WITH students’ expectant faces turned towards him, Professor Sean Nee would gaze across the lecture hall and embark on a thought-provoking discussion, all the while trying to ignore the gnawing desire eating away at him; a need to get to the pub, or to his office where there was a bottle of wine under the desk.
The evolutionary biologist, who had studied alongside novelists Richard Dawkins and Mark Haddon, was at the height of his career, a rising star amid the dreaming spires of Oxford academia. He was working with Robert May, chief science adviser to the government, publishing papers in illustrious journals, but his life was unravelling.
A move to Edinburgh University’s School of Biological Sciences failed to halt his slide into alcoholism and drug addiction. At his lowest point he was downing beers and two bottles of wine through the day, topping it off with a quarter bottle of vodka at night.
Morning lectures became tortuous exercises clouded in the fug of a hangover, until he could get his first drink of the day. Then there were the drugs. A teenage cannabis habit had developed into a dependency on cocaine, and while his days were with the intellectual elite, his evenings were spent scratching around in the underbelly of the Capital seeking out greater chemical hits.
It was only when he went to his GP suffering from breathing problems that his addictions were finally brought out in the open.
Now, after just over a year in recovery but suffering with the effects of a damaged liver, Prof Nee, 55, is planning to sleep rough for a night – something he never had to do even in his darkest hours – to raise awareness for homeless charity Centrepoint.
“I have always managed to keep my house so I don’t have any personal experience of sleeping rough in Edinburgh, but I have seen first hand the chaotic lives of sofa surfers and those who use the city’s hostels and their battles with drug, alcohol and mental problems all from my time in rehab,” he said. “I wanted to do something to help. There was an alarming Centrepoint poll recently which showed that nearly a fifth of young people in the UK have slept rough in the past year.
“When someone is a kid, a little help and intervention can make a huge difference. If sleeping out rough helps raise awareness of the problem and helps in any way, then it’s worth it.”
Prof Nee, who took voluntary redundancy from the university, believes his problems began when he was a child. He grew up in Canada, where his mother was an alcoholic and he developed a “serious” marijuana problem as a teenager because she grew the plant and allowed him unlimited access.
“The first time I tried it, it didn’t have much of an effect but I persevered,” he said. “It became a huge problem. Looking back I exhibited some scary paranoid behaviour.” His cocaine habit began in the 80s when he was studying. “It was everywhere. I took it and I loved it It had an immediate effect and was more of a sociable drug than pot. You become very gregarious whereas with weed you are quite happy to flop down.”
Despite his developing habit – which latterly included heroin – he got a first in his degree from Toronto University and won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study at Sussex University. Soon Oxford was calling and his career was on the up.
He was still taking drugs, but “purely recreationally, not while I was teaching”, but it was alcohol that began to take precedence. “That’s what finally flushed my life down the toilet.”
He moved to Edinburgh, buying a house in Morningside, to begin again, but his behaviour didn’t change. “I didn’t know I had a problem until the medical system intervened. I never became violent or aggressive. But I was drinking more than all my friends. It is possible to function at a high level even as an alcoholic or drug addict. It was only when I had some breathing issues as I occasionally suffer with asthma that things changed.
“The doctor looked at me for 30 seconds and said, ‘we’re getting you to the hospital’. I asked why and he started reeling off all these things that were wrong with me. My skin was bright yellow. I couldn’t see it but it was obvious to him. I was really in an extremely bad way through alcohol. I wasn’t drunk but I was constantly drinking too much.
“It turned out my breathing problems were caused by liver damage.
“My abdomen was filling with fluid and putting pressure on my lungs. You have to have your abdomen drained immediately.”
He is under no illusions about how close he came to death and thanks the doctors, social workers, Alcoholics Anonymous and Lothians and Edinbugh Abstinence Programme (LEAP) for saving him.
“If it wasn’t for social workers and LEAP, which helped me turn my life around, I would be dead. There is simply no question.”