This blog is usually reserved for B2B-related musings but this post is a little different. We recently started working with The Vineyard Community and wanted to highlight the work they do and the people they help.
This post tells the story of Phil, a former marketing executive who made his way to the top of the industry only to find himself alone, homeless and unemployed at the age of 50.
“Right there,” Phil says, pointing to his head. “That’s where I was stabbed with a stanley knife.” He taps a three-inch scar. “I was drunk, walking through Chiswick and three men attacked me. It was lucky I didn’t put up a fight…”
Most people would deliver this story in a theatrical fashion – with a lot of gesticulation and a conspiratorial tone – but Phil mentions it in passing. He has a lot of stories like this, some of which are even more shocking.
Phil is a volunteer at The Vineyard Community and a former beneficiary.
He was shepherded into one of their shelters in 2018 after alcoholism tore his life apart. His relationships with friends and family had broken down and he was bankrupt, unemployed and sleeping rough. On top of it all, he was becoming unwell.
I could barely walk. I weighed about 68kg. I was crawling to the local shop on my hands and knees.
Looking at Phil today, this is all hard to believe. He’s tall, has the rangy build of a rugby forward and, more often than not, he’s smiling.
He also volunteers at The Vineyard. He’s a “befriender” – someone who bridges the gap between case workers and the homeless – and a career mentor.
He has a lot of valuable advice to share. His CV radiates success and includes names like McDonald’s, Disney and Google, as well as roles at a venture capital firm and a number of advertising agencies – big and small.
This is what makes Phil’s story so compelling. Ten years ago he was an incredibly successful marketer who, in his own words, “had a six-figure salary, the car, the wife, everything.”
Yet by the time he was 50 he was homeless, alone and sleeping on a bench.
We interviewed Phil to find out how this happened and how The Vineyard helped him get back on his feet.
The disease behind the disease
Phil’s relationship with alcohol started when he was thirteen. But he believes the warning signs were visible from a much younger age.
“Many mental health issues stem from isolation,” Phil explains. “That’s why I started drinking, I felt isolated.”
Phil doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t feel lonely. He was a shy kid who often felt insecure, confused and unhappy. Eager to please and eager to follow.
“I chose Cambridge (University) because my Dad told me to go there. I wanted to study PPE at Oxford…I chose Emmanuel college because a boy from my school chose it…I was completely bewildered by life.”
Drinking helped him feel more confident and escape this insecurity. It didn’t seem like a problem at first, in fact it seemed normal. He was heavily involved with rugby, a sport known for its train-hard, drink-hard culture, and his university friends were happy to indulge in binge drinking.
There was no outward sign that Phil was anything other than a regular teenager.
“I was known as ‘Laughing Boy’,” he explains. “But when I came home from a night out I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel happy.”
This dichotomy carried on into his career. After university, he enjoyed immediate success in sports sponsorship and went on to work on huge global campaigns for McDonald’s, Heineken and Ford.
But the entire time he was crippled with self-doubt and dissatisfaction.
“I wanted more and more – more money, a better car.”
As the years passed, this dissatisfaction calcified into chronic boredom and apathy.
“I’d go into a meeting and say ‘Blah, blah, blah, look at these great numbers. Where’s the pub? I had no passion, no interest.”
Phil believes this combination of loneliness, unhappiness, ennui and anxiety was the root cause of his alcoholism. It was the disease behind the disease.
“If you want to find out why you’re an alcoholic,” he says, “Stop drinking.”
The bottom floor
It was only in 2008 that Phil’s drinking became a real problem.
“I would wake up, go to the gym, then go to work. Then, between the hours of six and seven, I’d drink half a bottle of vodka. The next day, the whole circus would start again.”
He was able to hide his habit by isolating himself. He skipped social events when possible and stayed home when he wasn’t working. That meant that he was able to avoid many of the social nightmares associated with alcoholism. There were no arrests, outbursts of physical violence or embarrassing drunken rants.
But those close to him could see the damage he was doing to himself.
Phil’s relationship with his wife broke down and they agreed to divorce. Over Christmas he entered The Priory rehabilitation centre for the first time.
At first, he didn’t acknowledge that he had a problem.
“We’re a very defiant lot,” he says, referring to alcoholics. “Even if we appear kind we’re subtly selfish and unwilling. And that’s how people end up dying. Out of stubbornness.”
But Phil did have a problem and it was getting worse. He was regularly lapsing into bouts of heavy drinking.
“During a relapse week I’d drink three litres of vodka a day,” he says matter-of-factly.
Unsurprisingly this level of drinking was starting to impact his professional life. But it erupted in ugly personal attacks, rather than embarrassing drunken incidents.
“I was resentful. I’d go after the smartest person in the room and take them on… I’d send horrible emails.”
During all this he was going back and forth to rehab.
“I spent most of my divorce settlement on rehab. I spent at least £150,000 at The Priory.”
Phil had been drinking heavily for over a decade at this point and it was taking a toll on his body. He was regularly in and out of London’s hospitals.
“Imagine life as a lift,” he says. “As things get worse, it goes down. Some people can get off at the sixth floor or the third floor. I had to get smashed into the bottom floor. I had to be on my knees.”
Things had become so bad by the beginning of 2018 that Phil agreed to leave his job and move in with his parents.
He tried controlled drinking but couldn’t make it work – he ended up bribing local shopkeepers to give him alcohol.
Eventually, even his parents had had enough – they kicked him out.
The next day Phil sat in a hotel and drank around the clock. Incredibly, he managed to stagger into his gym the following day.
This turned out to be a lucky decision.
“I spent most of my divorce settlement on rehab. I spent at least £150,000 at The Priory.
Tim Slater, a Director of the gym, spotted Phil and realised he needed help. He rang round local shelters and charities and eventually found The Vineyard. They had one space left at their winter shelter for the homeless.
At first, Phil refused the offer.
“I was like, I’m not sleeping in there, with them.”
But reality soon dawned.
“The cavalry wasn’t coming. I was on my own.”
Eventually, he swallowed his pride and made a decision that changed his life forever.
“I decided I would rather live than die. And I wanted to find a different way of living”.
A different way of living
IPhil spent 150 nights in The Vineyard’s network of winter shelters where he was protected from the cold and given three meals a day.
The Vineyard Community itself became a base. He was able to use it as an address, which meant he could apply for benefits and register for a GP. He also took advantage of its showers, case workers and care services. When he collapsed early in his stay, it was The Vineyard staff that nursed him back to health.
It was around this time that he had a breakthrough. He realised that most of the issues he was suffering with – insecurity, resentment, anger, self-loathing, anxiety – had their roots in self-imposed social exile.
“I needed to get out of my own way,” he says. This meant shelving his ego, discovering humility and opening up to the people around him.
And when he let his guard down he was overwhelmed by the kindness offered by guests and Vineyard volunteers.
“The Vineyard staff referred to us as guests and that was really important. We learned we were ok. We felt respected.”
The Vineyard also provided routine – something that’s invaluable to a recovering alcoholic. Phil’s days followed the same pattern and this gave him focus and security.
“My recovery flowed from routine and The Vineyard was at the centre of it all. It saved my life without a doubt.”
By Christmas 2018, Phil was not only clean, but healthy.
And for the first time in a long time, he’s truly happy.
“My whole life, I never had inner peace. Now I do.”
Why we’re working with The Vineyard
Phil’s story shows the maddening complexity of alcoholism. The root causes are often deep-seated and intangible and symptoms lurk beneath the surface.
That’s why people like Phil end up suffering in silence for decades. And when cracks do start to show it’s often too late. Even the most successful people can find themselves overwhelmed.
This complexity extends to recovery. There’s no silver-bullet solution. Phil couldn’t just stop drinking or dismiss the personal issues that underpinned his addiction. He needed time to recover, both physically and psychologically, and to understand his issues and plan a way forward.
The people at the Vineyard gave him this time and provided the resources he needed to rebuild his life. And that’s why the Vineyard is so important. They do a job that no one else does. They provide both a sanctuary and a launchpad. A platform that supports victims through crisis and guides them through recovery.
That’s rare. And for people like Phil, it’s the difference between life and death.
The Vineyard Community helps thousands of people like Phil every year. They’re wholly dependent on donations and volunteer support and are always looking for partners that can help them do more for the Richmond community. You can make a financial donation here.
You can contact Phil here.