When booze turns to cheers
Alcohol, drug and substance abuse are on the rise in the UK, with many Britons locked into taking a vicious cocktail of drink and drugs just in order to get through the day. According to the government’s latest statistics, 268,251 adults – and more than 15,000 teenagers – now require help from specialist NHS drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. Yet with a success rate of less than 20% in helping patients deal long-term with their addictions, the country’s mainstream services are failing to tackle the problem.
There is hope, however, and a number of Christian-based organisations are now rising to the growing challenge and having a significant impact. Tony Yorke speaks to one in particular that uses its celebrity status to help people in need.
The cobbles were cold and unforgiving. Saliva and blood mingled with the grit and tar of the hard, northern pavement – and Kevin Kennedy’s crumpled body lay deathly still.
Kevin was one of the biggest stars of Coronation Street, Britain’s most popular television soap opera, and he had just collapsed outside his local pub. He was out cold. His body, ravaged by booze, had spectacularly decided to call time on years of revelry.
Yet things were to get worse before they started to get better.
Capturing everything that unfolded on that fateful day in 1996 was a national newspaper photographer who recorded the full, unedited story of the popular actor’s plight.
There is an old saying that the camera never lies. And this day, the lens absorbed everything as Kevin lay unconscious on the roadside just a few feet away. Within hours, the dramatic pictures would reveal the secret to the world: Kevin was an alcoholic, his problem was out of control and his body could take no more.
The revelation also meant he could no longer hide. The protective cocoon that had shielded Kevin and his wife, Clare, for so long had disintegrated, leaving the couple to deal with everything that was to follow.
‘It was one of the most shameful moment of my life,’ recalls the star, whose Norman ‘Curly’ Watts character graced the small screen for 20 years. ‘My secret was out of the bag. The world knew what I had been doing to myself. I couldn’t pretend or hide it any more. Yet the truth is, I hadn’t been driven to drink by the pressure of show business and living my life in a goldfish bowl; far from it. I liked drinking and having a good time. My big mistake was to do it to excess and get attached to addiction, so it took over my life.”
Fresh in the memory
Kevin has been sober for the last 22 years, during which time he and Clare have seen their marriage go from strength to strength, albeit there has been at least one major ‘bump’. Yet for Clare, the memory of finding Kevin on the kerb, after he had experienced what is called an alcoholic seizure, is still extremely raw.
‘We were going home and Kevin announced he was desperate for the loo. He couldn’t wait,’ she remembers. ‘We were close to the local pub we knew well. So I pulled the car over and let him out. I started to get worried when he didn’t return after about 15 minutes, but I certainly didn’t expect to find him in the condition he was in. But reaching this low didn’t stop us drinking.
‘I wasn’t stupid. I knew Kevin liked a drink and a good time, but I really didn’t want to believe he was an alcoholic. Because if I admitted he was an alcoholic, then I would have to admit the same for myself. We were both living the high life but we were both also in denial. As a result, we hit the crash barriers in a major way.’
The next few years passed by at whirlwind speed until the couple hit 1998, a year that saw their relationship and drinking hit rock bottom. It was then Clare decided she could no longer watch Kevin slowly kill himself. So she left him, and it was this time apart that would see Kevin’s world fall apart, leaving him with a stark choice: ask for help or die.
At this point, Kevin was a household name and one of the main characters on the Street. Thankfully, Granada TV recognised he was in trouble and stepped in, helping the actor get access to real help and support.
The decision saved Kevin’s life. Granada’s cash paid for vital treatment, and it was during his time at the renowned Priory clinic that Kevin was able to begin a new, sober chapter in his life.
The time apart also forced Clare to confront her own inner demons. ‘I was a binge drinker, and due to the added pressures, drama and general chaos, these binges became more frequent. I believed the drinking was helping me to cope with the crazy life we were leading. But my own denial was a problem and was clouding my thinking. I could only really see Kevin’s problem as being the big issue, yet I was also a chronic alcoholic, whose life was rapidly spiralling out of control.’
Recognising they both had a serious problem took time to accept and resolve, and there were many tears along the way. And Clare also threatened the small matter of divorce!
‘It wasn’t a normal response to hearing your husband may die if he’s around alcohol. I still loved him dearly, but his addiction meant our lives had to change, and I wasn’t happy about that.’
But the couple were gradually able to confront things together.
On leaving the Priory, Kevin’s career went from strength to strength. He returned to the Street, and the door opened for him to launch a musical career, which would lead to a Gold album and rave reviews on some of London’s biggest West End stages.
It was the decision to take leading parts in musicals that directly led Kevin and Clare to a new faith life, and a worthy home for their passions and energies.
‘I was brought up as a Catholic,’ explains Kevin. ‘Religion had always been a part of my family life. But it wasn’t really relevant. And because of this, I no longer went to church or spent much time thinking about God, even though I did always believe. But when I had been sober for seven months, I had a eureka moment, suddenly realising my recovery was only made possible by a force much bigger than me. I couldn’t have done it on my own. I just didn’t have the willpower. Something far more powerful than me had been guarding me, keeping me on the straight and narrow. It’s hard to explain, but it was a hugely significant and personal moment that was to change my life.’
People with real needs
His return to health had a profound effect on Kevin. ‘We had left Manchester and moved down to Brighton, and we had really settled into the community. The place had a good feel and we were keen to make a fresh start. But we were taken aback by the amount of addiction we saw on the streets. It was in Brighton. It was everywhere we went. Before my problems really surfaced, I saw people having a good time and didn’t really think anything more about it. Now, after purging beer from my life, I saw things very differently, and everywhere I looked, I could see people with real needs.
‘A lot of celebrities and high functioning addicts got in touch with me, and Clare and I were able to help them. These were people who had a lot to lose if their addiction became known publicly. I had experienced it myself, and I wouldn’t wish that kind of exposure on anyone. You have to be strong, and have great family support to get through it, and not everyone is as lucky as me.’
Kevin continued to remain sober and rebuild his acting career, working extensively in London and in theatres throughout Britain. Meanwhile, Clare trained as an addiction counsellor and, when she had completed the formalities, opened her own not for profit organization on the south coast, dedicated to supporting the many people who have seen addiction devastate their lives.
‘Kevin has been a real brick these past years,’ she says. ‘A lot of the money he has earned has been used to fund my work with addicts. We haven’t been relying on grants, or big corporate sponsors. For two decades, we have put our money where our mouths are. And, by doing so, we have been able to help an awful lot of people.’
Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a negative impact on many aspects of UK life. But for the Kennedys it has helped them turn their charitable ambitions into reality.
‘As soon as the pandemic hit the country, the services and support structures that normally helped people in need all closed down,’ states Clare. ‘All of a sudden, I started to receive hundreds of phone calls. We were inundated.’
So the Kennedys decided to get involved.
‘It became apparent we had to find a way of helping people from the local area and all over the world, not just the UK,’ continues Kevin. ‘So many people were getting in touch and telling us they had nowhere to turn. They needed immediate support so they could start to tackle their addiction. They were desperate. Clare and I talked about things, and we agreed the best way forward was to establish our own charity so we could offer virtual recovery connections. So, earlier of this year, that’s exactly what we did, and it builds on the wonderful recovery coaching work Clare has been doing.’
Kennedy St Foundation, also known as Kennedy St CiO, was formally registered with the Charities Commission on 29 April. Kevin is its Patron, while Clare is CEO. A further 15 volunteers are based at the couple’s home, where they ‘do whatever is necessary to make a difference’.
Actively seeking opportunities
With Kevin’s help, the charity has embarked on a major recovery awareness campaign. Its launch has featured in the national press and on national TV. Several well-known friends, including Coronation Street’s Denise Welch, X-Factor winner Sam Bailey, and Darren Day, the singing sensation and theatre performer, are among the foundation’s enthusiastic supporters.
‘I am heavily involved, but I can’t get too close,’ adds 59-year-old Kevin. ‘The nitty-gritty of the charity is where Clare is meant to be; but it’s not for me. My job is to promote what we are all about and raise our profile. It is wonderful to get such high-profile backing. The stars who are helping us are shining a spotlight on the work we do and the challenges the people we support face on a daily basis. But once the publicity machine has ground to a halt, there is still an awful lot of work to be done, and that’s where Clare comes into her own.’
Among the outcomes Kevin and Clare are seeking for the people they support is a renewed sense of purpose on the work front. To this aim, they are actively seeking opportunities for former addicts to partner with experienced business professionals, so a range of diverse business ideas and opportunities have a chance of bearing fruit.
‘Addicts are incredibly creative people,’ confesses Kevin. ‘We have to be to get our daily fix of alcohol.
I remember going into an off-licence outside of their normal opening hours, picking up a birthday card and pleading with the store staff to let me have a bottle of vodka because I needed to give someone a present to celebrate their big day. And I did these sort of things all the time, in order to get my way. Other addicts are equally creative. But we are trying to get them to turn their energies to thinking about their futures once they are in recovery. Many of them have got some wonderful ideas, but they lack know-how and the experience that will help them bring their thoughts to life. That’s where teaming up with an experienced third-party could really help. So if there is anyone out there…?’
To speak directly to the Kennedy St Foundation, please call the organisation’s recovery helpline on 01273 758561 or visit its website: kennedystreetcio.org