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When I was growing up I was considered ‘the boy who had it all’ – a good looking boy who loved football, who was popular and a magnet to all the girls. If there was something new out I was the first to own it. I got scouted at my football matches and even got the chance to play at a semi-professional level.
There was not anything looking back on my life I would have ever wanted to change. Then I also got something else at the young age 17 that no one had and that was panic attacks.
When they started I didn’t know what was happening. I was a 17-year-old, South London born, strong minded young man, in the early 90s. No one spoke about anxiety or panic attacks, as far as I knew they were unheard of.
All I knew at this young age is that on a daily basis, my throat would tighten, my brain would start racing. And with panic my chest would start to hurt I would struggle for breathe and I thought I was going to die and nobody had the answers to know what was happening or why.
My mum used to take me to hospital constantly, where they would check my oxygen levels then calm me down and send me home. This was happening sometimes up to five times a day. This got so bad it affected my football career and I couldn’t perform the way I did before and it came to an end – this is the biggest regret of my life.
Then one day as I started to feel the anxiety symptoms happening again I was handed a beer and it calmed me down, that was a massive turning point in my life, as at that moment in time alcohol ticked a box within my brain that it helped ease a distressing symptom within my mind that no one had the answers, not even counsellors. Little did I realise the massive effect this channel of thought would have to the rest of my existence.
I had a large circle of mates so I would socialise a lot; my love of football meant alcohol and cocaine was part of our lifestyle, I never once saw it as a problem as everyone I knew done it. The fact that at the time I felt in a win-win situation as the alcohol eased my anxiety, and although this was a depressant it was OK because the more depressed I got through the alcohol, the more cocaine I took which eased the depression symptoms.
No one ever knew the extent of how much I was suffering inside, I was the life and soul of the party, the happy go lucky guy that was always smiling cracking jokes if there was a problem I was sorting it – that’s all everyone saw. Little did they know that when I left and went home I would carry on drinking and doing cocaine alone.
My addiction took hold of my life and my mental health rapidly declined it suffered even more when at the age of 35 I suffered a cardiac arrest and needed heart surgery. This left myself and my family devastated and this should have been a wake-up call to me, but selfishly it was not. As my anxiety and depression was never addressed the only coping technique my brain knew was alcohol and cocaine. I carried on living the same way and was desperate to change but never knew how to start.
I was sectioned twice over the course of the next few years as I was a danger to myself. But due to lack of aftercare I relapsed every time, this was until my life changed forever in July 2016 when after a day of drinking I threw up over two pints of blood.
I was rushed to hospital and my wife and mum was told I wouldn’t make the night. I came round two days later and was told I now had stage 4 liver cirrhosis, oesophageal varices; this was on top of my heart disease and diabetes all due to alcohol and cocaine. I have been cleanse of all substances from that very moment. The first year was the hardest I had to teach myself not only a whole new lifestyle but also rebuild my mental health step-by-step to help me cope mentally and emotionally.
I started to share my story and the more I opened up about what I was suffering for years the more I found it inspired others to change their life, this gave me the strength to become stronger and more determined to help myself by helping others.
We set up a support group through social media so people who were suffering with mental health/addiction could contact us if they needed help, we also wrote a book about my journey and this really helped me mentally as well, as I was able to look back on my life through sober eyes and reflect on everything I had done and the pain I caused myself and others this too made me more determined to rebuild my life more.
My wife and I volunteer with the lived experience programme with the NHS and we now attend clinical mental health meetings and anyone suffering mental health and addiction we other to meet them to see if we can help them get the right help they need. We also do inspirational talks within schools to spread awareness and even in the mental health ward where I was once sectioned.
I still have days where I struggle with my anxiety and mental health but I am no-longer a prisoner of my own mind and let it control my life. I want to believe what happened to me happened for a reason.
Image credit: Men’s Radio Station
Rodney Stone is a mental health campaigner, author, and public speaker.