A working life: the addiction counsellor
Addiction counsellor Richard Kingdon works with City clients in a world where it’s acceptable to drink heavily or take drugs – but not to seek professional help
You don’t have to be a drug addict or an alcoholic to be an addiction counsellor, but it certainly helps.
“If you were an addict desperate for help, would you want to turn to someone who has learned it all from books?” asks Richard Kingdon, managing director of City Beacon, an addiction counselling service based in the City of London.
Kingdon has plenty of experience of addiction. He started taking drugs – “anything but heroin, I never injected” – at the age of 12, was homeless and living on the streets of Soho by 16, and says he has done “everything” to fund his addiction. Then, at the age of 26, he had a breakdown, or “breakthrough” as he prefers to term it, and ended up in a psychiatric unit suffering psychosis.
He says this saved him. “I’d been involved in chaos, seen a lot of friends die or go to prison (he has a few convictions under his own belt). But somehow something was looking out for me and I came through it.
“I stayed in [the psychiatric unit] for two months, got my funding sorted out, went through rehab and I’ve been clean and sober for over 16 years. I’ve built a career, have never been involved with crime again and I’ve helped a lot of people.”
Kingdon has worked in counselling for 14 years, volunteering, detox work, outreach on the streets and in prisons. His clients have ranged from the homeless to rock stars, from serial killers to top City bankers.
One of his former clients at Belmarsh prison, Robert Kleasen, was even believed to be one of the real life murderers who inspired the fictional film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Kleasen had been sentenced to death in Texas for the murder of two Mormon missionaries after blood and tissue were found on his band saw, but his conviction was later quashed because of an illegal search. He moved to the UK to marry a British penpal, but ended his days in jail, convicted of possessing illegal firearms. “I gave him acupuncture,” says Kingdon.
Helping stressed City folk may seem a long stretch from treating serial killers but, he says, drugs and alcohol are great levellers. “I’ve worked with people from all walks of life but the symptoms are the same. A lot of addicts are quite similar in the way that they think; there are lots of patterns that are the same,” he says.
“Although I work with some very intelligent people, when it comes to addiction, they’re buffoons. Absolutely clueless.”
His next client, “Chris”, a stock market trader addicted to cocaine and alcohol, certainly seems to lack logic. Chris started using drugs when he was 17. Twenty two years later his wife had had enough, and was on the verge of throwing him out when he managed to stop. Although he has been clean for five months, his wife is still “cold shoulderish”, partly, Chris acknowledges, because she believes he will relapse, and partly because of the damage his addiction has already done to their relationship.
He’s also been having disturbing dreams, and had to make an emergency call to Kingdon the previous week for extra support during a period of stress.
Yet his main concern seems to be that his clients will become dissatisfied because he no longer drinks on their evenings out.
“Taking clients out and not having a drink, I was feeling very self-conscious and talk wasn’t flowing. I’m worried it’s going to affect business.”
While I’m still boggling at the idea that any client might dislike their trader to be sober, Chris asks Kingdon if he thinks gambling might be a problem. Kingdon throws the question back: “Well, what do you think?”
Chris says he supposes he wouldn’t be asking the question otherwise. He admits to “a few little dabbles here and there”, but gradually it transpires that he has been gambling a lot at work with colleagues, mainly spread betting on who will win The X-Factor. “You don’t have any tips do you?” he asks, looking hopefully at me.
Kingdon suggests gambling is not a good idea, pointing out that many people trying to overcome a drug or alcohol habit simply switch addictions. “You are in dangerous territory, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking. So what are you going to try to do between now and next week?” he asks.
“What, not bet?” responds Chris with resignation. It’s clear he knew the answer before asking the question: he just needed affirmation.
Kingdon repeatedly tells Chris how well he has done to get this far, and points out small triumphs, like being able to go trick or treating with his children without getting into a row with his wife because he is drunk, as happened last year.
“It’s not about stopping. It’s staying stopped,” says Kingdon. “The first year, for a lot of people, is the toughest: you have to get through anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas.”
The wall in Kingdon’s office is covered in certificates for courses he has completed, but he says he doesn’t adhere to any particular method when dealing with clients. “I use counselling skills rather than do counselling. I’m trying to empower the client, trying to get them to focus on what their triggers are and how to deal with cravings, stress, high-risk situations. I don’t want to set them up with a dependency on me.”
One treatment Kingdon does use is auricular acupuncture. “I thought it was a load of bollocks, but then I had it done to me, and I really felt a difference. I can see it helps the clients,” he says.
Many people believe that a spell in a residential clinic like the Priory is necessary to conquer addictions. But Kingdon points out that even people who stay in clinics – and many do not – have to be able to function in society, at work and as part of their family when they come out.
That’s where City Beacon’s services come in. The counsellors build up a rapport with their clients, help them to identify what causes them stress and help set goals. Each session is an opportunity to check whether the client is achieving those goals and to nudge them forward to the next stage, the next target.
Although five-hour lunches were axed after the Big Bang brought American investors to the City in the late 1980s, there is still plenty of drinking and drug abuse, both in the evenings and during the working day. “People are predominantly binge drinkers up here. They get smashed on the booze, charlie and birds. The more senior you are, the more likely it is,” says Kingdon.
But while it seems acceptable to drink heavily or disappear to the toilet to snort lines, seeking help for an addiction is not. “If someone has some info on you they’ll use it. It’s knives in the back here,” he says.
Clients require the upmost discretion. For this reason the City Beacon offices are inconspicuous, all sessions are one to one, and Kingdon and his colleagues synchronise meetings so their clients never bump into each other. Kingdon dresses in a pin-striped suit so if a meeting takes place at the client’s office, he can be mistaken as just another City worker. He sometimes spends weeks at a time with clients, saying “it’s a bit of a cover – they come back with a tan and I’m just the friend they’ve been on holiday with”.
Many of those who have come to him have indulged their addictions for between 10 to 14 years, then a crisis in one or more of four areas of their lives will spur them into trying to control their habit. “It’s the four L’s,” says Kingdon. “Liver, lover, livelihood or law. We invariably find they have had a problem with their health, relationships, job or have had a run-in with the police. It’s rare I will see someone who hasn’t got a crisis in one of these areas. If your addiction is costing you more than money, you’ve got a problem.”
However it is a mistake to think that people have to hit “rock bottom” before they can do anything about their problem, he says. “However low you think your addiction has taken you, there is always a lower level you can drop to,” he says. “Rock bottom is death. Look at Amy Winehouse.”
He is cynical about suggestions that Winehouse was making progress with her addiction problems by stopping drug abuse while continuing to drink alcohol. “It didn’t look like she had beaten her addiction to me,” he says. “If alcohol came on to the market now, it would be a Class A drug.”