Belfast author of honest memoir: ‘We still have this idea that addiction is a dirty word’

Queen’s University lecturer and urologist Dr Ian Walsh, almost 14 years sober, has penned a searingly honest account of what he went through in his powerful book The Belly of the Whale.

n what he describes as catharsis for his recovery, the 59-year-old holds back no detail while writing about the dark depths he plunged into when all that mattered was his next drink. Ian went from being a respected surgeon with a wife and three children, living in a luxury home in Belfast to having nothing.

He had to declare himself bankrupt and live on sickness benefit with his mum in her one-room sheltered housing accommodation. His alcohol abuse also took its toll on his physical health to the extent that friends no longer recognised him.

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Tough battle: Dr Ian Walsh who brought out a book called The Belly of the Whale

He admits: “For the last few months when I was drinking, I couldn’t walk.

“My legs were shot by damage from drinking and vitamin deficiency.

“All I could do was crawl around on my elbows in the house and that was only to look for more drink.”

Ian doesn’t know at which point his drinking spiralled out of control but insists that before it could impact on his work, he reported himself to the General Medical Council and handed his notice in to the Belfast Trust.

Now back in private practice and also working as a lecturer at Queen’s University he has rebuilt his life and recently remarried.

He says: “This part of my life is the best so far. For anyone in the depths of despair I can guarantee you life will be better than you have ever known.”

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Dr Ian Walsh at home. Credit: Peter Morrison

Ian is also a talented musician, an active member of the Renal Arts Group and enjoys the creative arts. While in recovery he started to write his story as a way of trying to understand his illness.

He published his book last year initially to share among family and friends, but it sold widely and the response from people who were in a similar struggle left him overwhelmed.

He has since reached out to many families and addicts and is keen to support anyone who wants help dealing with their addiction. Creating awareness is something he feels very comfortable about as he says: “It is an illness so why would you not talk about it?

“We still have this idea that addiction is a dirty word and there is shame and denial built in there. The more we talk about it and get it out in the open, the more people will get better.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, but it was also for me, I needed to get it out as part of my recovery.

“It was a catharsis that helped me to make sense of it. Denial is central to the disease process and until you break that denial down you won’t make any progress with the disease.

“After the book was printed people contacted me from various walks of life thanking me and asking for advice and I was more than happy to help.

“I was really taken aback by the numbers of folk who read it and asked for help. It heartened me that it was having an effect.

“People do need to reach out. It is not something you can do on your own.

“When I was younger, I was a boxer, but I would never have gotten into a ring with Mike Tyson as he would have beaten me.

“With alcohol, if you try to beat it you will never ever win unless you get help from health care professionals, friends and family.

“The more people on your team the better. With support you can get better. I am testament to that.

“My life now is a thousand times better than even before I got dependent on alcohol.”

In his book, described as “not for the faint hearted”, Ian shares his story but also expands on the reasons behind addictive illness and how to ensure recovery.

His was a brutal battle and he doesn’t spare any detail about just how desperate he had become before he finally stopped drinking in 2008.

He says: “The book deals with the last several months of my drinking which was a real horror show. Things crossed over into a very dark area.

“I had been drinking for a long time before that, but I don’t know at what point I became dependent or when it went from heavy social drinking to abuse.

“I know I had struggled and there were quite a lot of difficulties in my social and family life. Things change slowly as addiction bites, and it begins to take over your way of thinking.

“Before it affected my clinical performance, I took myself out of work and referred myself to the GMC. I approached my employers and told them I was not well, and it was one of the best things I ever did for the safety of my patients.

“It was early on, before things got out of hand but after that it was like freefall.”

Leaving his job as a surgeon in the health service left him free to drink as much as he wanted and very quickly his whole life started to implode.

He admits: “Things then started changing. My family withdrew from me and wisely so. I had several months of rapid downward spiral when I was in and out of hospital and rehab multiple times.

“I had descended into squalor and was at the lowest level a drinker can go. I was living alone in my house, out of work and just drinking.

“I neglected my nutrition. I am a big fella, six foot and was always physically very fit, and I had wasted away to nothing. I was in such a state people didn’t recognise me.

“I started having seizures and falling down. My friends were breaking into my house to check if I was okay only to find me in a putrid state of disrepair.

“I was living in complete squalor with no hygiene, drinking a couple of litres of vodka, wine and beers every day.

“I even drank aftershave once to stave off the withdrawal when I ran out of drink.

“I was in and out of rehab and at AA and nothing was working. It was as if I was becoming divorced from reality more and more.”

After a particularly severe seizure which caused a clot in his head, Ian woke up in hospital and suddenly realised he didn’t want to drink anymore.

He was also acutely aware that if he continued to abuse alcohol, he would most likely kill himself.

With the help of his mum and a good friend he left the hospital and moved into a one-room sheltered flat in north Belfast with his mother.

He has never taken a drink since.

He says: “I was sick of opening my eyes and looking at ceilings that weren’t my bedroom ceiling as I had spent so many months in and out of hospital and rehab.

“I haven’t had a drink since that day, nor have I had a craving for it.

“My best friend Charlie, my brother and my mum saved my life.

“Mum took me in, and I lived in her wee box room in a fold with her as my house was like the scene of the crime and I had to get out of it.

“I lived on a sickness benefit and eventually had to declare myself a bankrupt and my house was repossessed.

“I went to AA a few times a week and I did everything my GP and psychiatrist told me to do. I followed instructions and I got better. I couldn’t have done it without my mum or family, the support I got was incredible.

“I also discovered mindfulness and mediation which really helped, and I still do that today.

“I rediscovered the creative side of my life, my music and I started writing. That was a side of me that went with the drinking and during my really black period I couldn’t have held a guitar, never mind playing it.”

Ian is now an AA sponsor helping other people in their recovery.

He believes attitudes to addiction need to change, starting with society’s perception of alcoholism.

He adds: “People need to really accept it as an illness and one that is a lot more devastating than other illnesses.

“It leaves you physically, mentally and spiritually ill as it affects you on so many levels. It also affects so many people around you.

“I think we need to change the way people see it.

“It’s difficult to treat but when someone gets better the whole community gets better. We need to wake up to the fact that alcoholism is a serious illness.”

The Belly of the Whale by Ian Walsh is available on Amazon in hardback, paperback and on Kindle

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