Ursula’s story: “Since my hospital admission 5 years ago, I have not had an alcoholic drink”

For decades, Ursula* used alcohol to mask the pain from her traumatic childhood and abusive relationships. Although she knew she was drinking too much, it wasn’t until she was admitted to hospital with liver failure that she was able to stop drinking. Ursula has chosen to share her story to raise awareness of how unresolved trauma and abuse can lead to both complex physical and mental health problems. Thank you for sharing your story, Ursula.

In January 2019 I spotted jaundice in the whites of my eyes. I immediately called my brother, and he met me at my GP practice. Despite the Doctor arranging a blood test the following week, my brother insisted that I had blood tests that day. This was arranged by another doctor a few hours later. He and I knew something was seriously wrong.  I was then admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of alcohol hepatitis which then led quite quickly to fulminant hepatitis with complications of hepato-renal syndrome and hospital acquired pneumonia.

As I was being admitted to the emergency unit I distinctly remember being in the ward toilet while my brother waited in the cubicle in the assessment area. I had six miniature Christmas liqueurs in my bag, a present for my daughter that she didn’t want. I didn’t even like them but knew this would be my last drink of alcohol. Working in the NHS I knew my condition was serious. I stayed in hospital for six weeks and was considered for a transplant at one stage – my family thought I was going to die. I had hepatic encephalopathy (liver-related brain fog, HE) and don’t remember everything that happened, but I know my family were in total distress.

When I was in hospital for six weeks it was my siblings who noticed I had HE – It took days for it to be ‘flagged up’ for more urgent care within the hospital. Thankfully I was eventually picked up by the ‘virtual ward’ clinicians. All care staff need to understand HE – some moments are lucid, and some are totally confusing and feel like you’re in a dream state. Patients should be treated ethically across the whole illness. My pain was not heard at times and I was ignored. It varied wildly from very caring staff on one shift to the complete opposite on the next.

I guess most people with an addiction have a back story, it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

I guess most people with an addiction have a back story, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. In my case I was groomed and eventually sexually abused around the age of nine or ten by an adult male in my extended family. My mother noticed changes in my behaviour and took me for tests at the GP/local hospital but during those appointments (in the mid-1970s) no one asked me how I felt or if anyone had harmed me.

As a teenager I had periods of anxiety, disruptiveness, not concentrating on schoolwork and I rebelled, was often late or played truant. I still never told anyone about the abuse, until my first ‘proper’ relationship, but my boyfriend also didn’t tell anyone else. After that relationship ended, I moved across the country to be a nanny for my brother. I spent a lot of time at festivals and took drugs, even though I didn’t like it. I just wanted to fit in.

I then moved across the country again, to follow a relationship with a much older man. After that ended, I entered back-to-back relationships that were destructive and coercive. One was an extremely violent relationship and resulted in numerous trips to casualty over four years. In 1987 I was walking home alone after an argument with my partner and was raped by a stranger; the perpetrator was never found.

I started a family in the early nineties and was finally in a safe and loving relationship. I had two children. I started my own business, and life was going well. Unfortunately, after 10 years the business was affected by pedestrianisation of the street so I ended up filing for bankruptcy.

When I lost my father and later my mother, I couldn’t deal with my emotions and became distant with my partner, I felt completely alone. I started thinking about the childhood abuse more but still didn’t tell my family. I felt enormous guilt as to what it would do to my family.

In the early 2000’s I started a university nursing course, I felt a great sense of achievement at getting on it, and knowing I would be helping others. In 2004 I finally disclosed to the university counsellor about the abuse and had a six-week course of counselling and was advised that the type of counselling I really needed was long term specialist trauma therapy. Sadly in 2005 my long-term relationship with the father of my children broke down after 16 years. Despite doing everything to save the relationship, I felt nothing, my mind was not there, and we separated.

In 2005 I disclosed the abuse to my GP and was referred for another six weeks of counselling – again I was advised to seek long-term specialist psychotherapy. I started a new relationship but this didn’t last – I was clingy and needed to be valued, and realised I had a fear of abandonment. I then entered a period of severe depression and covered it up from everyone – including close family and my friends at university.

In 2006 I completed my nursing course and for the first time noticed I was drinking beyond the guidelines on any given night out. I managed to not drink on my workdays because I needed to protect my role. In 2007 I started a new, positive, relationship and gave birth to two boys in 2009/10 respectively. Prior to this I realised that I could not perform the physical side of my nursing role and had to stop work in the 4th month of my pregnancy and as a result of the pregnancies I became registered disabled.

I enjoyed the time at home in those early years but then soon after this I became isolated during their toddler years. We also had financial worries. My partner had to work two jobs and we were struggling. I had suicidal ideations, but my partner would dismiss these. In retrospect I don’t think he realised the extent of my mental health issues. In 2012 I managed to get a ‘sit down Nursing role. This really helped my mental health and made me feel valued.

On New Year’s Day 2017 my partner left me for two weeks. I was diagnosed with PTSD and later traits of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD) and due to a bullying boss, I had to leave my job. I ultimately lost the chance to have specialised therapy.

In May 2017 I finally reported the childhood abuse to the police. My partner left in June, and I continued drinking, and hid it from my family and friends. I left my work and went on long term sickness for over a year.

I struggled during the extended time that the case took to come to court and started drinking much more heavily than ever before. In July 2018 I was admitted to hospital for acute alcohol detoxification for a week. When I was discharged I tried to drink 1% alcohol but steadily I reverted back to 13% strength so by December 2018 I was back to four bottles of wine a day.

Since my hospital admission 5 years ago, I have not had an alcoholic drink.

Since my hospital admission 5 years ago, I have not had an alcoholic drink. One of the main reasons I have abstained is due to putting my family through untold distress that I can never take back. What I can do is make the future brighter with every action I take – or don’t take.  Drinking Nosecco does help me – I know it’s not for everyone – but having a glass of fizz and remembering life before my alcohol problem is helpful.

I find it incredibly frustrating when buying ultra-low or no alcohol products, that they are in the alcohol aisle – no or low-alcohol items should be completely separate. As a society we don’t make it acceptable for people to give up alcohol – many people don’t want to have a soft drink instead of a pint of beer, drawing attention to not drinking alcohol – there should be more places offering no or low-alcohol beer or draught to avoid the stigma.

I find it frustrating that there didn’t seem to be any joined-up thinking from all the separate areas from social workers to health care clinicians and mental health services that I reached out to or became involved with from as early as 2005 and especially when things escalated in 2018 from appointments with mental health practitioners to my first admission to A&E for detox and beyond. There was no support or follow up after this last discharge that had me in the centre except from social services who helped for a while to ensure that my young children where safe and aware that I had a strong wide family network.

My support now comes from my children and family, my eldest son was my carer when I came home. I would never want to put him through that again. I have had support from the British Liver Trust through my brother, he has accessed the charity and knows how to get help from the nurses, when needed.

I want to get across to anyone reading this that you’re not infallible. Everyone has a different personality, life chances and health and we are complex individuals – everyone handles trauma and PTSD differently, but the first step is literally accepting help.

In August 2020 my abuser was sent to prison for what he did all those years ago. The judge’s summing up made me realise I had been groomed and abused in the most wicked way with my family members sometimes just feet away. I had gone through the most enormous amount of trauma, and I probably always will struggle to some degree.

The head of the CPS spoke to me after the case and said it is people like me who encourage other victims to come forward, and be believed, 45 years after the abuse. In July 2023 I received a call to say that my abuser had died after a long illness. I felt shocked at the finality of it all and know the effects of the trauma will carry on in me.

A new beginning

Where am I now? Life is good, but I have to work hard and my feelings of abandonment continue. My partner and I find talking about difficult feelings hard to do to so have recently agreed to start therapy. I have been seeing a fantastic relational therapist, so we will eventually have shared sessions in order to address our relationship and how we move forwards in whatever way it moulds into.

I also use breathing techniques, to get me through stressful times. The 4-7-8 method is especially useful in times of acute stress. You breathe in for four-seconds, hold for seven-seconds and exhale for eight.  It took me a while to get used to it, but I do use it regularly and it’s helpful.

I will be forever grateful to my brother who came to me immediately at the onset of jaundice and beyond. He was a voice for the family being a registered nurse himself and a mental health practitioner. He made the clinicians listen to all of my families concerns.

I am immensely grateful to the two critical care nurses who expedited my transfer to ITU together with the consultants and the registered nurses and health care assistants who did their utmost to care for me when I was admitted in January 2019. I am very grateful to my children and siblings who continue to look out for me and care for me, as I do for them.

I urge anyone who is in any similar situation to reach out to your GP – find one who will give you time. Keep people in your ‘circle’ who are non-judgmental and in your gut, make you feel safe.  Reach out to the nurses at the British Liver Trust, they can help you take the next first step. Be open to accepting the help that is offered.

An end note to make you feel that all is not lost and things however critical can change if addressed. My FibroScan in August 2019 showed clear signs of Cirrhosis in the test results of over 14kPa but on a cellular level from the result of the liver biopsy showed advanced fibrosis. Four years later my newest FibroScan result had reduced to between 7/8 kPa. Not perfect but a vast difference in liver stiffness and all down to abstinence.

*Name has been changed as Ursula wishes to remain anonymous

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