Helping hand to beat the demon drink

THE woman sitting at the polished dining table in an oak-panelled room is playing nervously with her rings, twisting them round and round her fingers.

From time to time she lifts sad, dark eyes from their downward gaze and there is a sudden catch in her voice as she softly speaks, every word carefully considered, as she slowly and methodically dissects each harrowing episode of her alcohol addiction.

Intelligent and attractive, she was a hospital doctor until drink cost her the job she had trained so hard for. She was also a dedicated mother who couldn't have loved her child more until too many boozy nights and hungover days meant they had to be separated.

"This is a new life for me now," Amy* whispers, 17 weeks into her therapy at the secluded Peeblesshire clinic where drunks and drug addicts are slowly and steadily encouraged to confront their illness and reclaim their lives.

"Before I came here I didn't have a life," she adds.

Sitting next to Amy in the grand room overlooking carefully manicured gardens and the rolling Borders countryside beyond, is a well-dressed, finely groomed former wife of a West Linton farmer. Aureol Gillan used to wait until her family wasn't looking before trudging down to the fields in all weathers, where she would rummage in the animals' grimy troughs for her secret stash of booze.

She drank herself into oblivion for 23 years, telling herself it was everyone else to blame.

Eventually, her family decided they had had enough, and left.

Her doctor struck her off his list and Aureol found herself, dishevelled, drunk, desperate and alone. One day she realised she would rather be dead than live as an alcoholic. "I would be dead now if I hadn't come here," she insists.

Across the table is Lesley Macniven, 43, from Corstorphine. Blonde, manicured and dressed in a crisp suit, she used to down four cans of warm lager before leaving the house in the morning to stop her shakes.

Towards the end, she simply lay on the floor, blinds closed, phone ringing, and drank and drank . . .

"I was breaking my family's hearts, but it had to be me who sought help," she says simply.

Three women with different backgrounds but similar stories, who would probably never have met - or lived to tell their tale - had it not been for Castle Craig Hospital.

There softly-spoken, grey-haired, reformed drinker Peter McCann and his wife Margaret, have turned the former public school into Scotland's answer to the London detox clinic favoured by celebrities, The Priory.

The couple opened Castle Craig for drink and drug addicts in 1988. Since then, every possible kind of person has passed through their doors, united by a common problem - out-of-control addiction. There have been footballers, middle-aged businessmen, housewives and skeletal youths with pinpricked arms.

There have been professionals, artists, even priests. Former Hibernian striker Barry Lavety was once a resident, as was celebrated artist Peter Howson, who says the treatment of his drink problem was the best 12,000 he ever spent.

It's that heady mix of local celebrities in crisis, ordinary lives in tatters and the demons that drive some into a downward haze of drink and drugs that has inspired Scottish Television to unveil its latest drama, Cracked, due to be screened in September.

The setting and the theme may have a familiar ring - it is set in a rehabilitation clinic in a tranquil part of the Scottish countryside and follows the lives of the residents desperate for an end to their addiction and the people who are trying to help.

It's not the only drama tackling the issue - on Coronation Street, a storyline is unfolding around Danny Baldwin's first wife, Carol, played by Lynne Pearson, and her drinking problem.

Back in the real world, no-one needs to dramatise events surrounding Amy, Aureol or Lesley's individually drink-soaked arrivals at Castle Craig - each has their own harrowing and - in this booze-fuelled age - cautionary tale of how alcohol can tear lives apart.

"I used to drink just socially at university in Edinburgh with friends," Amy murmurs, eyes again cast down.

"But then very quickly drinking became a daily, or nightly, event. It made me feel better and I didn't see it as a problem."

But as booze began to play a larger role in her life, Amy's behaviour became more erratic. "As a doctor, I didn't drink when I was on call, but I did all the rest of the time to excess - gin, wine."

Things came to a head last summer when she lost her job. Soon after, her child was taken south to live with her father - an event Amy can barely bring herself to talk about. "When I look back I feel so guilty and shameful for the effects on other people.

"Some of it makes me feel horrified and I can't believe I could have done what I did."

Amy, from West Lothian, arrived at Castle Craig 17 weeks ago, first as a primary care patient, latterly as an extended care resident living in one of five cottages in the 45-acre grounds.

Her treatment has not only involved the physical withdrawal from her addiction but also encouraged her to take responsibility for her situation and to realise that only she can stop the drinking.

"It's called the Minnesota Model," explains Peter, adding that the 12-step therapy programme is named after the American state where Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935. "It looks upon addiction as a disease or an illness and that the way to recover is total abstinence from all alcohol and drugs."

For fearful addicts and alcoholics arriving at Castle Craig, there is no short, sharp shock or cold turkey. Instead they are warmly welcomed in an impressive hall with a roaring wood fire and marble fireplace surrounded by soft leather seats.

On the walls is a selection of inspirational - although some might well say cheesy - posters telling readers "A friend loves at all times" and "Each day is a gift from God".

Most - around 70 per cent - come seeking an end to their alcoholism and the majority are men. For at least three days they are gently nursed through their withdrawal, receiving the medication or drugs needed to make their detox as trauma-free as possible.

Then comes the therapy - more often than not it is former Castle Craig residents like Aureol, 49, and Lesley, 43, who provide the support, carefully encouraging people like Amy to talk through their addiction and to recognise how and why drink or drugs wrecked their lives.

"I was in denial of my problem for two years," admits Lesley, a mother of one who was a Castle Craig therapist for 18 months and has been drink-free for four years. "I was a really, really good alcoholic - very good at lying and cheating to cover it up," she confesses. "I would wake up every morning and put on a mask." She lost her driving licence three times for drink driving - a fourth offence could have put her behind bars - yet still she couldn't stop herself being tempted by cheap drink offers that seemed to throw booze into her open arms.

"Three bottles of red wine for a tenner - I couldn't not buy that," she explains.

Jobless after resigning from work in a drunken haze, alienated from loved ones by her illness, Lesley eventually arrived on Castle Craig's doorstep four years ago. Her recovery, she says, will last for the rest of her life.

"You have to work on yourself every day," she explains. "It's hard, but the reward of a normal life is huge."

And across the table, Aureol - who hasn't touched a drop for 23 years - and Amy, who prays she drank her last alcoholic drink ever just 17 weeks ago, nod their agreement.

*Amy's name has been changed to protect her family's identity

CASTLE THAT OPENED ITS DOORS TO TREAT ADDICTS

CASTLE Craig opened in 1988 offering rehabilitation programmes for alcoholics and drug addicts based on a programme similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It offers treatment for up to 90 patients at a time - around two-thirds of them will be alcoholics. Most are referred via GPs and the NHS, alcohol addiction teams or psychiatrists from around Scotland. Others are private patients.

Residents are initially placed in primary care where they undergo detox programmes accompanied by medication and gentle nursing and a thorough assessment of their drug and alcohol history.

There follows group intensive psychotherapy and individual counselling, often with a therapist who has already successfully completed treatment at the hospital. The first stage of the rehab process can take between four and six weeks.

While some residents leave at that point and resume addiction-free lives, many others go into the hospital's extended care programme which can last three to six months.

• Castle Craig Hospital can be contacted via www.castlecraig.co.uk, e-mailinquiries@castlecraig.co.uk or telephone 01721 722763