Finding Recovery Late In Life

by Chae Strathie,  Journalist and Author

Chris Burn opened his eyes slowly, painfully.

He was in a white room, bathed in a radiant, bright light. Where was he? How he had ended up there? His first thought was that he was dead. But in reality he was taking the first steps towards truly living for the first time in more than 30 years.

The white room was in an alcohol rehab clinic, the last one his wife would drive him to after bundling him, paralytic, into her car. He was 47 years old and drinking himself to death. This could be his final chance to survive his battle with addiction.

Speaking to Chris it’s clear from his refined accent and gentle, well-spoken nature that he hails from good stock. “I came from very nice family,” he concedes. “We were all well behaved, my three older sisters and I – nobody drank too much.“I was well brought up and went to a good public school – Ampleforth College in Yorkshire.”

Born in 1940, Chris suffered two early tragedies.“My father was in the army in the Far East. He was killed by the Japanese. Then my mother died from a brain haemorrhage. I lost both my parents before I reached the age of two.” But despite this double loss he insists it had nothing to do with his later problems with drink. Brought up by an aunt, he squarely pins the blame for his long battle with addiction on shyness and social anxiety.

“From the age of 14 onwards I was socially inadequate and I discovered one day at 15 that drink would help with that. I couldn’t pull the girls and a drink or two sure made it easier.” It’s a story that will be familiar to many. The young lad needing a hit of Dutch courage to help lubricate the wheels of teenage love. But what began as a few drinks to steel the nerves quickly slipped into more dangerous territory.

By the time Chris left his teens he was having at least one drink every day. In his early 20s he was drinking heavily at lunchtimes and in the evening every day. A perforated ulcer at the age of 24 should perhaps have been a warning signal, but at the time no one made the connection. And Chris was enjoying himself far too much to stop. He’d trained to be a chartered accountant and by the time he was 26 he had a very good, high-flying job, living in Paris and working for an international accountancy firm.

“I was just about holding it together,” he says, although his condition on his wedding day in 1966 should probably have set alarm bells rather than wedding bells ringing. “I was p***ed on my wedding day,” he admits. “I was utterly p***ed in the church. It’s amazing no one noticed – but I got married on the day England won the World Cup so everyone was p***ed!” His new wife became anxious fairly soon, and as Chris’s behaviour became ever more bizarre and drink-fuelled she became progressively more unhappy. They had three children over the next few years, and Chris says: “She was doing the right thing all the time, while I was doing more and more of the wrong thing.”

There was absenteeism, drinking late after work and risky situations, including being chased by police around London after being spotted driving erratically, waking in the middle of the night on a bench in Waterloo Station and coming-to on commuter trains miles from where he was meant to be.

At work things were becoming strained, too. “I was a manager at that time and promoted the idea of ‘work hard, play hard’. Playing hard included long lunch hours in the wine bar. “But if you’re a Chartered Accountant and p***ed half the time you can’t add up. It was a recipe for disaster. The number of mistakes I made was horrendous.” After being confronted by colleagues Chris agreed to go into residential treatment in 1983, aged 43.

But nothing changed. “I wouldn’t face up to reality,” says Chris, looking back. “Alcoholism is such a strange thing – you’re in huge trouble but tell yourself you can handle things.” Aware he had a problem, but being convinced by those demons that he could take it, that it would all be okay? After leaving rehab, life went rapidly downhill for Chris. He attended five different clinics and was hospitalised twice with liver failure – but still he merrily told himself he could stop when he wanted to. Eventually he hit rock bottom.

“I was without a job and a family, living in one room with lot of empty whisky bottles, drinking two bottles or more a day. “My wife had almost washed her hands of me, but she was the one who came to check up on me and drove me to one last rehab.” There, he woke up in the white room, not quite dead yet.

He embarked on a “12 step programme”, of the kind used by organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. It was to be the saving of him. Chris explains, “The 12 Steps help you face reality, provides help to make the changes and gives you a degree of spirituality to fill the gap that is left by the absence of booze.” A year after leaving rehab, Chris was taken on as financial director of the new Castle Craig Hospital, one of Scotland’s leading private residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics, near the village of Blyth Bridge in Peebleshire.

After taking a break to run his own hotel in Peebles (“It was helpful to stand behind the bar and see how boring and annoying people become after a few drinks. A good reminder why not to go back to it,” says Chris) he returned to the clinic in 2004 to train as a therapist, helping others to overcome the same problems he faced.

Life now is immeasurably better for Chris than it was in his drinking days. And despite what he admits he put her through, there is still hope for Chris and his wife at the age of 74. “My relationship with my children is brilliant, but my wife and I are still a work in progress. “She lives in London and I go and stay with her every six weeks or so and we go on holiday together. We’re seriously planning to live together again. “It was a good thing that she booted me into touch or I would have carried on trying to manipulate and use her. I’m grateful to her for everything – for not completely washing her hands of me.”

I ask him about his lowest point and he returns to the white room. “I faced total humiliation, defeat and surrender. For me, my denial and sick pride was so great I had to get to that stage before I could face reality.” For Chris that reality is now happy and positive.

Chris Burn launches his new book “Poetry Changes Lives” in Amsterdam tomorrow. More information here.