'I became an alcoholic overnight': one woman's escape from addiction

Anita Cragen, 64, was living her dream life in the UK until the shock of her father’s unexpected death triggered a descent into alcoholism

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - July 17, 2019: An interview with former alcoholic and addiction counsellor Anita Cragen. Wednesday the 17th of July 2019. Downtown, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

My mum died when I was 36, after 25 years of fighting cancer. Six weeks later, in September 1991, my dad died of a broken heart. He was in perfect health, but that day he said his heart was racing. He went to the hospital and just died.

Until that summer, I had a fairytale existence. Married to an accountant, living in the outskirts of London with two children – aged eight and 11 – in private schools, my life was a whirlwind of lunches at the golf club, weekends at health farms and glamorous nights out in the city. My life was easy and I didn’t want for anything. I went to Ascot, to Wimbledon… I was living the life I wanted.

I didn’t drink much in those days. I was normally the designated driver when I was out with friends or my husband. After mum died, I struggled with the grief as anyone would, but when dad followed her something changed in me. It was almost instantaneous. The grief was surreal. It swallowed me up. I needed to numb the pain and I didn’t care how.

I started drinking and, a few days later, I was hit by the overwhelming thought that my old life was not for me. That very night, I called my husband and told him I was leaving him. He didn’t believe me and thought it was the alcohol talking. I said, “If you love me, you’ll let me go.”

After that, I never set foot in my marital home again.

A rapid decline

My life very quickly spiralled out of control. I moved into a house with new friends and was drinking all day every day. My husband never tried to change my mind, but he limited my access to the children, as he had custody. I can see why – I took risks with their safety, such as driving with them in the car while under the influence of alcohol.

Within a couple of years, I had had my third child and was married again. My second husband was a party boy – we were friends with some of the biggest names in London's nightlife scene back then. A few years later, we moved to Spain, where my drinking became even more out of hand. We were the party people – we attended events, openings of bars and restaurants. Very soon, I was drinking in the mornings. My husband tried to stop me, but couldn't. I was working in real estate and sometimes I was so drunk I couldn't even sign my name on documents.

When my son was nine, my husband told me he wanted a divorce. He officially claimed I was an alcoholic.

Without anyone around to monitor me, my drinking escalated. I nearly burnt down the house once with a kitchen fire, so my brother took my son to live with him. I broke my nose seven times from falling over drunk. I would binge drink for days and swear I wouldn't do it again – but I always did. I knew I had a problem, but nothing seemed to help me.

I went to rehab centres, saw the top psychiatrists, tried acupuncture, hypnosis – nothing made a difference. I was in total denial about the fact that drinking was destroying my life. I would lie to therapists about the extent of it – I didn’t want to hear that I had to stop. Looking back, I feel so sad knowing that I wasted so many years of my own life and missed all that time with my family.

One time, my brother and my youngest son picked me up from a stint in rehab. On the way home, I asked them to stop so I could buy some wine. My son was begging me not to drink and they both had tears running down their faces, but it didn’t stop me. Another time, my brother came to stay with me while I detoxed. I spent three days shaking and sweating and promising I would never do it again. On the fourth day, we went to the golf club to get some lunch. I walked straight up to the bar, took the cork out of a bottle of wine that was sitting in ice and started drinking straight out of it. I felt like there was no hope.

The final straw

When I was 50, I managed to do three months without alcohol. It was Christmas Eve, and I met my daughter for lunch. She was so proud of me – she gave me a little card that I still carry with me in my purse today. Later that evening, I met a friend and, before I knew it, I had a drink in my hand.

That turned out to be the drink that nearly killed me.

When I woke up the next day, I was so full of guilt, shame and remorse at letting my family down again that I just couldn’t do it any more. I made the decision to end my life. I took a train to Brighton, on the south coast of England, with a bag full of prescription medicine. When I didn’t turn up for Christmas dinner, my family reported me as a missing person. The police found me stealing from a Marks & Spencer and took me to hospital where I was put on a life-support machine. Ten days later, I left hospital totally broken. I didn’t know what to do. I was out of options.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - July 17, 2019: An interview with former alcoholic and addiction counsellor Anita Cragen. Wednesday the 17th of July 2019. Downtown, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Anita Cragen, almost 15 years since she stopped drinking. Chris Whiteoak / The National

I had some messages on my phone from a man called Chris Spencer, saying “I can help you. I have a solution.” In total desperation, I called him and arranged to meet him that evening.

Everything changed from the moment I met Chris. He said he was an addiction therapist and that he had been trying to contact me for months, as two people had given him my number. Chris explained that addiction is an illness and he told me what I needed to do to get better. Everything he said made sense – it was like he understood what it felt like to be me. Something in me cracked open that evening. I felt more comfortable immediately. It was just what I needed to hear at just the right time.

Today, I have a life that is beyond my wildest dreams. It's incredible to know I have helped so many women, men and families. I couldn't ask for anything more

After we talked, he took me to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and told me to do 90 meetings in 90 days, which I did. Now I know that he said this because it takes about 90 days to change a behaviour pattern. I saw Chris regularly during that time. He took me through his own programme for recovery from addiction, which is called the Phoenix Programme and, slowly, one day at a time, I found my way back to being me.

Our relationship developed and, when I moved back to Spain a year later, Chris came with me. I studied and qualified as an addiction therapist myself and together we opened our first clinic helping alcoholics and addicts. That was 13 years ago and I haven’t had a drink since I left that hospital in Brighton. I don’t even take painkillers – I have helped so many people battle against addiction to prescription medication, I know I don’t want them in my body or my life.

A new life

Chris and I got married in 2009 and we have travelled the world together helping people to free themselves from their addictions using the Phoenix Programme, while running rehab centres in Spain. One of our spots was listed among the top ten treatment centres in the world by Healthcare Global medical journal. In the last few years, Chris has been working in the UAE and I have been soaking up the lifestyle while also sharing my experience and knowledge with female friends, helping them through difficult patches in their lives. I am often contacted by women who have heard about me and want to meet for a coffee and for some advice on their own journeys. I've informally helped people through free addiction support groups such as AA. But, as much as we have enjoyed our time here in the UAE, Spain is our home and it's time for us to return there to continue running our addiction centre, The Phoenix Individual Retreat.

Chris, right, and Anita in the early years of her recovery from alcoholism. Courtesy Anita Cragen
Chris, right, and Anita in the early years of her recovery from alcoholism. Courtesy Anita Cragen

Today, I have a life that is beyond my wildest dreams. A wonderful husband, a loving marriage, a fantastic relationship with my children and my eight grandchildren – none of whom have ever seen me drink. I have friends and a career that I love. My clients send me pictures of their newborn babies. It’s incredible to know I have helped so many women, men and families. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

And yet, I am fully aware that, no matter how long it has been since my last drink, I am only ever one drink away from that whole nightmare coming back. All the broken promises, the regret, the shame. It’s a relief every single day that I don’t have to live like that any more. The good thing is, now I know that if I can overcome it, others can too. My advice to anyone struggling with any sort of addiction is to seek help right away. There is a solution out there for you. Even though you might not feel like there is any hope right now, I promise you there is. I am proof of that.

To get in touch with Anita, email anita@phoenixreply.com. For information on Phoenix Individual Retreat, visit www.phoenixindividualretreat.com

What to do if you have an addiction

Aisling Prendergast, a psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, shares her advice on what you should do if you, or someone you know, has or have an addiction

Aisling Prendergast, psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, Dubai
Aisling Prendergast, psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, Dubai

"Consider your basic needs and whether or not you are actually meeting these. Quite often, an addictive substance feels like it can fill a gap in one’s life. Think of the acronym HALT: am I Hungry and when was the last time I ate or drank some water? Am I Angry or is there any other emotion, such as sadness or anxiety, that I am struggling to sit with? Am I Lonely and when was the last time I truly and fully connected with somebody who is important to me? Am I Tired and rather than pushing myself to engage do I need to listen to my mind and body and take time out for myself?

"Managing a problematic relationship with a substance can feel incredibly isolating. You may be battling with a lot of shame and embarrassment and feel judged by others. It is crucial to reach out to a qualified psychologist to help you manage these thoughts and feelings. They can help you assess your relationship with a substance – how it may be affecting your mental and physical health, and what your goals are going forward.

"Connect with others who have been in a similar situation to help you take steps to make a change. There are a number of groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, the UAE that offer a free, confidential and non-judgmental space. You can find these at mercaa.com."