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Swansea musician thanks specialist health workers for saving his life

Musician and recovering alcoholic Viv Small, of Swansea (Pic: Richard Youle)

A MUSICIAN from Swansea who used to drink a bottle of whisky a day said the support of specialist health workers saved his life.

Bass player and songwriter Viv Small, who plays in the band Tremblin’ Knees, spent a month in a detox unit at Neath Port Talbot Hospital last year and said he hasn’t touched alcohol now for nine months.

The former rugby player had tried to boot the whisky habit into touch before – this time he appears to have sent it firmly into the stands.

But the cravings are still there from time to time.

While in the detox unit Viv, 66, finished putting together a song about getting old, and a recording of him reading the lyrics and sharing his detox experiences was played at the last Swansea Bay University Health Board meeting. The words had a humour, yearning and lightness to them that belied the dark places that Viv said he has inhabited.

“I was getting very ill, and had no control over my bodily functions,” he recalled. “I was hurting a lot of people around me – they were really concerned. You start thinking that what you are in life you are in death, and I didn’t want to be known as an alcoholic.”

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He said he had to wait a long time to be admitted to the five-bed detox unit but received pre-admission visits at home from health workers. Once at the unit, he would start the day with half a cup of coffee as he said his hands were shaking so badly that any fuller and it would spill.

Breakfast was at 8am – either in his room or a small communal area – lunch at noon and dinner at 5pm. He said he was on medication, and that regular sleep had “gone out of the window”. He read books, started writing again and had regular visits from his girlfriend, who he described as a “kingpin” in the whole detox process.

Viv was born in Gorseinon and said he left school at 15 to become an apprentice in a glass-blowing business, earning £5 a week – one pound of which he set aside every week towards a guitar. He then worked at a fur factory, an industrial components factory, got married aged 28 and had a daughter. He said he played in the backs for Loughor RFC and that “his body was a temple” before he gave the sport up in his early 30s.

He then worked for his father, a self-employed builder, and got more and more into the music scene. “You were in places where they serve alcohol, but I could take it or leave it,” he said.

However, around 25 years ago he said he began drinking whisky, and a tipple was never enough. “I was going down to the shop at 6am to get a bottle,” he said.

Viv’s marriage was short-lived, and snippets of traumatic episodes punctuate our conversation. There were also periods of feeling isolated – especially during the Covid pandemic – serious health issues, and stories of lost friends.

Music and songwriting – inspired by the late Motown bassist James Jamerson, and jazz bassist and band leader John ‘Jaco’ Pastorius – have been a constant, and Viv plans to book a studio soon and record an album he said he has written. Guitars line a wall in his one-bedroom council flat in Swansea Marina.

Viv said he still gets alcohol cravings, suffers from “the blues”, and that stopping drinking was tough.

“I’m not saying that everyone can do it,” he said. “It is very difficult, and each individual’s circumstances are different. There is no magic wand. But I promise you, people will like you more and show you a bit more dignity and respect, and you will feel a bit more dignity and respect for yourself. It’s so rewarding to have a normal life again.”

Viv said he was very grateful to those who have helped him. “I think alcoholism should be treated as a disease,” he said.

Figures published last year revealed that more than half of all substance misuse treatment referrals in Wales were due to alcohol. There were more than 8,500 alcohol referrals in 2021-22 – the year in question – three times as many as the second highest substance, heroin.

Alcoholism is often behind family breakdowns, and increases violence and anti-social behaviour. It causes liver disease, brain damage, certain cancers, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Excess alcohol results in hundreds of people being locked up or admitted to accident and emergency departments every week.

The Swansea Bay University Health Board health board meeting heard that its detox unit – Calon Lan – has two registered nurses and a support worker on each shift, with input also from physiotherapists, occupation therapists and psychologists. The average in-patient stay is two weeks and waiting lists have come down, although no figures were given. Support post-discharge is provided by a community drug and alcohol team.

Health board chairwoman Emma Woollett said listening to Viv had lifted board members’ spirits and that it was great to see the impact of the detox service.

Calon Lan helps people with a drug as well as an alcohol dependency. A health board spokesman said an admission for alcohol detox involved physical health monitoring and a secondary assessment of psychological needs.

He said there was no definite timescale for patients waiting for an admission to Calon Lan – it depended on the patient’s ongoing circumstances.

“Some clients with complex needs may need more input before they are ready for an inpatient detox, so we get the best outcome for the client and they have a higher chance of remaining abstinent,” he said. “Some clients need that input for up to six months to a year sometimes.”

Viv said alcohol could be a killer. “These people saved my life,” he said.