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Alastair Campbell: The pain of my son’s alcoholism

New European editor-at-large Alastair Campbell - Credit: PA

In the latest exclusive serialisation of his diaries, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL describes in heart-wrenching detail his son Calum’s battle with alcoholism, and the memories it prompted of his own similar ordeal.

There are plenty of low points in this new volume of diaries, many of them very personal, and very difficult for both Fiona and me, namely the descent of our son Calum into alcoholism, and all the difficulties and sleepless nights that brought with it. I found it harder to deal with his problems than I had with my own when I faced similar difficulties with alcohol at around the same age. Calum’s experience, together with our daughter Grace’s anxiety, which led to her cutting short her university education in Paris, and my two older brothers’ continuing struggles, further fuelled my interest in and involvement with mental health campaigns and causes.

So this is Calum’s story, as seen through the eyes of his father. It starts in 2010 when Calum is 21 and has just emerged from university with a creditable 2.1 degree. It ends almost three years later, with Calum emerging from his second spell in residential rehab.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The situation with Calum had taken another turn for the worse; drinking way more than was good for him, and I had said last night I was not going to the football with him if he came in worse for wear. Fiona [AC’s partner] and I were also disagreeing about how best to address it and ended up having a dreadful row, a total shouting match, all the usual stuff we had grown tired of saying down the years.

Then when Calum came back, he was on the edge now, his eyes odd, noises odd, and a lot of angry talk, mostly aimed at me. Fiona called a doctor and he refused to speak to them. I got them to come out.

Nice guy came and he talked to him for a fair while. He was quite young though, and I sensed he was a bit nervous both about the situation and also seeing me there. “You’d better ask the big man,” Calum kept saying, nodding at me, whenever the guy asked him how he was, or whether he felt OK. It was a bad scene.

Eventually he suggested we go to A and E. By now the TV match was underway and Calum said he wanted to wait to the end. I wanted to get on with it. We went to A and E. Now he was saying he needed to say goodbye to the staff at the White Horse pub. I had deprived him of the football and now this.

It meant he did a runner while I was checking him in. Went to the pub to get him back, got him in to see a nurse and eventually a very nice Italian psychiatrist who talked to him for a while.

I called Jack and Charlie [Calum friends] and broke down talking to Charlie. I just didn’t know what to do. Fiona in and out. She was out when finally we saw the crisis team and then moved to the Grove (Royal Free Hospital mental health crisis unit).

It was a pretty tough environment. Some hard cases in there. His room too hot. But I felt better he was there and deep down I think he did too. I barely slept again and when I did I woke up crying.

Sunday, October 3

We went to see Calum, who was still on edge, and we talked a bit to the nurses. I got the sense they were just about coping, but working under a lot of pressure. I felt a bit cheered up he was being cared for. But it was going to be a long haul, and I didn’t feel he was anywhere near the point of thinking he had to change his ways. Fiona was convinced he was punishing us for something.

Had a long chat with Alex [Ferguson, then manager of Manchester United]. He said he saw nothing worrying in him last time he saw him. He suggested I drop everything and just look after him. He was in the States. I fixed for him to get a private tour of the White House visit. Good to talk to him.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who provided staunch support during the crisis – Credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Monday, October 4

First I saw the psychiatrist and his team of five and explained what had happened. I broke down a few times along the way. Ended saying we all needed to change a bit, but also that I couldn’t see how we could look after him as things were. Calum came in and the psychiatrist was pretty clear he had to stay for a while. He really wanted out but it was going to be a long haul.

Thursday, October 7

With Calum and Fiona to the psychiatrist. First us, then him. The guy felt there was a downside to being in with worse cases who were gravitating to him. Also his anger was becoming counterproductive.

I was anxious about it but we agreed he could leave later today and though still technically an inpatient, he could come and go as he, we and the docs thought sensible.

He seemed better but still tense and anxious. Fiona saying we had to trust Calum more.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grace’s birthday but she let me off to go to Leeds vs Burnley. Good crowd and atmosphere, but we lost 1–0 which meant play-off hopes were over. Drove up with Calum and back with Rory [AC and Fiona’s other son]. They both seemed a bit down at the moment. Calum was also badly back on the booze and yet seemed to accept it wasn’t great for him.

Friday, August 26

Out for dinner and Calum and I had a bad scene when he said he wanted to try the Clan Campbell whisky. I didn’t handle it well. Fiona was angry with me, Calum upset. I tried to speak to Calum but there had been a big and negative change in how he saw me. Basically I felt he was blaming all problems on me. There was a disrespect that went beyond what might be the usual father-son thing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Out all day at Clouds [a rehab centre in Wiltshire] filming for the alcohol film [a BBC documentary AC was making about alcoholism] I could tell some of the alcoholics were very dubious about my controlled drinking. I made the point that I liked to have the sense of challenging myself and that included both having a couple of drinks and then stopping, but also looking at a bottle in the fridge and leaving it alone.

I did wonder though whether even the occasional drink was sending the wrong signal to Calum, who once or twice had said that he felt I was more of an alcoholic than he was. I know he was doing that thing I used to do, looking around for excuses to keep on drinking and making favourable comparisons, but even if I thought I had it under control, and the kids had never seen me worse for wear, a big part of me wished I was back in those 13 years of total sobriety. At least I could say I had had a totally dry 2012 so far.

Friday, January 20

I felt with Calum a brick wall has grown up between us and I don’t know how to break it down. It hurts to think I meant it when I said I left full-time work to spend more time with the family but I sometimes wonder if we didn’t get on better when I was here less. I suppose that during the course of their upbringing the main fracture has been Fiona-me, the scars of which remain, and that has probably influenced them.

Friday, March 23

Calum had gone to the Blackburn-Burnley youth match, got pissed and ended up being mugged in Manchester. He had been calling but my phone was upstairs in my study, Fiona’s was on mute and he ended up sleeping out. He admitted he had had too much to drink but I could tell he felt I was too harsh, given he had just been mugged at knifepoint. But in a way he put himself in that position by being drunk and vulnerable.

Sunday July 1 – Sunday, July 15

Really pleased to learn Calum had told friends that he was going to try a rehab place in Ireland.

I was still on anti-depressants/anxiety pills, the longest I had been on them for ages and maybe that was also slowing me down. I was probably more depressed than I realised, and Calum had said a few very blunt things which made me low for a few days after the Skype sessions with the counsellor in Ireland. I sensed he saw me as the source of a lot of his problems which was harsh in a way but he maybe had a point.

Calum’s problems, and mine, and all of our problems in a way, are not only about individual impairments and difficulties any of us may have now or may have had in the past. They are about impairments in relationships. And relationships are never about one person, but two, three, a dozen as friends and family, 100 as workmates, millions as fellow countrymen, billions as fellow citizens.

Of all of those it is family and friends that matter most. I said in the letter I had started to write to him that it is only when we interact at that level that we get meaning and love in our lives. It is only when we allow the power of the human spirit to act positively not negatively that we make progress and deal with problems. It is only when we actually decide to change a relationship that we can.

Alastair Campbell, with his 13-year-old Calum, supporting Burnley FC – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Friday, September 14

Calum in a real state again. Hungover. Openly talking about drinking as much as he likes. Has it under control. Doesn’t need all this outside help. Only went to (the Irish clinic) Toranfield because it made me and Fiona feel better. I spoke to Miriam [Toranfield counsellor] and I said we were minded to ask him to leave home, felt we had tried everything.

David Sturgeon [AC’s psychiatrist] was clearly of the view he had to know there were limits, and if he crossed them we would not tolerate it. I said “but what if he ends up getting hit by a bus or falling in the canal and freezing to death?” David said he might, and there is nothing you can do to stop it because you cannot be with him 24/7.

Fiona said we had to harden our hearts. I told him we had done everything we could, it hadn’t worked and he had to move out. He was making our lives intolerable and we were not helping, because we didn’t know how.

The whole thing was grim beyond belief. He had come home late after a night of changing stories about where he had been, then Fiona discovering him drunk, rude and aggressive.

He was back to all the old patterns, holes in socks, sleeping in clothes, lying, stealing. It was pretty much impossible to believe him, and yet he went on about trust. Fiona weepy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fiona called. Calum had called her. It looked like the situation was finally reaching crisis point. People at work said they had started to notice the effects of his drinking and they felt he had to address it.

He called us and said he was worried about it. I felt sick to my stomach but also that maybe this was the low point we might need to get to before things got better.

I spoke to his boss, one of his colleagues and got the picture that though they loved him to bits and felt when he was good he was great, things had definitely deteriorated and they felt he might need help.

More importantly he had reached that point too.

Saturday, March 16

We made contact with Castle Craig [a rehab centre in Scotland]. The website looked perfect. We went to see his boss and he gave her a resignation letter. She was taken aback I think but we were all clear this was the way to go. It was all very sad and emotional and she was very nice, as were the others.

I talked to Alex Ferguson, said we were reaching the low point I think, and he surprised me when he said he had a deep belief in God and would pray for Calum every night.

Tuesday, March 19

Out early with Fiona and Calum and off to City for the flight to Edinburgh. It felt like this was a bit make or break. Castle Craig was one of those places where you really needed to commit to the time. So if it took months, it took months. Calum was OK en route, a bit subdued maybe, but slumped on arrival.

Nice enough looking place, lovely grounds. A gaggle of smokers outside. F and I met Peter McCann the owner, therapist Mark Abrami and the psychiatrist Florian Kaplick.

They spent an hour or so with us setting out the background while Calum had medical tests. Fiona was getting very teary and also when he came back he was getting resistant to some of the rules, for example no phone or laptop and limited access to the gym because of the worries about cross-addiction.

He said rather snappily he would ‘give it three weeks max’.

The Castle Craig rehab centre in Peeblesshire, Scotland – Credit: Wikipedia

Sunday, April 7

To Castle Craig. We had a chat with Calum, the three of us [son Rory, Fiona and AC] and Mark the therapist. I was still feeling a lot of resentment from Calum, and at one point Rory said “I don’t get what the problem is. We had a good childhood, we have great parents and you can’t keep this anger up all the time.”

Calum looked a bit hurt. I said it is possible for kids growing up in the same circumstances to feel very different about them.

Monday, April 8

Swim, breakfast, row with Fiona. I was flaring up a lot at the moment. Apologised. It was hard for both of us and we had to try to stay on the same page. To Castle Craig. I could feel the intensity of Calum’s feelings, and I still didn’t feel we were getting to the bottom of the drinking becoming a problem, but I sensed we were making progress.

The three of us went for a walk, and when we were out in the little wood behind the house, I got a call from Irish radio asking for an interview on the news that Margaret Thatcher was dead.

Back in for another less intense session. Calum’s resistance to the rules seemed to be softening, and he seemed up for staying a bit longer.

Thursday, April 18

Calum was starting to reject the idea of visitors and said it made him feel controlled from afar. I saw David S, and we discussed whether I should suggest to Calum that we do AA together. He thought it might be a good idea, but felt we should wait to see what happened. He felt ‘yes’ to saying to Calum we stop drinking for good together but do for me not for him.

Thursday, April 25

Off to Scotland with Fiona and Rory. Calum was not great. He seemed pretty cast down. I sensed from the therapists too that things had gone backwards again, that he was not engaging, not going with the flow, not believing it was the right place to be. He was a bit truculent with us, and I could tell Fiona’s fussing and my wanting to find out what was bugging him were getting to him.

It was definitely feeling like one step forward, two steps back.

Some time during May

Alex F wrote a wonderful letter to Calum, long, handwritten, urging him to stay with it, talking of some of the setbacks in his own life.

Friday, July 12

Flew out from Luton to Nimes with the boys. Good to be with them both. Rory had been supportive to both of us, in different ways, and Calum now having left rehab in Scotland, he seemed in a better place than he did when he first came out of Toranfield in Ireland. It had been a long haul, but he was not drinking.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL also movingly describes the problems his friend Charles Kennedy, the former Lib Dem leader, also had with alcohol.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Charles Kennedy texted and asked me to call him ASAP. I had a sense it would be about drink. It was. “I wanted to tell you things I have not told you before.” “Drink?” “Huh-huh,’” he said.

I sensed when he was at Conaglen [in the Highlands, where AC had taken a Christmas and New Year family holiday] with us that he had been drinking more than he let on, and he admitted he had.

He said that after he had left us he had gone a few days drinking the kind of quantities that were manageable, but then he had a bit of a crash. Really hitting it. Bottles of the stuff. Pretty much all day on and off. I said the fact he had called me showed that he realised he has a problem.

We had talked last time not just about my time with a drink problem but also the depression, and he wondered whether maybe that was his problem too. I said I was certainly of the view that maybe I drank to cover up depression. Maybe he was doing the same.

I said that I had noticed his hands shaking a little when we last saw each other, and his skin was bad. Both probably related to the drink, but also maybe depression and anxiety.

He said up to now he had only really been treated for drink – “I’ve been in and out of the Priory in Glasgow,” he said. I said it was heartening that he had been in there and it had never got out into the papers, because I knew that had been one of his worries. I said there was nobody who would be surprised if he were to say he had a booze problem, and maybe it was time.

He said he had been surprised too, that his spells in the Priory had never got out, maybe less surprised that he had been to plenty of AA meetings and nobody had ever told the papers. He had seen two Labour MSPs at AA meetings.

LOST LEADER: Charles Kennedy campaigns with Jo Swinson in April 2015 – Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

I said he really needed to think whether it was time to go for treatment that was several weeks at a go, even if it meant people knowing. I really think he has reached the point where he knows, everyone who cares about him knows, that there is no halfway house re. drink with him.

As with Calum, I worried that my occasional drink sent him the wrong signal, though I had not been drinking at all last time at Conaglen. I said: “Do you have a problem? Do you accept that you have to stop drinking truly to get on top of it? If yes, how?”

Charles Kennedy died in June 2015. He was 55. He had suffered internal bleeding linked to his alcoholism. He had resigned as leader of the Lib Dems in January 2006, having delivered in the 2005 general election the party’s greatest success since 1923.

Calum recently completed his eighth year of sobriety. A regular attendee of AA, he gives talks in schools and prisons about addiction.

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