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How a remarkable project on the Ards peninsula is proving a lifeline to addicts

At the age of nine Brian had his first drink. At 32 he had a stroke, brought on by alcoholism. So, how is this dad-of-four finally building a future?

By Stephanie Bell

In an idyllic setting nestled in the village of Ballywalter on the picturesque Ards peninsula – a world away from the stresses of modern life – a unique new social economy project is helping alcoholics and drug addicts to turn their lives around.

Eden Village which is run by the anti- drugs charity FASA is proving a haven of hope and industry – a place where people of all ages whose lives have been overshadowed by addiction and mental health problems are finding new purpose through work and interaction with others.

The former derelict builders' yard set in around two acres of land is now a hive of activity and production with a garden centre, book shop, second-hand furniture store and coffee shop all being run by people who are desperate to get some normality back into their lives.

The charity had a vision of creating a recovery centre where addicts who have faced tough struggles can find a peaceful way to integrate back into society.

While there are counselling services and complementary therapies at the centre, it is the hands-on work experience which participants find makes a real difference, allowing them to acquire new skills and helping them to regain their confidence.

The charity bought the site three years ago for the project and as they have gradually transformed the old buildings and the grounds, lives too have been transformed.

Sam McCullough, community recovery support worker at the Village, says: "Many people are in a dark place when they come to us. They may have come through therapy and then Eden Village is like the next stage in helping them get back into the community.

"It has a social aspect and business end.

"People are enjoying the therapeutic process of working in our garden centre, upcycled furniture store and coffee shop.

"We have a big barn which we are turning into a Men's Shed where guys can work together, shoulder to shoulder, and we also have a woman's group."

No-one is turned away and while there is a strong focus on addiction, the charity has found that in the past few years as many as 80% of people accessing the services have been suicidal.

Sam says that by giving people the chance to work together it has helped reduce the stigma about addiction in the community.

Two men who say the project has transformed their lives share their inspirational stories on how they have found the strength to battle many years of alcohol addiction.

'I would have died but for a Good Samaritan'

Brian Smith (39), a father-of-four and former businessman from Bangor, has struggled since the age of nine with alcoholism. Brian started volunteering in Eden Village in April and is on his way to recovery. He says:

I was working on a milk float when I was nine and getting £30 a week. It was a lot of money and after buying clothes I would spend the rest of it on drink.

By my late teens I was drinking on Friday, Saturday and maybe Sunday as well. I did my GCSEs, although I don't know how, and trained as a baker and opened my own business.

The drinking progressed in my 20s to a few nights during the week as well as at the weekend. I guess because I was young then and could bounce back quicker that allowed me to continue to work and run a business.

In my 30s I was drinking every evening. I was probably downing a litre-and-a-half of vodka and a couple of pints at a time. When I was 32 I had a stroke – my body just couldn't take it anymore – but it didn't stop me.

I've tried everything over the years, AA, detox – I have lost count of the times I've been in hospital – and I was so desperate I even went to the police station one night and begged them to help me.

I was married and have four kids aged from eight to 16. My marriage broke up and I have been unable to see my kids, which is one of the big reasons I am now working on beating the alcoholism.

I've always managed to work despite the drinking and up until last year I was running a business, which folded last Christmas for a number of reasons.

It was in April of this year that I heard about FASA and joined the Eden Village project.

It has been a godsend.

"Sitting at home is just not an option for me as I would go crazy and reach for a drink.

"I'm working at Eden Village five days a week. Down here you do a day's work and you are knackered and just happy to go home and watch TV.

"It's given me a real sense of purpose. It's hard work but great. I'm helping out wherever I can, doing whatever is needed, such as joinery and brick work.

A lot of us are in the same boat here so there is no stigma.

"When you stop drinking you get over the shakes in a few days but it is the social side that is the hardest thing, because drink is everywhere. Keeping busy here has helped.

I've never taken time out to sort out the alcohol part of my life and that is what Eden Village is allowing me to do.

It's the first time I've ever worked for free but I'm getting more out of it than anything else I have ever done.

The great thing is that the guys I'm working with have been through the same thing and it's like therapy, although you don't realise you are in it.

You feel you are not on your own, we all yarn and have a laugh. It's very good-humoured.

I'm not entirely off the drink because I have tried that and it doesn't work. In the past when I stopped completely, it only lasted a couple of months and then I would have gone back on to it as bad as ever.

I am allowing myself an odd bottle of red wine at home while watching a video in a controlled environment if I feel I really need to drink.

It's working for me so far. I haven't had a drink in three weeks and I haven't binged in months. If I feel like a drink I just tell myself I will wait until tomorrow and see how I feel.

Before April, when I joined FASA, I would have been able to down a 10-glass bottle of vodka in 10 seconds and then would have been falling all over the place.

It's great now to get up in the mornings and not feel cloudy.

My mind is so clear and I can do what I need to do.

Earlier this year I had passed out in the park in Bangor on a freezing cold day with the rain lashing and some Good Samaritan saved my life by ringing an ambulance.

That was a wake-up call and I would love to know who that person is so that I can thank them.

One thing I have never had which I have now is a wee bit of hope for the future.

Eden Village has given me that. I am taking my time, for the first time in 30 years of drinking, to get sober and deal with my alcoholism.

The thing about FASA is that it is not that well known and there are people out there who could do with it and don't know about it. I hope sharing my story helps get that message out there that there is help available and they are there for people."

'I knew I had to stop drinking otherwise I'd lose my kids'

Adrian Izett (54) is a father-of-three and former taxi driver from Bangor who lost his marriage, job and home to alcoholism. He has now been sober for four years and is hoping to help others recover from addiction. He says:

I had my first drink when I was 18 in a bar after I finished work. I drank at weekends for a few years and alcoholism gradually crept up on me.

I didn't see it as a problem. I thought it was normal for a long time. It then became every other night until eventually I was drinking every night and by the end, in the mornings as well.

I would have drunk a two-litre bottle of cider and four or five bottles of beer in one night.

Even when I had my family and was drinking every other night in my 30s I still didn't see it as a problem.

My wife was concerned but I just was in denial and always said I could handle it.

It got to the stage when I couldn't wait to have a drink at night. In 1990 our daughter Zoe was born with a serious heart condition and my drinking really increased then with the worry of that.

She had major surgery at six weeks old and then when she was six years old. She passed away when she was seven-and-a-half. The death of Zoe and me drinking really put a terrible strain on our marriage.

Dear help my wife – she persevered for a long time but finally couldn't take it anymore. I was working as a taxi driver and my money was going on drink and not paying my bills.

I became useless. I just couldn't stop drinking. I think drinking was my comfort zone.

We divorced seven years ago and it then became obvious that I couldn't see my girls if I was drinking all the time. I lost my house – it was repossessed because I wasn't paying the mortgage and I lost my job.

Mentally and physically I was totally drained.

The turning point came about four years ago when I was brought into hospital for detox for the third time.

Someone told me about FASA and a week after I got out of hospital I rang them.

I knew I really had to stop as I didn't want to lose my kids because of my lifestyle. I was frightened.

Going to FASA was a real turning point.

They made me feel like a human being and at the time I had stopped feeling like a human being. They cared and that really struck me as I didn't care about myself anymore.

"I got acupuncture to deal with anxiety and their kindness and belief in me gave me self-confidence and self-esteem again. I got my self-belief back and I haven't looked back since.

It's not a walk in the park. There is a battle but once you weather that storm and start seeing the benefits, it opens up a whole new horizon.

FASA helped me to rebuild my life one step at a time and they are always there for me.

I started in Eden Village six months ago and have learnt lots of new skills. It's absolutely fantastic, I absolutely adore it.

I've now been asked by FASA to volunteer in a new 24/7 crisis centre they are opening in Belfast and I just cannot believe that I have been asked to do something like that.

My confidence shot through the roof.

It's what I want to do, to help others and encourage them that anybody can do it and the benefits are unbelievable."

Helping those who are in crisis

* FASA – The Forum for Action on Suicide/Self Harm and Alcohol, drug and substance misuse – was set up in 1995 by a group of concerned parents on Belfast's Shankill Road to tackle the growing problem of substance abuse among young people.

* In 2001 it received charitable status and has continued to grow its services.

* The charity has an ethos that it does not turn anyone away, no matter what the issue or circumstances.

* A whole range of services are on offer from counselling to acupuncture and one-to-one support work.

* It now has three centres in Belfast, Bangor as well as Eden Village and also has plans to open a new crisis centre in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast.

* From four staff in 2001, the charity now employs 50 people and supports around 3,000 people every year.

* To find out more visit it's website at www.fasaonline.org.

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