It’s cold, it’s dark, the Christmas lights are twinkling, and I’m off to meet friends for a few festive drinks. There is, though, just one obstacle – and that’s Ian Young.
He is, for tonight, my “Sober Companion”. That means it’s his job not just to accompany me to social events, but to stop me drinking alcohol. Or taking drugs, or ingesting any kind of mood-enhancing substance for that matter.
Right from the start, he’s made it clear he doesn’t like the choice of venue: a massive JD Wetherspoon bar in the middle of Luton. It’s got lots of blind spots and staircases and dark corners where a quick double vodka might be surreptitiously knocked back or a pill popped.
“Ideally, we wouldn’t be here at all,” he frowns. “A better venue would be a restaurant, with clear lines of sight so I could keep an eye on you – or at least an open-plan sort of pub, without too many pillars, where I could position myself so it looked like I was watching a TV screen and not you.”
Young, 42, is no stranger to the seductive dangers of booze and drugs. He reckons he first got drunk as an 11-year-old, when he downed a vast amount of alcohol in an attempt to impress a favourite auntie. Between the ages of 16 to 29, as a globe-trotting DJ, he made it his business to work his way through the entire alphabet of stimulants, starting with alcohol and amphetamines. He got clean in 2001, since when he has resisted all temptation other than Coca-Cola.
These days, he is on the other side of the fence. With some experience of working in rehab centres under his belt, Young founded an organisation called Sober Services in 2008. His aim is to help other addicts out of the mess they are in with a “tough-love”, sometimes controversial approach.
The company, with headquarters at Young’s home in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, provides Sober Companions – who are often ex-addicts – to people who know they have a problem with social drinking or drug-taking, especially at this time of year: it can be tricky staying dry amid all the festivities.
A team of therapists and medical specialists provides counselling, advises on the choice of detox centres, and offers not so much a listening ear, as a firm hand on the shoulder for people with an addiction problem. “We stop short of actual physical restraint,” says Young. “But most of the time, clients are aware of how much is at stake if they don’t accept the help we are offering.”
In Wetherspoon’s, he asks to be introduced to my circle as an “old friend” who happens to work as a life coach. “I don’t like to stray too far from the truth,” he explains. But that’s just the start of it. Before entering the bar, he has made it clear that he and I are the kind of old friends who do everything together. “If you go to the gents, I’m coming with you,” he tells me. “The fact that you know I’m here and watching you is usually deterrent enough for most people. Especially if I’ve been hired by a company that wants me to report back. That said, I’m going to look very carefully at what you’re doing with your hands under the table. It’s not unknown for people to roll a sneaky spliff as a way of testing me out, of seeing if they can put one over on me.”
Aside from providing Sober Companions, the company also works with addicts’ families, using an approach called a “Sober Intervention”.
“Often we’ll be approached by a family that has a long-standing problem with an addict,” says Young. “An intervention is a formal occasion where the addict is invited to attend a gathering, at which the people closest to him or her tell that person just how their behaviour is making them feel.
“At the same time, families also let the addict know that if he or she doesn’t accept help, there will be consequences. For example, they won’t be allowed to live at home any more, they won’t be given any money, and if they drive home again while drunk, they will be reported to the police.”
It sounds like a Court of Star Chamber, but Young prefers to see it as a court of last resort. The addict is not forced to attend; but he says that the pressure from friends and family often creates the motivation required to go into treatment. Sober Services then provides immediate door-to-door transportation to an approved facility for treatment, with Young or one of his staff never leaving the addict’s side.
Do such interventions work? “In 98 per cent of cases, the addict realises they have nowhere else to go and the only thing they can do is agree to accept help,” says Young.
The cost of getting clean by this method is considerable: aside from the treatment costs of detox clinics, the cost of an intervention is around £2,500. You can also clock up a sizeable bill with Sober Services when it comes to supervision.
“We’ll stay with the addict 24 hours a day, we’ll sleep on the floor, we’ll do whatever is required,” says Young. “We’ll also help them carry out the post-care plan once they leave the clinic, taking them to 12-step meetings, arranged by Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Where people go wrong, is in thinking addiction is all about willpower. It’s not: addiction is a disease, and the best way to overcome it is to be in the company of other people who have stopped using.”
There is no way of knowing if his methods work. But that there is life after addiction is demonstrated by his presence: all shiny-faced, clear-eyed and with only a lasting predilection for chocolate to remind him of his past. Ask how he likes to spend his time now, and it’s not staying up for three days without sleep at a rave, it’s staying in with his wife, Emma.
“The occasions on which I have remained clean include weekends, holidays, birthdays, weddings, warm summer nights, cold winter nights, tragedies and successes, any other excuse you can think of,” he says. “Including Christmas and New Year.”