Hannah House has very bouncy floors. “They have to be,” explains project leader Beki Nightingall: “It’s safer if people slip or fall.”
Sadly, this happens. The 13 residents, who are there because of their alcohol addiction, are permitted to drink on the premises. But other things happen, too. Things which, in the context of the chaotic, trauma-ridden lives that have been lead by the residents, can be almost miraculous.
Because Hannah House exists to help those who, in the past, were written off as unhelpable.
No one appears to know how it acquired its name but this once-grand Westbourne villa started off as a Victorian family residence and then became a mother-and-baby home until it was taken over by social care enterprise BCHA and started caring for the chronically alcohol-dependent.
“The people we are working with drink because they are in a pattern of behaviour whereby they are so physically addicted to alcohol they cannot survive without drinking,” says Beki.
No one, she says, chooses to become addicted to a substance that will destroy their friendships and family, lose them their job, the roof over their head, their health and maybe their life. “It’s about understanding why that person is in that situation,” she explains.
Many of the reasons include violence, abuse and family break-up in their youth. “Our residents don’t necessarily have the coping mechanisms to deal with it the way most people can and they turn to a substance because it alleviates the pressure for them and buffers the reality,” says Beki.
And if you’re wondering just how bad it can get, Beki describes the life of one former resident. “This lady had experienced domestic violence, abuse, prostitution. She was forced to smuggle drugs, went to prison, went into treatment, came out, fell out of treatment and was kept as a prisoner by a group of people. She was completely traumatised.”
After becoming sober at Hannah House she became involved in another dysfunctional relationship and became homeless. Returning to Hannah House, staff noticed her interest in writing and persuaded her to express her emotions in poetry. “It just exploded, she wrote poems about it all,” says Beki. Now she is working, has her own flat, and is back in contact with her family. “She still has blips but it’s recognising how far she has come. Even the tiniest change is laudable.”
And they never underestimate the power of the tiny change. “If people normally drink their lager from a can, we encourage them to use a mug or a beaker,” explains Beki. “Muscles have memory and even this can help jog them out of their drinking routine.”
The staff try to engender a family atmosphere and residents, who pay rent from their benefit, look out for each other and are welcomed in the community.
Drinking is allowed but spirits must be imbibed off the premises and there is no drinking in communal areas before 11am. Violence is not tolerated but occurs rarely, more often residents become argumentative. The staff’s response, says Beki, is to remember that: “We are often the only people who they can let off to.”
In the end their job is to: “Identify the little chinks in their armour so we can start building on that.”
One of their greatest triumphs in this direction was Beki’s decision, four years ago, to acquire some rescue battery hens.
“They had no feathers, their legs were so weak that if they jumped off something they broke them, they were a mess,” she says. However, for one resident they were the key to his recovery. “This guy had been quite aggressive but when he was with the chickens he melted,” she says. “He wouldn’t drink in the morning until he had fed the chickens because he wanted to enjoy the experience.”
Eventually he revealed that the only happy memory from his childhood was from being with his grandparents who kept hens. “Our chickens helped him remember this,” says Beki.
Some residents make their change slowly but for Wayne, 45, a former soldier who is busy building bespoke gates for the garden’s decking area, the decision happened overnight.
“I’ve had periods of sobriety before but one morning, 44 days ago, I woke up and decided I’d had enough,” he says. “I’d had enough of being sick every morning and grabbing the nearest drink to make me stop shaking, tired of waiting for the offie to open to get my next drink.”
He was tired of not sleeping; “You’d wake up every hour,” tired of having no life and so he tipped his can of alcohol down his bedroom sink.
“I knew what would happen,” he says, matter-of-factly describing the agonising shaking, sweating and vomiting that happens to everyone who packs in serious drinking. “I just drank water because as soon as I drank it I knew it would come straight up.”
After the initial week he tried staying in his room to be away from the other drinkers and went back to his artwork, creating images and, eventually, a meticulous sign made from pins and fibre. “I love it, I’m in my realm,” he says.
After leaving the services he’d become a sheet metal worker, a highly specialised job working to an accuracy of 0.05 “thinner than the thickness of your hair”, but alcohol destroyed all this. “The bosses knew I was drinking and would fire me,” he says.
He had his own business for a while but drinking destroyed that. Alcohol has taken him to prison and, he says, stolen 38 years of his life. Like most people in his position he doesn’t exhibit a shred of self-pity but, when pushed, speaks about a childhood which saw alcohol and violence.
“I see it all the time what I used to be like,” he says, quietly. “I was never violent, but maybe violent verbally to the staff. They’ve told me what I said to them, but it’s not me really and it’s not me now.”
Watching the real person emerge from the drink is, says Beki, one of her staff’s greatest rewards.
Wayne agrees. “Every day I wake up and say thank-you God. I’m not a churchgoer but I pray to God in my own way and feel thankful I got through another day without having a drink. I have so much to thank Hannah House for.”
l BCHA, 01202 410500