'I went teetotal after drinking 60 units a day - but lockdown put me close to relapse'

Jon Williamson from Norwich struggled with his addictions during lockdown

Jon Williamson from Norwich struggled with his addictions during lockdown - Credit: Jon Williamson

One month into the first lockdown Jon Williamson stood on the edge of relapse. 

The 41-year-old, from Northumberland Street in Norwich, had taken his last drink in June, going from drinking at least 60 units of alcohol a day to sobriety in nine months. 

“My sister died from pancreatic cancer, ” he said. “Watching her die like that made me need to stop.” 

But when the country locked down in mid-March, Jon’s routine of four to five sessions of therapy and two to three AA meetings a week was pulled out from underneath him. 

Since the first lockdown started, Jon has only seen his therapist once. 

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“It was like I’d hit a brick wall,” he said. “Being stuck inside, left me feeling like a prisoner in my own home.

"I think the chronic depression is what battered me down, the thought of drinking made it worse and added more depression. I felt like I was dying in my own home.” 

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Although AA meetings continued online, people who had come to rely on the human interaction suddenly found themselves at a dangerous loose end. 

He lives in the Heigham Grove area of Norwich, one of the most deprived in the county.  

The link between deprivation and addiction has long been clear, with more harm from drinking befalling addicts in poorer areas, as well as higher rates of drug addiction. But concerns are now growing that the fallout from the virus will make things worse.

"I’ve noticed a big increase in alcohol consumption over the last year and during the lockdown especially, across the whole spectrum of deprivation, " said Dr Tim Morton, chair of the Norfolk and Waveney Local Medical Committee. "It’s escapism from your situation."

Data from last year shows some areas of Norwich had more than double the admissions to treat alcohol-related conditions than others. 

Norwich and Great Yarmouth saw twice the number of admissions than the more affluent districts of North Norfolk, South Norfolk and Broadland.  

They were also the only two areas that were above the England average of 626 admissions per 100,000 people. Norwich saw 812 admission while Yarmouth saw 766. 

GP and clinical director of Norfolk Primary Care Network Jeanine Smirl said it was inevitable that health gaps in substance misuse and mental health would widen as a result of the pandemic, and added it was clear that a reduction in face-to-face services was affecting substance misuse. 

Dr Jeanine Smirl, GP for St Stephen's Gate Medical Practice. Picture:NWCCG

Dr Jeanine Smirl, GP for St Stephen's Gate Medical Practice. Picture:NWCCG - Credit: Archant

“More people are drinking alcohol,” she said. “There are fewer face-to-face contacts from the drug and alcohol services, and inevitably some people will find that more difficult.” 

Vicki Markiewicz, executive director of Norfolk's drug and alcohol service Change, Grow, Live, said increased demand for drug and alcohol services was expected.

Change, Grow, Live director Vicki Markiewicz. Photo: CGL

Change, Grow, Live director Vicki Markiewicz. - Credit: CGL

“Substance misuse, social inequality, and poor health – mental and physical – are all connected," she said. "This is clearly shown by data over the last decade, which shows that harms related to drug and alcohol misuse are significantly higher in deprived areas."

Charities are also stepping up to help.

Ellie Coulson is from the Matthew Project’s Unity program which supports young people misusing substances as well as those affected by someone else’s substance misuse. 

She said since the summer the service had a seen a “huge increase” in the number of young people affected by the substance misuse of others, with 800 more than connections made compared to last year. 

“The affects of lockdown have been really severe for young people,” she said. “All of their social lives and learning disappeared overnight. Some were spending lots of time in homes with substance abuse. That would have affected their mental health massively."

She added: "In households struggling with poverty and where parents have lost jobs, there is very little for young people to do when you can’t leave the house or don’t have school.” 

Other projects are struggling for funding as a result of the virus crisis, creating uncertainty for the people they support. 

Wayne Copsey from the Norfolk veteran drug and alcohol support service Outside the Wire said all smaller charities were in the same boat. 

Wayne Copsey from the Outside the Wire project

Wayne Copsey from the Outside the Wire project - Credit: Wayne Copsey

“As it currently stands we have funding until October next year,” he said. “We’ve been funded for the last seven years by the Royal British Legion, but they have their own problems now so that is coming to an end. Everybody is scrabbling for the same pot of money.  

“We enhance lives so much with our service. We have saved lives in the veteran community, and because we’re staffed by veterans, other veterans do come to rely on us and find it easier to use our services. ” 

Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust psychologist Beth Mosely said that addiction and mental health were intrinsically linked with poverty.

“We know that mental and physical health are intrinsically related,” she added.

“We really rely in the voluntary sector because we can’t provide all the care that is needed.  

“I think there needs to be real thought about how the sector can be supported going forward because it’s inevitable that there will be an increase in mental health problems.” 

Anyone who needs support should contact the below organisations: 

  • NSFT First Response: 0808 196 3494. 
  • NSFT Crisis line Norfolk: 0300 790 0371 
  • NSFT Crisis line Great Yarmouth and Waveney: 01493 337958 
  • Samaritans: 116 123 
  • The Matthew Project Next Steps: 01603 981 686 
  • The Matthew Project Unity: 01603 216420 
  • The Matthew Project Outside the Wire: 01603 626 123 

Tomorrow: Our manifesto to improve health inequalities in the region

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