Paul’s story: “I never classed myself as an alcoholic”

In 2017, Paul's liver started to fail and he was taken to hospital where he wasn't expected to last the night. Fortunately he survived, and doctors said it was a miracle he pulled through. He is now passionate about raising awareness of depression and alcohol-related liver disease and the stigma that patients can face. Thank you for sharing your story, Paul

When I started writing my first published recipe book back in 2020, called “Great Britain and Cornwall” I was recovering from alcohol addiction. I never classed myself as an alcoholic, that just didn’t sit right with me. Alcohol was a relaxant, it voided the increased anxiety and depression and never affected my work as a self-employed professional chef. I only drank when I finished my shift to unwind.

In 2016 I started feeling increasingly unwell, visits to the doctor became quite a regular thing, not only for blood tests, but increasingly for anxiety and depression. I needed time off work which added to the depression and I drank because I was worried about how I would support my son.

Yes, I could afford beer or vodka, but my son never went without – we had a lovely apartment and food on the table, but I had two very severe illnesses with a stigma attached to them – alcohol and severe depression. Depression to me was a rollercoaster. It didn’t matter if I had a quid in my pocket or twenty grand in the bank, it was the dark blanket of dread that kept me awake at night – always creating worries inside my head and problems that sometimes weren’t even there.

Someone can say “I feel depressed or fed up today” but anyone who really struggles with proper depression and I mean real, gut-wrenching anxiety, knows it’s not that simple. The worst thing anyone can be told who suffers this awful illness is “Don’t worry, you’ll feel better tomorrow”.

I was warned by my doctor numerous times that I should cut back on the drinking, but I didn’t listen. But now things were different, signs that I was struggling physically and not just mentally were becoming very concerning, not only to me but for my family and particularly my-then 15-year-old son who had lived with me since I separated from my ex-wife in 2010.

I was told to gradually wean myself off alcohol because stopping altogether would kill me. Selfishly I was relieved that I could still carry on drinking

Now the doctor wasn’t pulling any punches and told me my liver was becoming damaged. I was referred to an alcohol specialist who advised me to go into rehab and put on the waiting list to spend three months detoxing at a unit in north Birmingham. I was also told to gradually wean myself off alcohol because stopping altogether would kill me. Selfishly I was relieved that I could still carry on drinking, albeit at a reduced level. Back home from the specialist I broke down in tears. I felt destroyed, not for myself but for my family and especially my children.

When I visited the detox unit to see the facilities, the staff were amazing, but I learned my phone would be taken away and I’d only be allowed a quick call on a public pay phone to one person a night between 6pm and 7pm. This is when it began to hit me, I would be isolated for 12 weeks with people who would get into fights or even worse. In my eyes they were problem people, not only with mental health and alcohol problems to deal with, but drug addiction thrown into the mix too.

I’d noticed my eyes were turning yellow, but on the morning of March 18th 2017, just after the visit, my son told me I was completely yellow, becoming green in fact. I was later told by a consultant that mine was one of the worst cases of jaundice they’d ever seen. My brother drove me to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, not before I said I wanted one more drink before I went. My son’s refusal saved my life because I was later told that that drink would have killed me.

The next 12 hours in the Critical Care Unit were a complete blur. Ironically, the morphine made me feel drunk and the early stages of detox made me think my family members were walking past my bed when they were visiting. Once everyone had left, I tried to get dressed but fell and cracked my head. My sister came back and stayed with me until I dozed off. The consultant told her I needed a liver transplant, but it wouldn’t be worth it as I probably wouldn’t last the night. She broke down in tears but, obviously, I came through that night and was moved onto a ward the following day.

My five weeks in hospital were a rollercoaster of various surreal situations ranging from severe hallucinations (delirium tremens) including seeing people I had known in my past laughing and talking to me through the light in the ceiling. Looking back, maybe this wasn’t the DTs but one of my first episodes of hepatic encephalopathy.

A week and a half after being admitted I was still struggling to eat – I had ripped the feeding tube out from my nose and throat as I couldn’t take the uncomfortable feeling. The weight was dropping off me and one of my many consultants told me point blank that because I wasn’t eating, I was going to be sent home to my family for the six weeks I had left to live. He then left my room, with me just looking at the nurse dumbfounded.

That day was the closest I think anyone can ever come to witnessing their own funeral, I had family and friends around my bed crying and hugging each other as I looked on, expressionless. I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face, not because of self-pity but huge pride in my family and friends who stayed by my side. What broke my heart the most that day was seeing my youngest son break down uncontrollably. He always came across as a tough cookie but he was still my baby boy and he needed me.

In the evening when everyone had gone, I overheard the nurses chatting outside my room about a 45-year-old man, who was allowed to have visitors at any time because he didn’t have long left to live because of the severity of his illness. I realised they were talking about me. Now, as I smile through the tears writing this, all I can think about is the ‘Rocky’ theme playing in my head. I thought “I’m not going to die, I’m going to pull through this.”

I cried that night but this time with a warm comforting feeling surrounding me. I knew who was watching over me and they didn’t want to be reunited with me just yet. They wanted me to stay with my baby boy, my other children and now grandchildren and, of course, the rest of my amazing family and friends.

I walked out of Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham with nurses hugging me and the consultants shocked that I had pulled through

Four weeks later I walked out of that ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham with the nurses hugging me and the consultants in shock saying it was a miracle I had pulled through. Two weeks later I had another four-week stint in hospital following a mini stroke. I’m recovering from the complications that go with that, but I’m still here.

Six years on since that Sunday morning, I’m still beating the odds. I’ve even beaten Covid five times! One of my most memorable moments coming through all of this was publishing my third book called “The Grandfather, my grandad is the best chef in the world”. The idea came from one of my three grandchildren, Freya who kept telling her teachers and probably anyone else that would listen, that she always helped her Grandad cook, because “He is a chef” and “My Grandad is the best Chef in the world”.

Since starting my first Facebook blog in 2019 called “Recipes from my travels”, I have become a published author, food and travel columnist and writer. I run four food and travel Facebook pages/blogs and created my own website with my son which promotes businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry worldwide. I have over ten thousand followers across all of my social media platforms and reaches in the millions.

I’m privileged to be a community champion for Alcohol Change UK and just as proud and privileged to have set up the first hepatic encephalopathy online support group alongside The British Liver Trust. I help out and support the British Liver Trust in other subjects, and promote the Teenage Cancer Trust, the Mental Health Foundation, Burnt Chef Project which provides mental health support across the hospitality industry, Food cycle UK and Food Cycle Birmingham to name just a few.

Last year I entered a national food competition and finished third. I’ve also created a Greek-inspired menu for over 80 guests for Food Cycle Birmingham, which uses surplus food and creates stunning vegetarian dishes for local communities. My new book about Corfiot food and culture “Paul James’s Corfu Odyssey” is set to be published in Greek as well as English, plus I’ve got my own radio show on Greek News & Radio Florida. So things are very positive.

But the reason for this brief memoir is my daily struggle to combat the pain and what goes with it and to remind everyone that there is help out there. Please don’t be afraid to ask for it. I want to continue supporting people going through the same things I went through and make stigmatised illnesses such as alcohol, substance abuse, mental health and other issues become more accepted and accessible to talk about in the hospitality sector and society itself.

One day my story may be someone else’s lifeline.

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