If you are addicted to alcohol, heroin, cocaine or amphetamines and hit rock bottom, where do you go for help?

Duncan is a 37-year-old local resident with a family and a good job and he’s also addicted to alcohol.

“In terms of my addiction I went from zero to 60 in 18 months,” he said. “When I got married three years ago I wasn’t an addict. I wasn’t drinking during the day and I wasn’t hiding alcohol, just binge drinking.

“When I started to increase the amount, my wife suggested we pack up alcohol during the week and drink only on weekends.

“I agreed, but once this ‘privilege’ of drinking in the evenings was ‘taken away’ the craving set in. It’s an all-consuming feeling. Nothing else matters. You can’t even think about anything else. ”

Duncan started to store alcohol, usually vodka, in his shed and nip in for a swig. He recalled: “I would drink for only 30 seconds because my wife might come around the corner of the shed after that, but I could glug down half a pint of neat vodka in that time.”

I asked why he chose vodka: “It leaves the least smell. It’s easy to hide and it gave me the feeling I needed quickly and it kept me topped up at that feeling easily.

“Two years ago, we spent Christmas with relatives and I was not going to drink. Within 24 hours of arriving and having no alcohol I had a seizure. I was in bed and my wife downstairs heard a thud and found me lying on the floor, convulsing with my eyes rolled back and foaming at the mouth.

“I came back from the hospital on Christmas Eve. When everyone else was at church singing Christmas carols and I was alone in the house I found a bottle of gin and drank it and then flatly denied it when the family discovered the empty bottle.

“In mid-January my wife was out and I was at home babysitting.

“When she got back she found me collapsed on the sofa and our baby screaming in his cot. I denied I had been drinking. Shortly after that my wife took our son and left me.

”I couldn’t drive because I had to surrender my licence after the seizure, so I stayed at home drinking two-and-a-half litres of vodka each day, watching TV.”

Duncan’s parents took him in. At this stage he had no fight left.

He said: “I was destroyed. My wife and kid were gone. I was 36 and back living at home with my parents not capable of looking after myself. It was not a life and barely an existence. I was terrified and couldn’t see an end to it.

“My last thought each night before I went to sleep was ‘please don’t let me wake up in the morning’, because I didn’t have the stomach to commit suicide.”

Duncan was too far gone to be detoxed at home; he needed to be medically detoxed at a clinic.

“ I started the process of getting a referral to a detox unit. I needed my doctor to start the process and make a medical summary and take blood tests to see what damage had been done to my liver,” he said.

Because alcohol addiction is a medical problem, most people can’t go cold turkey and completely withdraw from it. That can kill them.

Duncan’s parents said that while he was staying with them and awaiting treatment he could drink, but openly and honestly.

They knew that if he stayed alive long enough he would get treatment.

“I kept track of my drinking by using a spreadsheet to record exactly how much and what I drank. I hated pouring the drink every day, but I couldn’t wean myself off it because of the danger to my health. I was in a strange situation at that time; I was killing myself with drink, but I had to do it to stay alive so I could get treatment,” he said.

Oxford has a public detox unit – SMART (Starting My Active Recovery Today) Howard House in Iffley Road. The treatment is entirely voluntary and residents in this 10-bed unit help design their own treatment and sign statements accepting the regime.

Duncan was specific about this: “At SMART Howard House there is no chance to get a drink. If you even go to buy cigarettes you have to make an appointment for the trip with a staff member and then give your credit card to the person who will accompany you. You get it back only for the time needed to pay and he will take the receipt and credit card and put it in your safe box back at the house. The gates are not locked and residents can leave, but there are strict rules governing what happens when people leave.

Oxford Mail:

  • Lifeline: SMART Howard House volunteers, from left, John Forster, Debbie Sugden, Joanne Currie, Syd Franklin, Charlotte Edwards, Dan Smith, Debbie Power and co-ordinator Peter Corcoran

“When you check in they take away your mouthwash if it has alcohol in it and your aftershave and for the women any nail polish removal is taken away.”

I suggested that all this sounds surreal but Duncan was clear that “it makes perfect sense”.

“They give you Librium which makes the body and the brain feel like they have the chemicals they believe they need. It stops mental craving and the feeling of physical withdrawal symptoms like delirium tremens. My hand would shake so much there was no chance I could put a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. All those symptoms disappeared in three days. Gradually, they reduce the amount and within eight days I was clean and dry. Then they start working on your brain during your stay, which usually lasts 12 weeks,” he added.

In SMART Howard House, all the residents cook and do all the cleaning. During my tour it was spotless. I also noticed that it was a very tactile place. Staff and residents did a lot of hugging. I seemed to be the only ‘handshake person’ there.

They offer you choices in your path to recovery and tell you  ‘You need to forgive yourself’.

“I learned at SMART Howard House that I have a terminal disease.

“I can hold it in check by not drinking. I can decide not to let it kill me. It would be insane to go back to alcohol and cruel to put my wife and family through that,” said Duncan.

He has been out of SMART Howard House for a year, living proof that it works. “One year ago I couldn’t have cycled 200 yards without getting out of breath, now I’m doing a sponsored bike ride 200 miles across England from Whitehaven in Cumbria to Scarborough,” he said. “I wanted to raise £5,000 – the cost of putting someone through the SMART Howard House detox programme – but I broke that target last weekend.”

He’s starting the challenge today. If you wish to help him, go to uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/DuncanandNon