A WOMAN in a figure-hugging red dress walks into the room. Not a blonde hair is out of place, not a nail is chipped.
She is not the sort of woman you’d see paraded on shows like Ten Years Younger. Indeed, glossy magazines would say she’s an “older” woman who still has “it”.
Except Gail Richardson doesn’t. She doesn’t have anything except perhaps the clothes she’s wearing and a few more besides.
She certainly doesn’t have a job, or a home, and for some years not even a family.
While the mum-of-four looks remarkably good for what she’s put her body and mind through over four decades, it’s a mask which saw her able to fool those who couldn’t see beyond the make-up and highlights to know what was really happening.
The 50-year-old recently became the 300th graduate of the ground-breaking Lothian and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme (Leap), after she finally accepted that she had a severe problem with alcohol.
It took her 38 years, two violent marriages, a failed business, an eviction, homelessness and a downwards spiral into drug use to get there.
As she sits in the small meeting room in leafy Stockbridge’s Malta House, where Leap is based, she says: “This was my last chance. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t take the opportunity to come here then there was no way back for me to any kind of normal life.”
Leap is a three-month treatment and rehabilitation programme for addicts who no longer want the crutch of prescribed drugs to get them through the day.
There it’s all about saying no, being strong and knowing there’s support available.
Not only do those on the programme receive clinical medical and therapeutic help, but they are also supported in their accommodation, given education, training and employment opportunities, and aftercare to make sure they’re keeping body and soul together.
When we meet she’s just been nine weeks into the scheme and Christmas and New Year – two days potentially fatal to her recovery – are looming. But Gail, originally from Newtongrange, is determined.
“I haven’t thought about having a drink since I came here,” she says, sounding rather astounded at the fact.
“Getting through this period [festive season] will be fine. I’ve no longer got the desire. The difference in me since I’ve come here has been amazing.”
Gail’s problems with alcohol began when she was 17. “I was a bit of a wild child, going out drinking, which all seemed like a normal thing to do as my friends were doing it as well. But I just loved it. When they stopped, I didn’t.
“I think I’ve really known since my early 20s that I had a real problem with drink.
“I had my first son when I was 21 and had my own house then so drinking became easier as I didn’t have to go out.
“Nothing to do with the stress of being a single parent, it was the norm to me. My pals held it to just the weekends, but when my son went to bed I would drink, every night, seven nights a week.
“Vodka was always my choice, and it would be a bottle a night. But as the years went on it was whatever was available or what I could afford.
“I did have hangovers, but I was always able to function. No-one would have known.”
Gail went on to have another three children with her first husband, whom she married when her eldest son was five.
“He was a big drinker, so that seemed to make my drinking normal as well. When we got divorced, though, it got progressively worse.”
However, Gail did seek help. She went to her social work department – a move which ensured her children were never removed from her care, but her family had begun to distance themselves as she refused to tackle her problem with alcohol.
“It didn’t occur to me,” she says. “My drinking seemed normal. Being an alcoholic seemed normal. I was probably in denial.”
Gail remarried and again the relationship was troubled and drunken, though as her second husband had his own business and helped her start her own catering firm, affording drink was never an issue.
But the marriage ended after eight years. Gail was alone again for two, during which time she started supplementing her drinking with smoking cannabis because she’d heard it “made you feel relaxed, made everything seem great, which I wasn’t feeling anymore from alcohol.”
Then she met a man who she thought would turn her life around. She says: “We were together for almost 12 years. It was wonderful, a loving, caring relationship. He only drank socially and he kept telling me I had a problem, and he was also very anti-drugs. He hated that I smoked.
“He did help me to stop quite a few times – in fact, if I’d come here then I could still have been with him.”
Three months after that relationship fell apart, Gail lost her house as she couldn’t afford the council rent and has been homeless since, moving from one B&B to another at the whim of a local authority.
“It was stressful so I was smoking more cannabis and in B&Bs drugs and alcohol are real issues, and I was mixing with people who were using harder drugs. I was taking Valium and then started on cocaine.”
It was at this point that her social worker spoke to her about rehabilitation. She said no.
“The drink and drugs were my crutches, they kept me going. I didn’t want anyone to take them away,” she recalls.
“The idea of being normal was scary, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
However, when she realised that her next step was probably a heroin addiction, Gail realised she had to take a chance.
“I wasn’t happy so I thought rehab might be the answer. It was a like a sudden realisation that I had to do it for myself, no-one else would. I had to take responsibility.”
But to be accepted at Leap she had to detox herself first – three months of no drink or drugs before she set foot in Malta House.
“I was still being offered it at the B&Bs. I was terrified I’d say yes, but I didn’t. I knew if I turned up here with drink in my system I’d not get in. I was so focused on believing that there could be something different for me at the end of it.”
So in October last year she was finally admitted.
She had to tell her life story, to admit she was an alcoholic, to go back into her past to discover why she drank – and why she suffered depression.
She attended AA meetings where she realised she wasn’t alone in her problems and that with the help of Leap she would continue to be surrounded by people who could help.
“It has changed my life. It has given me a real focus. From here I will go into supported accommodation and then I can go on the council house waiting list.
“But I really want to pay back the arrears I ran up.
“I have never sat down with my kids and asked them what they thought about my drinking, about me being drunk. It probably has really affected them – it has to have – but I know they’re proud of me now.
“I didn’t speak to my parents for quite a few years and I lost contact with my sister.
“They’ve always known I had a problem but had got to a point where they couldn’t do any more to help me because I wouldn’t accept it.
“They probably would have helped if I’d have asked.
“But after being here I’m back in touch with them now.
“These weeks have changed me completely. Last Christmas I was suicidal. This Christmas I was singing carols in St John’s Church.”
‘We don’t do cold turkey here. We change their thinking’
THE Lothians and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme (Leap) has won widespread plaudits since its launch in 2007 for coaxing people from their addiction.
It was the first programme of its kind to combine NHS Lothian services with Edinburgh City Council, job-related organisations and other alcohol and drug partnerships.
Twenty addicts at a time use its seven-day-a-week service, with six out of ten going on to “graduate”, giving them a route to housing, further education, training or work. It is a three-month treatment and rehabilitation programme for those dependent on alcohol and other drugs, but is only for those who want to achieve a substance-free recovery.
Its premises in Malta House, Stockbridge, were officially opened in January 2008 by Princess Anne. Running Leap is Dr David McCartney, pictured,an addiction specialist who previously worked at Castle Craig rehabilitation centre in the Borders.
He believes that the abstinence programme offers an alternative to addicts, especially to the methadone system for substance abusers. “Leap is a challenging, demanding and intensive programme and is aimed at people dependent on substances who are motivated to get clean. This is not an easy route to take,” he says.
“Evidence suggests recovery is more likely where support is continuing. Self-help groups, which we know help people stay clean, are also an integral and important element of the programme.”
He adds: “It’s not cold turkey. Cold turkey is coming off drugs without any support at all. We don’t do cold turkey here.This is where we change their thinking.
“It’s also here that we get to the root of why they take drugs or drink, and from there we can offer more one-to-one counselling if it’s more suitable.”
Last September a new charity, Friends of Leap, aimed at raising funds for the project was launched.
Leap can be contacted on 0131-332 3228.