“Immediately I knew this wasn’t a social call, I knew the game was up”

Jim Duffy, who has alcohol-related brain damage, talks to recovery practitioner Dan Mushens about the day he lost his job, living with the condition, and how it needn’t be a life sentence

By Dan Mushens

“Although I’ve got memory deficits, I remember that day as clear as if it were just yesterday,” says Jim Duffy about the day he lost his job because of his alcohol misuse.

“It was my day off work and I’d been pottering around the house and tidying the garden, when I saw two men approaching the driveway. It was my gaffer and his colleague and immediately I knew this wasn’t a social call, I knew the game was up.”

Drinking on the job

Jim had been a BT engineer for more than 20 years. He speaks candidly about life as a functioning alcoholic and how he used to hide bottles of cider underneath the passenger seat of his old work 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.

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 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.

Jim had been drinking on the job at every opportunity for years and believed he was doing so in a discreet and calculated manner. However, the truth was that his behaviour had become blatant and was common knowledge among his colleagues. Questions had been raised over the quality and speed of his work, and the company had now collected all the evidence it needed. 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 because of 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.

Deteriorating memory

“It was the thought of being unemployed that scared me,” he says. “I’d been working full time since I left school and I had a wife, a daughter, a big house and a hefty mortgage to pay each month. Reflecting on that life-defining day, one of many that I’ve subsequently 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 because I was afraid of what it might mean.”

The morning after his van was taken away, Jim went to the office first thing, signed the relevant paperwork before heading straight to 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 of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).

“I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about when I was told I had ARBD. 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 take notice.”

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 co-ordination 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 foods rich in thiamine.

World of chaos

The road to recovery is unique to each person. “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.”

Jim feels fortunate that Glasgow Council has a specialist ARBD unit which helped him through his journey. However, Glasgow is something of a rarity and the number of other Scottish local authorities with a designated ARBD team doesn’t reach double figures.

Today, Jim is no longer drinking alcohol and is 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,” he says.

“They’re not intrusive and they respect my privacy, but they 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, I’m fortunate. I’m now in my mid-50s and being able to stop drinking has led to opportunities being presented to me that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”

Raise awareness

For example, since 2011 he has been a trustee on the board of the ARBD focus group which aims to raise awareness of the condition, influence public policy and improve services.

Jim speaks 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. 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 is treated. If you have ARBD, you need to focus on what you are able to do and adapt.”

Dan Mushens is a recovery practitioner working in Glasgow 

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