‘I just don’t fancy drinking’ – Exeter study helping alcoholics
“I suppose I’d say I was high-functioning but still a problem drinker. I drank in the evenings and although I wasn’t in trouble with the police, or going broke, or getting ill, if you drink at that level, it takes a toll.”
Simon Bowkett, 48, from Exeter, says he was a “relative latecomer” to heavy drinking – but from his mid-30s onwards it reached “hazardous levels”.
“As my career took off and my income – and stress levels – went up, so did my drinking,” he says.
“Wine was my drink, and in the end I was drinking two or three bottles every night.
“I would sometimes stop for weeks or months at a time, but I always came back to it – I never had it fully under control.”
Now Mr Bowkett has completed six months in the Ketamine for Reduction of Alcoholic Relapse (KARE) trial at the University of Exeter.
Scientists are testing whether a low dose of the drug ketamine, along with therapy and regular monitoring of participants’ alcohol levels, can help prevent relapse to alcoholism.
As this is a double-blind trial, neither the researchers nor participants know who has received ketamine and who has been given a placebo.
But Mr Bowkett says the study and the great team behind it have finally helped him remain sober.
He stopped drinking in late November last year in order to start the trial in December. With the exception of a few drinks on a holiday in June, he has remained alcohol-free ever since.
“I’ve tried all sorts of ways to stop drinking but none of them enabled me to sustain sobriety for this long,” he says.
“Previously, a single glass of wine always led to a relapse, but now I’m not tempted.
“In the past it was a constant struggle, but now I just don’t fancy drinking. It’s almost like a switch has been flicked in my brain. I have gained so much from not drinking that I think ‘why would I risk that just to see if I could drink again?’ I had a few glasses on holiday, but felt awful afterwards, and now feel it’s easier to avoid alcohol altogether.”
Mr Bowkett says he feels more energetic and has lost three stone in weight.
He is chief executive of CoLab Exeter, a charity working in areas including homelessness, offending and health inequality.
It also works on addiction, something Mr Bowkett describes as “ironic” given his own struggles with alcohol.
Looking back, the father of four says he wasn’t being “the best person I could be” during his years of drinking.
“I was often tired at work, and I wasn’t really present for my kids, my partner or my colleagues,” he says.
“I would often fall asleep in the evenings after drinking, and my partner has spoken about feeling quite lonely. I was robbing her of our time together.”
Mr Bowkett now has an app that tracks the money he saves by not drinking – and the figure quickly reached thousands of pounds.
“One of the shocks is thinking about what we could’ve done with that money over the last decade or so,” he says.
The KARE study, funded by the Medical Research Council, follows up on previous research that suggested ketamine could produce brain changes that make it easier to make new connections and learn new things.
This could make the sessions of psychological therapy that are given as part of the trial more effective.
There is also some evidence in humans, from a study of alcoholics in Russia, that ketamine alongside psychological therapy can cut the numbers of people who return to drinking following detoxification by nearly 40%.
Ketamine has recently been shown to alleviate depressive symptoms – a common feature of alcoholic relapse.
The trial is still recruiting participants, and sessions take place in either Exeter or London.
Date: 2 October 2018