The tantalising hope of recovery

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Mike Guilfoyle remembers 'Blaine', a former client trying to overcome alcoholism whilst on probation

It was not long after the end of a supervisory experience that resonated with me for many years afterwards, that I came upon one of the most unflinchingly moving accounts of alcoholism and the struggle to recover from its dependency that I have had read. John Healy's The Grass Arena was awarded the J R Ackerley prize for The Best Literary Autobiography of 1988.

Indeed one of those who worked with John Healy and featured in the book was a former probation officer, Clive Soley (later MP for Hammersmith). I recall how close his searing account resembled in many ways some of my professional encounters with Blaine (not his real name). Blaine had been convicted of a string of minor public order offences whilst under the influence of alcohol.

First impressions

On the day he first reported, the receptionist at the probation office notified me that a 'scruffy man, who appears to be drunk', had fallen asleep in the waiting room and 'he mentioned your name before he drifted off!’.

Although I was inured to the vagaries of behaviour when clients reported ‘under the influence’, seeing Blaine splayed across several chairs and emitting a sonorous snore, as well as giving off a pungent odour was quite a sight! After being roused from his stupor, it was evident that he was 'unfit' to be interviewed and after some steady encouragement, he left the office with an appointment card for the following week. 

I noted from the pre-sentence report, that a whole battery of earlier interventions had not achieved more than brief periods of sobriety and that the one person most likely to act as a 'change agent' was Blaine's long-suffering sister. She rang me before our next appointment, detailing the many personal issues that had resulted in her brother's prolonged history of alcohol abuse, telling me about his 'sincere desire to be dry' and 'not to give up on him as he was a good man'.

At our next appointment, matters had not improved although this time I deemed that his level of intoxication was perhaps borderline and therefore some modest supervisory contract could be initiated. 

Pathway forward

What, I queried, might be the most productive pathway to addressing his high level of dependency and also what had he found so far had worked to achieve his own stated ambition that ‘I need to be somewhere I can stay and recover'? That appeared to offer some tentative scope for canvassing the many community/residential centres that offered targeted rehabilitative interventions for alcohol dependency, but in the interim how best to support Blaine? 

I had collated a list of local and accessible drop-ins/AA support groups, but he gruffly demurred at such suggested options. He had indeed just been 'removed' from the patient list at his GP's practice for using 'threatening behaviour whilst under the influence of alcohol' and was now living on the streets - the 'grass arena' in John Healy's telling phrase for the parks and streets of the inner city. 

A glimpse of change

I had, for the moment, to accept that holding his attention and getting him to report whilst developing an empathic relationship offered a glimpse of enabling hoped-for change.

To my surprise, Blaine reported again to the office, but not at the appointed time, and as the receptionist pointedly noted 'he was slightly swaying’, which meant a measure of flexibility would need to be introduced. Alas this pattern of reporting was short-lived, as the next time, he failed to attend. However, to my pleasant consternation he was discovered laying outside the probation office fast asleep, spotted by a passing police officer who, after rousing him, Blaine noticed me and I undertook a street level interview!. 

I had arranged a provisional appointment with a detoxification programme prior to any longer-term recovery option. I offered to accompany Blaine to the appointment, which I sensed would be a challenging one. On the day, I arrived at the centre, and was informed that he had turned up earlier; but was 'unfit to be interviewed' and was considered 'very high risk' in terms of his chronic alcohol consumption, homeless lifestyle and health-related concerns. ‘He was looking very battered and bruised' commented one of the staff, who asked 'Do we re-refer?’.

It seemed at the time, that the direction of the order was heading inexorably towards breach. His reporting dropped off and all attempts at enlisting community resources thus far had fallen short. His sister rang, often in a state of high anxiety, as she remained his main anchor point, and she had not heard from him was worried for his welfare. 

Towards re-engagement?

After a gap of some weeks, breach action having been commenced, there was the reappearance of Blaine, now a penitent client committed to re-engaging

Once again the receptionist informed me, with more than a gulp of disbelief, that 'Blaine is in the waiting area, in a suit'. To my honest amazement, it was indeed Blaine and in spite of all my misgivings, he said he had been sober for several days, ‘self-discipline is how you do it Mr Guilfoyle!’

At the end of our meeting, we had agreed a renewed reporting and contact schedule and I had contacted the Local Authority link person, whose role was to approve funding for referrals after an assessment interview, and most likely being placed on a waiting list. This last possibility left me with a measure of mild apprehension. How long could Blaine remain sober?

Hopes for change

My lingering hope of such a welcome and long sought-after outcome was however sadly dashed and once again after one further appointment, Blaine returned to the streets and contact was once again lost. One day not long after a telephone call came through via reception. 

I recognised Blaine's sisters voice saying 'he's dead, he's dead'. She continued to explain, clearly desperately upset, that he was 'drunk on a piece of ground' - (a grass arena) - 'he had banged his head, was in a coma and then died'. Struggling to contain my emotions I thought I heard her say that a witness had heard him shouting repeatedly before his fateful fall that 'Mr Guilford (sic) will fix my rehab'. Our call was interrupted and my efforts to ring her again proved fruitless. I struggled for some time to come to terms with the sudden, although not unexpected, death of Blaine, and felt numb with a crushing sense of having failed him. 

It was when I read John Healys's resilient and redemptive book that perhaps I more fully realised how often survival and eventual recovery from chronic alcoholism, for some of those like Blaine, is so tantalisingly close yet fated not to happen. 

Blaine, I hope your soul is now at peace.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer


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