Richard West doesn’t know what came first – his depression or his drinking.
He used to think it was his depression that led him to drink. At times, he was sure it was the other way around. These days, it doesn’t matter to Richard how it started.
For a long time, the combination took a toll on Richard. It was only when he reached breaking point that Richard was able to confront what he was doing to himself and take action to get back on track.
Medicating with alcohol
Richard started drinking when he was around 15 years old. For a keen athlete (he played soccer), it wasn’t uncommon to hit the pub after a game on a Saturday. Or a Sunday. Even after training on a weeknight. It was just what you did.
Growing up in the UK, Richard always aspired to get a job that would allow him to travel the world.
At 18, he landed a job at a major bank. Over the next two decades he met his wife, started a family and worked his way up to a vice-president position.
His dreams of travel were realised – he was in transit often, and lived at different times in Italy, Greece and Saudi Arabia – where he lived alone for six months during the first Gulf War.
Yet with the added responsibility came extra pressure. To cope, Richard drank more. He started drinking before work. Sometimes, he would drink on the job.
Impact on work and struggling to sleep
Gradually his performance at work began to suffer.
“I made bad judgements, was forgetful, missed deadlines and lost drive and energy,” says Richard.
"Even still, no one wanted to talk about it.’
Soon, it became clear. Richard was an alcoholic.
One of the major casualties of his drinking was his first marriage.
“I felt shame. Shame at my addiction. Shame that I had let everybody down as a husband, a father, a friend, an employee.”
Then there was Richard’s inability to sleep. Every night, he would find himself staring at the ceiling, unable to drift off.
So he would turn to the bottle.
"It did the trick initially. It would knock me out for a couple of hours. Then around 2am, I would wake up with heart palpitations, drenched in sweat,” says Richard.
Diagnosed with depression
Richard’s workplace had a mandatory health check for all employees over 40 with a company doctor. It came at the perfect time.
“I remember the doctor saying that as soon as I sat down in front of him, he knew I was a sick man,” says Richard.
The doctor asked about Richard’s lifestyle.
“When he asked how much I drank, I lied, but it was still enough to scare him,” says Richard.
“He recommended a psychologist, who called me the next night and within two days I was sitting in their office.”
Richard opened up about his difficulty sleeping. His work struggles. His addiction. And he felt like a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Trying different treatments
Diagnosed with depression, Richard started to wonder whether his drinking was the cause or a coping strategy. Not long after the diagnosis, Richard was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic.
“Strangely enough, I found rehab to be heaven. Once I had overcome withdrawal, I felt that I was cocooned from the world and all its stresses and problems,” he says.
“I could see that others were exactly like me. I was not alone. This was a revelation. I was not unique in my illness. Depression and alcoholism were no longer dirty, spiteful, words. It was a disease and willpower alone would not solve it.”
Richard finished his six-week stint at rehab. When he left, he was convinced he was ‘fixed’. But it didn’t keep. Before long, Richard was drinking again.
Relapsing and returning to alcohol
Over the next decade, Richard remarried, left the bank where he’d spent his entire career and moved to Australia. It was meant to be a fresh start.
But less than two years in, tragedy struck.
“I received the most horrific phone call of my life. My first wife and my 20-year-old son had died in a car crash. My daughter miraculously survived and was physically unharmed,” says Richard.
“I was unable to effectively look after my daughter or console my older son. I was functioning, but barely. Once again, alcohol became my comfort.”
But this time it was even worse.
After trying everything she could to help, Richard’s second wife left him. He felt he was of no value to himself and a burden to everyone close to him.
“Since I had no purpose, I decided suicide would be best for everyone.”
Richard tried to take his own life. He sustained serious injuries but he was found and taken to hospital in Brisbane before it was too late.
Working towards recovery
For a time, the doctors worried Richard wouldn’t get better, yet he defied the odds. He made a full recovery from his injuries and was discharged. He reconnected with his wife.
“It was a miracle. I had a second chance and I wasn’t going to waste it. I needed to replace the darkness and despair with positive passions.”
He did. Richard trialed different types of medication and sleeping aids. He attended regular counselling, group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous.
He picked up new hobbies, developing a passion for photography and writing and completed a degree in journalism and a masters in creative writing. He also began to put time back into the community through volunteering. In 2016, he embarked on a solo motorbike ride around Australia, covering 16,000km in 46 days. In the process, he raised $6,000 for Beyond Blue.
A new mindset for mental health
The way Richard sees it, he was, is and always will be an alcoholic. It’s this mindset that allows him to recognise when he is feeling down, stressed or anxious, and to reach out to his support network when this happens.
“Help is anywhere and everywhere. You just have to see it. And if you need it – take it,” says Richard.
Whether it was the depression or the drinking that came first no longer matters to Richard. Now, the most important thing is knowing how to manage both.
Photography by Good Grief Productions.