What It’s Like To Experience Alcohol Withdrawal & Be Admitted To An Inpatient Detox

By Sam Thomas

After two months of coming to the conclusion I was alcohol-dependent, I self-referred to the local substance misuse service. Within a couple of weeks, I had an assessment with a specialist medic; ‘you’re over the threshold’ was his response or in other words, due to the severity of the withdrawals there was only one option: inpatient detox.

Like many in my position, I hadn’t realised the extent of my dependency until I tried to stop. Whilst I can’t pretend I was oblivious to my drinking but I had somehow learned to ‘function’ in a dysfunctional way. It took several attempts to stop and was immediately followed by withdrawal symptoms that were unbearable.

My intentions and motivations were stemming from the right place but how I was addressing my drinking was not. Anyone who has been in the same boat will know going ‘cold turkey’ is not advisable. Yet, I hadn’t actually considered that I was too far gone to be able to avoid any adverse effects.

Upon stopping abruptly, I experienced a myriad of symptoms that for five months went unexplained. For a long time, it didn’t add up, in part due to my limited knowledge of withdrawal from alcohol. It only became obvious once a pattern had emerged. Unfortunately, whilst wine was the poison it was also the medicine, I needed to avoid any risk of damage from the withdrawals.

Typically, I would experience full body shakes to the extent where I was unable to stand or walk. I also had: fever-like symptoms, nausea and sickness, total confusion, delusional thoughts, short term memory loss, agitation, insomnia, insane nightmares involving creepy crawlies and overall discomfort.

The symptoms became so extreme that I started drinking again as I felt it was the only means to ease them.

One morning in March one of my closest friends arrived to drive me from Brighton to London to detox. On the one hand I was keen and eager. On the other hand, I doubted whether it would work.

I had no idea what to expect, no-one had explained the process to me so why would I? I didn’t know anyone I could speak to whom had been to an inpatient detox.

Of course, I kept it all quiet from everyone I knew apart from immediate family, friends and a tight circle of colleagues. I felt no urge to tell the world where I was going for ten days. This wasn’t because of the shame of it but because I simply hadn’t had the chance to process it all myself yet, let alone accept how I’d gotten to this point and broadcast that to everyone else.

Upon arrival at Cranstoun City Roads, my friend escorted me to the door and I broke down. From that point onwards, it was up to me to focus on my recovery. No phones, laptops, access to internet or visitors – just me. It was total isolation from the outside world, albeit with the exception of an in-house payphone that was rarely ever available.

Initially it seemed brutal, harsh and needlessly strict and every part of me wanted to rebel against it but ultimately, this was the way it had to be, though I refused to accept it at the time.

About halfway through my admission I was intent on self-discharging because, as far as I was concerned, this was not what I’d signed up for. Fortunately, the other residents, most of whom had been on detoxes many times before, convinced me to stay. Being a newcomer to all of this, I had only their word to go on and they were the experts when it came to lived experience.

Eventually, I got through those ten long days but it wasn’t easy. What I learned beyond this experience is that detox, whether it be inpatient or in the community, rarely works as a stand-alone, one size fits all solution. What happens afterwards is where the real hard work begins.

No-one can rehabilitate themselves without ongoing after-care and support. Making changes and sacrifices is all part of it. After all, if you don’t change anything, then ultimately nothing changes.


Sam is a mental health campaigner with lived experience of bulimia and newly diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder.

You can follow Sam on Twitter @sam_thomas86.

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