“My name is Helen and I’m an alcoholic,” the words Helen Hurst from Ballinamallard has vocalised many times in the privacy of AA meetings and counselling sessions.

On June 17, 2020, marking one year of sobriety, she voiced them to the world in an open and honest Facebook post detailing her life-long struggle with alcohol addiction and mental health issues, sharing her experiences in the hope of helping others.

“I’m just fed up of this stigma that is attached to mental health issues and addiction. People are not talking about it, they’re hiding it,” Helen told The Impartial Reporter.

In a frank interview with this newspaper, Helen opened up about her addiction to alcohol and how it has impacted her life.

Explaining that she had a very normal childhood, Helen’s addictive personality emerged during her early teenage years, firstly through eating disorders.

“When I was 14 me and another girl, mentioning no names, decided that we were going to lose weight and me being me, I decided, ‘I am going to lose weight!’. I wasn’t fat by any means but I thought I was fat and I was eating a bowl of cornflakes every day and that was it,” said Helen.

She continued: “Then it got to the point that even when I ate that bowl of cornflakes, I could be sick. So this opened a whole other world to me because then I knew that I can eat. I can binge, I can do what I want because now I can be sick and I don’t have to put on weight.”

“I attended the doctor for months getting weighed and they could not understand why I wasn’t putting on weight because I was eating every meal that was put down in front of me. I lived with that secret, but in a strange way then alcohol came along,” she added.

Helen was 15 when she first drank alcohol, sharing a bottle of whiskey with a friend at a school disco.

“Because of everything that was going on within my body, I ended up being sick all over the place and my geography teacher brought me home,” shared Helen, adding that on another occasion she was brought home by the police after drinking too much.

“I loved alcohol,” shared Helen: “I loved everything about it, the taste of it, the way it made me feel - it gave me confidence, it brought me out of myself but it took me years to get into trouble with it. It didn’t take me as long to realise that I wasn’t a normal drinker, that I wasn’t drinking for fun anymore.”

“I used to go out for dos with people and I carried drink in my handbag because nobody drank as quickly as I wanted to drink. There were women there who said, ‘oh just get me a glass of water this time’ and I’d think, ‘what, water, why would you want to drink water, why would you leave a drink’, I would clear that table no matter whose drink it was,” she said, adding: “I knew that drink was a big problem for me but I wasn’t willing to admit it. I knew once I admitted it, then I would have to do something about it.”

Explaining that behind every addict there are people that are suffering, Helen shared how her alcohol addiction impacted her family, in particular her husband Alan.

“It’s something that people suffer with but there’s also the other side of the coin, there’s the people who live with this every day. Who live with the addict, who actually become as ill as they do,” she said.

“I can remember it clearly, Alan one day saying to me, ‘Helen, I love you so much but I can’t take this anymore because I don’t understand it’ and he said, ‘you have to make a decision here’,” shared Helen. It was at that point she decided to seek help and was accepted to the Addiction Treatment Unit in Omagh where she spent six weeks.

Although she came out of the unit full of hope, Helen admitted that because she didn’t do the unit for herself at that time, she started drinking again two months after.

“The thing about drinking and any addiction is it can creep up on you so quickly. Something just sparks in your head and you don’t even think about it,” Helen shared, explaining that she was in a very dark place.

Following her relapse, Helen’s counsellor at the time prescribed her the drug Campral which would remove the reward factor out of drinking from a person’s brain.

“I started the drug and I took it for a year then stopped it cold turkey. I said I didn’t want to take it anymore because I felt strong enough,” said Helen.

For 12 years she didn’t drink.

“The day I started drinking again was Christmas Eve,” recounted Helen: “Everybody was in the Steakhouse, we were partying and I went home that night on my own and I remember saying, ‘I’m going to have a drink’. I remember going to the cupboard and there was a bottle of Bacardi and I got the crystal glass out of the cupboard and put the ice in it and the Bacardi and the Coke and I can remember that liquid to this day going down my throat and that sensation that I loved was back. This was beautiful.”

“I thought, ‘how can I be an alcoholic if I didn’t touch drink for 12 years, I’m going to do it this time and I’m going to control it’. For years, to a certain extent, I did control it but nobody was comfortable with me drinking,” she shared.

Over time, some of Helen’s old ways started creeping in: “I was drinking too much when I was going out, making a fool of myself in front of people, embarrassing the family. I knew I was spiralling but I was enjoying it, I didn’t want to stop.”

Detailing the lengths that she would go to cover up her drinking, she said: “I was going to off licences all around the area because I couldn’t go to the same one every time because they would I know I was an alcoholic.”

“I would buy a half bottle of gin and two quarter bottles of wine every night and I would drink that in bed. There is nothing normal about drinking that in bed to fall asleep,” shared Helen, adding that one night she collapsed on the floor after drinking too much: “I don’t remember anything about it but there was an ambulance at our house that night because they didn’t know if I’d taken an overdose or it was just alcohol but I was completely out of it. I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is so bad’.”

On June 17, 2019, Helen’s sister from England called her to see if she was okay. Helen believes that this was a sign for her to finally confront her addiction: “Even though she is hundreds of miles away, she had this intuition and she knew that things weren’t right. She said to me, ‘are you okay?’. It was like a floodgate had opened. I just broke down and I told her everything.”

After talking to her sister, Helen knew what she had to do.

“As soon as the phone went down I messaged Roly McIntyre. I had known Roly many years ago when I worked in the Lough Erne Hotel and Roly was a doorman. I knew Roly did counselling through friends,” said Helen, continuing: “This time it was for me. I had to make it for me. I was actually sick of being sick. I was sick of the life I was leading.”

“Roly made me love me again. He had a flip-chart and he said, ‘I want you to name me 10 things that you love’ and I rattled off. There was Alan, there was my family, my grandchildren. There was even Ballinamallard Football Club in there and he said, ‘stop’ and I said, ‘but you wanted 10’ and he said, ‘but you’re never going to say the one thing I want you to say – you. Where are you in this list?’.

“I said, ‘I’m not on that list because I don’t love myself, and he said, ‘well that’s the first thing, you have to start loving you again’. That’s where it started,” said Helen, who has since started to put herself and her needs first, practising self-love.

Now a year sober, Helen explained that she feels free and in control again: “I’m a totally different person than I ever was because now looking back I realise there was never a normal me, maybe this isn’t even a normal me but I like this me.”

“I just want people to realise that mental health and addiction is not a dirty secret. If this can help anybody I’m happy,” Helen told this newspaper.