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A dangerous time for turkeys and alcoholics

Over the past 12 months Angus Smyth went public in this newspaper about being a victim of male rape. But the emotional fall-out from his disclosure saw Angus, an alcoholic, start drinking again

Recovering after a stay in Downshire Hospital, Downpatrick, he reflects on a year that also brought the murder of a best friend - and his hopes for 2007.

Christmas can be a dangerous time for turkeys and alcoholics - a time of chestnuts roasting on a leaking radiator, three dud rings, five purple doves and jumpers that would fit a pear tree.

It's also a time to reflect on the past year and make plans for the New Year ahead.

For me, the past year was a rollercoaster and anything but dull - I don't do dull.

In March I decided to go public with my experience of male rape - a decision that I do not regret.

The atrocious treatment of rape survivors in this country is nothing short of scandalous. This is further emphasised by the way the Government has pulled the funding from the Rape Crisis Centre.

Positive difference

Local heroines like Eileen Calder deserve to be on the New Years' Honours List - instead of some of the non-entities that are. People like Eileen make a positive difference to people's lives - and no one can say she's in it for the money.

I felt I had to share my experience of male rape. It would have been a lot easier to stay silent. However, silence is the pervert's key weapon against his victim.

Following the story, I had two distinct reactions. Some people avoided the topic completely while others shared a similar experience that had happened to them.

Rape and sexual abuse seems to be a mutual mass secret that many people from these shores carry around in silence - usually under threat because if they tell it would break-up the family.

Can you really call that a family if they make such demands on one of their kin? However, sexual abuse has a tendency to seep out, masked in the form of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stress, binge drinking, workaholism, drug abuse and numerous other forms of malaise.

May and June of this year saw me end up in the Addiction Unit of Ward 15 of The Downshire Hospital, Downpatrick.

That followed a massive drinking spree when I ended up on the street. My daily routine revolved around getting enough drink for the next 24 hours. I'd grab an hour's sleep now and then before waking full of the shakes. The only cure for the shakes was several quick slugs from the bottle.

My friend Eddie knew what I was like on benders. But this bender worried him.

My body was bloated beyond normal, my hands and legs swollen to at least three times their size.

Eddie knew I was in big trouble. He urged me to get to the hospital. Of course, I wouldn't go and continued to drink. Eddie had known me for almost 30 years. He knew what I was like - both drunk and sober.

Like many other people who came across me on that bender, they just couldn't believe I was the same person they knew sober. I had returned to drinking after eight years without a drink. At the beginning the binges were shorter and less troublesome, but as time went on they became more progressive and devastating.

On my last bender, my legs oozed fluid and blood, and my skin was in open sores.

Eddie kept persisting and somewhere his concern registered.

Testing time

Thanks to him I ended up in the expert hands of the addiction unit at Downshire Hospital.

During my four-week stay in rehab, I faced my biggest test when I learned of Eddie's murder.

Eddie Kelly had been brutally killed in his lodgings in Central Avenue, Bangor. I walked about in a daze for a few days just trying to comprehend the news. He was a lovely man, a man I was privileged enough to call my friend. A man who, a few weeks earlier, had been instrumental in saving my own life.

The staff of Ward 15 were very supportive and I talked out all the anger and disgust I felt. Not once did I think of lifting the bottle again. If anything it stiffened my resolve to get and stay sober. Thankfully I haven't had to take a drink since.

Alcoholism is the only killer disease in the world that convinces the person suffering from it that they don't have it. No matter how long I had gone without a drink, once I'd picked up the bottle again it was as if I had never stopped at all.

I had become complacent about my sobriety. I'd let my guard slip, as well as my discipline of keeping in touch with recovering alcoholics. Needless to say, I paid a heavy price for this and I am under no illusion that the same thing could happen again if I don't maintain an awareness of the dangers.

The Christmas and New Year period is a dangerous time for recovering alcoholics because many people are shoving a glass of wine in my face - shops, offices, you name it.

It's also a minefield trying to find Christmas fayre that hasn't been laced with alcohol.

I love Christmas pudding but trying to find one that hasn't had brandy added to it can be very tricky indeed.

And yet this is also a time of year that I love. Strangely, in the past, it was a time of year when I didn't drink much.

I usually waited until early January to go on a bender, when all the social drinkers and false happiness had cleared from the bars. I couldn't be bothered with oul dolls slabbering all over me and wishing me a Happy New Year - any other time they'd never look at me.

Friend's addiction

Recently, I read with interest of David Feherty's battle with booze and depression.

David and I go back to when Blondie and Madness were storming the charts.

Back then he drove a red Mini that only a fool would get into without a blindfold or an environmentally friendly death wish.

As two assistant golf pros we travelled to tournaments with a dodgy cassette player, Meat Loaf, just one indicator, and the back seat jam-packed with golf bags.

David was instrumental, back in the 1980s, in getting me to first seek help with my own alcohol addiction.

Although, I had tried to paper over the cracks, he knew I was in big trouble with the booze.

I'd gone to work with David on the golf tour as his caddy in the early 80s and life was a laugh a minute - not to mention the occasional chocolate éclair eating contest. In fact, I couldn't eat anything with fresh cream for years after that. I think we polished off 16 eclairs in a minute - eight each. So, roll on 2007.

I'm looking forward to a year of positive happenings.

I wish the George Best Foundation well in their quest for research funding to explore alcoholism.

The red tape of ethic committees hinders much good research, but I hope the Foundation's work includes looking at the role of hormones in the disease of alcoholism, an area that has been greatly overlooked.

I'm also looking forward to voting for Gerry Anderson (above) when he eventually stands as an MLA - for people who don't want to vote at all. The only thing is: if he gets elected would he take his seat? Oh, and how would Stephen Nolan get into Stormont to interview him? Surely, he might get stuck in the door...

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