James Gwinnett: Self-Medication
13 Jun 2019
A semi-pro rugby match in February 2013. As it goes, the final score was an upset. Home team Tonbridge Juddians, fourth in the National 3 league, took on top-of-the-table Barnes and won.
But the game marked a turning point in the life of Tonbridge second-row James Gwinnett who, early in the second half, charged headfirst into an opponent as he'd done a thousand times before.
The collision left James, then 28, on the deck with an intense pain shooting down his arm. He knew he was hurt. But he was able to move, and after attention from the club physio, the knock was dismissed as a stinger. James was handed an ice pack and he soon begged to return to play.
Through school in Kent to uni in Durham, James always loved the game and the life that came with it. By day James worked in PR, but evenings and weekends were all about rugby – training and its big-drinking culture.
James was one of those big lads you'd see drinking in packs. If you clocked them in the pub and only fancied a quiet jar, you'd do an about-turn. James's set was made up of boys whose bravado was based on their booze consumption.
Although James sensed his drinking was different, it was easy to hide in the pack. More than his fellows, booze gave James a vivid sense of ease and confidence. When drinking, he often took it too far but his scrapes and shenanigans entertained the boys. In that rugby club way, he was a legend; his behaviour a cause for celebration, not concern.
Yet following his Barnes-bump, the legend was in so much pain he skipped the post-match bevvies. At six foot five and, at the time, 17 stone, James was a hardened rugby man; no stranger to bumps. But what he put down to the after-match aches, grew into agonising pain over the next two days.
The broken neck
When James walked into A&E in the early hours of Tuesday, he was fobbed off by busy nightshift staff; given paracetamol and made to wait. Hours later, an X-ray showed nothing. A CT scan finally revealed the extent of the injury.
James had broken his neck. In Saturday's collision he had fractured his C6 vertebrae, badly compacting the discs above and below the vertebra, so much that they were impacting on his spinal cord. He very narrowly avoided paralysis.
For the next three months, James would be housebound - no work, no income, surviving on statutory sick pay. But of all the sudden changes to wrap his head around, the worst was no rugby. Even on the far side of his recovery, playing rugby could have him back in hospital or worse.
James's routine and identity were built around the game, from his training regime to his social life. In a moment rugby was gone - replaced for the foreseeable with an open-ended diet of daytime TV, meds, nothingness, rehab. And booze.
Discharged and at home, James kept his sanity for a handful of days by watching reruns of Top Gear and Friends. He'd chain-watch TV to while away the day before his girlfriend returned from work.
A week or so in, James decided to treat himself to an afternoon beer. A few days later it was two. Then three. And so it went.
James soon drank every day, becoming ever sneakier to hide it from his partner. The shame, the denial, the necessity - drinking became secret cycle. He quietly escaped his reality; dealing alone with the blow of rugby being surgically removed from his life.
Drinking was doing for James what it had always done - it gave him a sense of ease and purpose. It was exactly the right fit of medication to treat the boredom and the pain of nomansland.
James continued drinking through weeks and months of recovery and rehab. But by the time he was back on his feet and ready to re-enter life, his boozing scaled up and not down. Post-broken-neck James was on a different path. No rugby, identity crisis – he would spend three full years on a dark, tragic roundabout.
Those of you who know the name or recognise the photos know that James Gwinnett's story ends well. His recovery has been reasonably well documented, mostly after his successful 2019 showing in Channel 4's SAS: Who Dares Wins.
The complicated reality
In the show's aftermath, the press told a simplified, sensational, predictable version of James's story: the old-fashioned tale of the drunk who lost everything and rose again.
But that narrative's too easy. It simplifies a long and complicated story and shoehorns it into a wordcount. As mentioned during this LifeSearch self-medication campaign, sufferers' tales don't fit Hollywood story arcs - they're much more boring, and gradual, and drawn-out. They're defined by the bits you don't see.
Highlighting only the sensational foul-ups of a person's drinking career can be dangerous: it skews the reality and raises the bar on what it means to suffer. People who would otherwise identify hear words like 'homeless' and 'park bench' and breathe easy. If that's the threshold then I'm not that bad.
But for most sufferers, like James, the really dramatic moments are few and far between. The reality is a grinding, gradual despair as people, opportunities and pieces of personality are stripped away. Often so subtly that it barely registers.
For James, a low point was the experience of sleeping rough, though only through missing the last train home – not that bad.
The road to recovery
James didn't lose his job or all his earthly possession. His friends and family largely stood by him. But his drinking – his self-medication – was bigger than him.
His redemption started – not on Channel 4 – but hungover in his Kent home. On a Sunday in 2016 he lay motionless watching TV footage of the London Marathon. He decided to give himself a goal.
Without rugby, James had lost his anchor. He'd tried to fill a rugby-shaped hole with booze and it wasn't working. He needed a new purpose and the London Marathon looked as good as any.
His first move was to embrace outside support – therapy, group counselling and confiding in friends and family. Finally he talked out loud about the grip drink had on him.
James took to training in a familiar fashion. He told himself he'd run one mile the first day. The next day two. Then three. And so it went. From London to Paris, he now regularly runs marathons on behalf of a rugby children's charity – a healthy new connection to the sport he still loves.
The same rugby lads he grew up with remain friends to this day. James was initially fearful that non-drinking would exclude him from the pack and open him up to ridicule. In fact, his rugby pals – those hard-drinking men's men – are hugely sensitive; supportive of their friend's struggle and his remarkable recovery.
Marathons are an endurance sport, and by 2016 James Gwinnett had been in training for years. A year enduring the boredom – and the bottle – when laid up with a broken neck. Two years enduring the highs and lows, the carnage and the despair of life as a problem drinker.
One foot in front of the other
James's appearance on SAS: Who Dares Wins belongs on a highlights real, it's a big ticket win to point to and smile. But just as the headlines of his drunkalogue mask the true banality of self-medication, one sensational televised event doesn't convey the continued effort and commitment underneath.
James's turnaround is still an everyday deal. He's now three years off booze, a trim 15 stone, and has this year run over 900km of a 2019km target. Twice a week he runs from his Harrow home into central London – a 20km journey – and he regularly boxes, spins and lifts. Running a 100 mile ultramarathon is on his bucket list for next year.
Although he recognises he may have replaced one form of self-medication with another, James says he knows his mental and physical limits. After years of doing it the hard way, he probably does.
If James's story tells us anything, it's that self-medication is often rational and excusable. And it's more subtle than we know. The descent into hopelessness isn't defined by a few highlights and the journey back is the same. Recovery is putting one foot in front of the other. Much like running a marathon - or 100 miles if that’s your thing.
Thanks to James Gwinnett for our interview.
You can keep tabs on James and his feats on Instagram @jamesgwinnett