten at this point, totally defeated. I have only vague memories of those moments, I was out of it because of the vodka I’d drunk very quickly.
I was helped down the corridor to Room Four, next to the nurse’s station. It was like a hospital room with a little bathroom attached, and had no locks on any doors. The nurse helped me climb into bed, I needed her assistance as I was lost, I was in a dreadful state.
The overriding emotion I felt was massive horrible shame. The nurse gave me some sort of Valium to calm me down and hopefully help me to sleep. Everyone else, like Heather and Clare, had been ushered away, as no outside influences were meant to intrude while I rested. That suited me fine. The nurse stayed. My old friend, Kevin Lloyd of The Bill, had died three and a half months ago when he’d choked on his own vomit. Nobody wanted the same thing to happen to me.
When I woke, there was someone else sitting by my bed. I recognised him. He used to run a pub, I even worked behind the bar for him a bit when I was at drama school, all those years ago. “Hi, I’m Phil, remember me?” I must have nodded. “I’m one of the counsellors here now. You’re going to be okay, I’ll see you on Monday.”
All that I could think of was my dreadful shame – now everybody knew I was an alcoholic. I didn’t know then but all addicts feel this dreadful shame on being found out. Paranoia is common, too; less common was my egotistical view that ‘everyone’ was interested to learn about my addiction. After all, we’d not long ago had a press conference about my drinking – surely they’d be hovering outside my room now?
I found out later that both Clare and Brian had given statements to the papers about me going into rehab. Clare had said “Kevin wants to get well and regain control of his life. He recognises at this stage that he cannot do it on his own and that he needs medical help”. Brian had added “We agree that, given the continuing difficulties, the only solution is an intensive period of treatment for his condition”. After that, the papers decided to leave me alone.
I didn’t know that at the time though, and it just added to my total despair. How could I work again? Who would want me in their lives? Everything was gone. No feeling of hope whatsoever. Everything had collapsed – mentally, physically and spiritually.
Somehow I got through the week, in a daze. When I woke up at the start of a new week, I was told to go to a meeting. Maybe because I was still a little spaced out from the Librium, or perhaps because I knew without understanding that this was part of the process to make me better, I meekly went along with what I was told to do. I’d surrendered to ‘them’, whoever ‘they’ were.
I went into this small room, with six other inmates, and was welcomed in by a woman who introduced herself as Win Parry. Win’s opening gambit was: “You’re here because you are ill. You’re not here because you’re bad, wicked, or any of the above – you’re here because you are ill”. The heavy cloud hanging over me for the last couple of days shifted a bit.
“This is the beginning,” she continued. “This is not the end. It is the end of a certain chapter of your life, but the beginning of another.”
She went through what was going to happen in the days and the weeks ahead, how they were going to help rehabilitate us by changing our thinking. “Honesty is the key. You’ve all got shameful stories. You can’t afford to go into denial any more, you’re in it together. You’re part of a group, and in that group there is strength.”
This is how mad and deluded I was. I’ll do this course, come back with my brilliant idea, the scriptwriters will love it – Curly goes through rehab. It would be a great story, I could see awards.
Win carried on explaining what was going to happen. “What we’re doing today is talking about how you feel. British people don’t talk about how they feel; you go up to someone in the street, ask how they are and they’ll say they’re fine but that’s a lie. This whole experience, this recovery, is all about you expressing those feelings of honesty. It’s about how you feel. To encourage this, you will keep a daily diary, a feelings diary. I woke up, I feel bad, I feel terrible, that sort of thing.”
I felt a bit rejuvenated by everything so far; the little pinprick of light that had shone on me when she’d explained I was ill had expanded as she’d been talking. Win added “You might do 90 meetings in 90 days. If you do that, and don’t drink in between, you’ll have a very good basis for recovery”. She finished by reminding us all that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, and thinking it’ll be different.
We had three sessions a day. The first session was from 9.00-11.00, then a coffee break; the second session from 11.30-1.00, after which it was lunch until 2.00, then our afternoon session, 2.00-4.00, before it was social time. After that we had to write our diaries. I’d not done so much writing since I was in drama school.
It’s all based on the 12-step programme, it was explained to us that we’d be taken through the first four steps in the Priory. I found I had to write extensively for step one: my drinking. When I arrived at the Priory, they’d taken a sample of blood. I was as honest as I could be for my step one – but was taken aside and told that the sample showed I had cocaine in my blood. I was adamant that I hadn’t taken coke, but they said that was probably during a blackout.
On the Wednesday night, we were all told we were going to an AA meeting then ushered into a minibus. This was the first time I’d been outside the front door and, as the van drove out of the gates, I nearly ducked to avoid photographers, but no one was there. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. I realised I felt relief.
In the minibus on the way back to the Priory, I said “I didn’t understand any of that. They’re all mad these people, very nice but all crazy. Not like us”. I thought the others would agree with me but they didn’t. I think they’d started to twig what the process was about more quickly than I did.
When we arrived back, it felt like the evening had brought us all together a bit more. Instead of all heading back to our rooms to write in our diaries, we all went down to get a hot drink. I got chatting to a couple of people, and it was talking with them that made me realise I did have things in common with them after all.
The next morning, when it came to the time for people to read out from their diaries, I found myself becoming very close to this group.
We went to three evening AA meetings a week, all in different places. Eventually I started to listen to the stories, the human side; people who’d lost their jobs, wives, everything, yet these people looked happy. They were laughing, and I thought, this is quite attractive, I could live like this, these people are happy, not miserable. The process of AA is abstinence, and while I didn’t like that, I was starting to think about it.
In the second week, there was a bit of a breakthrough for me. We were in a meeting talking about the 12-steps, and Win asked me “Do you understand this?”. I said I didn’t and a huge smile came across her face. She said “That is the first honest thing you’ve said since you came in here”. Something clicked inside me. I’d heard them talk about being honest, but I didn’t know what it meant. When she put it like that, and that I was supported for saying it, I understood. I knew that drink was horrible stuff that would lead to my death, but I’d felt the rest of all they were talking about was nothing to do with me. At that moment, the penny dropped. When she smiled at me for being honest, I found myself wanting more of that reaction.
There’s a moment in every alcoholic’s life, the crisis point I suppose, where they are confronted with the reality of their lives and their futures.
It certainly hit hard, when it was my turn. To stop drinking or die. Your addicted brain will try anything to soften the blow but there’s no way round it. That’s the worst of it, knowing that the choice to live will lead to recovery, and recovery will be hard. Eventually, I had to decide to just do it – to stop drinking, and live.
On Friday, I told the meeting it was my birthday. This was not how I expected to be spending my birthday, usually a lot of booze was involved. Win said “What a great birthday present to give yourself: sobriety”.
Clare came to see me the next day. She’d stopped drinking and was going to AA meetings. She was great; protective and lovely, and happy for me that I was in the right place. I explained to her what I thought the programme was all about. There was a light in her eyes.
SOME JOYS: WHAT IT’S LIKE NOW
Before I became sober, my goal was merely to drink like a normal person. In recovery, I’ve been asked to tell my story on This Morning. I returned to Coronation Street, with a sponsor, and people were kind to me. I recorded the Bulldog Nation record with Simon Cowell. I qualified as a scuba diver. I coped with being written out of Coronation Street – and returning earlier this year.
In between, I toured as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, sang in Chicago, acted in pantomime, starred in TV show Spanish Capers, played the childcatcher then Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and starred as Pop in the Queen musical written by Ben Elton, We Will Rock You, at London’s Dominion Theatre.
In recovery, Clare and I had two children. We were both newly sober, and we’d been given another chance in our marriage. I should have been dead, or insane. I was given another chance.
The Street to Recovery by Kevin Kennedy, out on 31 October, is priced at £12.99.