Down, but Not Out: Denise's story

By Denise Harrison,
updated on Apr 17, 2019

Down, but Not Out: Denise's story

After a chaotic childhood, a series of personal crises sent Denise spiralling into depression and alcoholism. But thanks to rehab and loyal friends, she has rebuilt her life, and now uses her experiences to help others

I’ve always craved stability. It’s both my catnip and my kryptonite – something I yearn for, but also something that, for me at least, has been incredibly hard to find.

The sudden death of my dad, when I was six years old, turned my world upside down. Overnight, life became confusing and chaotic for my whole family.

My mum struggled to bring up two small children on her own, depression set in, and she started to use alcohol to take away the pain. Within a few years she was a full-blown alcoholic, and my brother and I gradually morphed into her carers while we were both still in primary school.

As a result, I developed huge separation anxiety. I was convinced that my mum would die, too, if I let her out of my sight, and I became anxious and neurotic. Going to school was horrendous, as my mind would fill with nightmare scenarios and I would sit counting the hours, willing the bell to ring so that I could go home and make sure that she was OK.

To distract myself from the worries and chaos at home, I would read a lot. Losing myself in the pages of The Faraway Tree books or The Borrowers fed my imagination, and I would go off on adventures in my head. I would write stories and read them to my toys and, later, despite failing the majority of my exams in high school, I managed to get A*s in English and Oral Communication.

Denise with friends

Because of my background, poverty and disadvantage have always struck a chord with me. We had to use a food bank, and clothes and toys were often second-hand. I’ve never forgotten opening a present and seeing that my doll’s face was already dirty. I knew it meant that someone else had already played with her. I wasn’t being a snob, I was a confused child.

It must have really hurt my mum when I commented.

Looking back now, I understand what a struggle things were. But as a child you don’t always see the bigger picture, or understand the impact of words. It was our first Christmas without my dad. With hindsight, I’m amazed we had presents at all.

Later in life, I went on to devise and create projects that helped to support struggling families and individuals through some difficult times, and I won several awards for my work.

Ironically, behind the scenes, my own life was falling apart. In 2013 my relationship ended after 12 years, and I was left facing homelessness and divorce. I effectively became one of the very people that I had set out to help. My insecurity demons resurfaced and I started to spiral.

I moved into a caravan with my cat, and a newly acquired mountain of debt. Then, almost as soon as we moved in, my cat got sick and had to be put to sleep. He was all I had left, and I was devastated. A switch flipped as I walked out of the vets, and finally, what was left of my head exploded. I slept with his ashes for ages.

It was the beginning of the end for me. I literally couldn’t take any more. I pressed self-destruct, and had an epic mental breakdown.

My loneliness, loss, and grief were overwhelming, and I would drink myself unconscious. I had disastrous relationships, and was an absolute liability and danger to myself. My mental health was shot to pieces, personal hygiene became a thing of the past, and I was talked about and ridiculed.

I've worked incredibly hard to recover from my addiction and turn my life around, and I still have hurdles to get over

By November 2016, I was an alcoholic, emaciated wreck. I wore the same clothes for days on end, and slept on a borrowed sofa at night, my cat’s ashes in an urn inside my sleeping bag. I basically had two options left: seek professional help and try to get well, or carry on drinking myself to death.

I chose to get help, and on 29 November 2016 I was admitted to detox, barely weighing anything. My skin was grey and my hair was falling out. The first night I was too drunk to be medicated, and having nightmares and hallucinations. Thankfully, the next day I was able to start the detox process.

I stuck to the programme religiously, knowing that my life was in the balance. After six weeks I was moved into rehab, where I spent the next three months trying to adapt to a life without alcohol. After that, I left rehab and moved into a homeless hostel in March 2017.

I was struggling to deal with everything that had happened, and a friend of mine encouraged me to write, saying that it would be good for me. She built me a basic website to get me started, and, despite an initial confidence crisis, ‘Just A Girl – My life’ was born.

I joined Twitter, and talked openly and candidly about my journey, my mental health issues, and my struggle with addiction. People read my work, and shared their own stories and struggles, which in turn gave me the confidence to carry on.

I started to write for magazines and made podcasts, then we produced a short, dark, animated film – with an original score and vocals provided by Rick and Kim Wilde – that documented my depression and premiered as part of the first International Arts and Homeless Festival in Manchester.

As part of the festival, I took part in Manchester artist Emma Turner’s visionary art piece ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ – answering questions from members of the public on topics such as homelessness and addiction. The story was covered by both The Big Issue and The Guardian.

Denise Harrison

Denise Harrison

As a result of this, I’ve been invited to tell my story as a TEDx talk, and I am currently writing a one-woman play, called Pandora, which will confront topics such as addiction and prostitution, while showing that getting dealt a bad hand can happen to the best of us, and that homelessness is often just one paycheck away.

The last two years have been pretty intense. I’ve worked incredibly hard to recover from my addiction and turn my life around, and I still have hurdles to get over. I’m 45 years old, and I’m rebuilding my life from scratch. My mental health can be fragile as I come to terms with everything.

I have bad head days like everyone else, where I question everything, but I try to stay focused on the positives – like the fact that I have good friends who stuck by me, I have a lovely boyfriend, and I am free of the addiction that wanted to kill me.

I no longer ‘cope’ with things by turning to alcohol. I sit with my demons – however uncomfortable the experience. They tell me when things are wrong or out of sync, and I’ve learned that, often, they have lessons to teach me – uncomfortable truths about myself.

I’ve found solace in writing and as a result have been able to help myself and give hope to others through dark times.

I’ve learned that I am far more resilient than I ever gave myself credit for. I have a coping mechanism that improves my mental health, my self-worth, and my confidence. Each day I wake up and I look for the possibilities – because now that I am well and sober, there are plenty.

Fe Robinson | MUKCP (reg) Psychotherapist and couples counsellor, says:

Denise’s experience shows how ill-health can be inter-generational, with early experiences shaping how we later cope with life challenges. She has found ways to express herself and to engage with the entirety of her experience, connecting to her light and shade, and letting her feelings become messages that educate and inspire, rather than threats to fear and avoid. Her strength and tenacity are inspiring, and show what is possible when people find a way to choose support and recovery.

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