Jamie Greene: 'Alcohol death rate is Scotland's national shame'
Just hours after Jamie Greene stood in for his boss, Douglas Ross, and for the first time led the Scottish Conservatives’ charge at First Minister’s Questions, the West of Scotland MSP sat in his cubby-hole office in the Scottish Parliament and reflected on a life scarred by alcoholism, domestic abuse and trauma – and wondered how he ever came to this place.
Growing up in Greenock in the 1980s and 1990s, Greene experienced firsthand a drinking culture that encouraged regular, excessive drinking and a society that turned a blind eye to the problems that came with it.
As a child, he witnessed his father’s descent into alcoholism, as a lifetime of playing in bands on the pub circuit caught up with him. There were “Pot Noodle days”, as Greene calls them, where despite his mother working several jobs, the family couldn’t afford to eat properly. Then came the violence. As a young teenager, he frequently witnessed his father assault his mother, leaving him terrified of his father returning from the pub, “on every week day, not just weekends”.
“You never knew when he would come home from the pub,” said Greene.
“You never knew what mood he would be in. You never knew what he was going to do.
“You didn't know when he was going to spiral into violence, and that was the unpredictability of the problem. But it was almost daily, there was almost daily violence in our house.
“The police were called, the neighbours got involved. But what was interesting is that even when things were bad, people just accepted it was a part of everyday life.
“There was also a culture of not getting involved. I remember the police coming to the door and saying, ‘oh, it’s just domestic abuse we don't get involved in that sort of stuff’.
“There were times I'd be banging on the neighbour's door, saying ‘come and help, come and help’, and they would just say ‘sorry son, it's the third time this week you've knocked on the door’.
“It was, what it was, but we weren’t the only ones – the downstairs neighbours were in the same boat, the close next door had two or three alcoholics, it was such a big culture of the community that you couldn’t escape it.”
Jamie Greene, right, and Holyrood's Joseph Anderson
In 1994, when Greene was just fifteen-years-old, he and his mother fled the abuse, after negotiations with a women’s refuge and council officers led to them being sheltered away from his father in another tenement, and at seventeen-years-old, in 1997, Greene moved to England to begin a career in the entertainment industry.
Four years later, while living in Bristol, Greene got the call to say his father had died alone in a flat in Port Glasgow.
“All I know is that they found him in the house, but it wasn't a pretty sight,” said Greene.
“He had been dead for a while but we're not quite sure if it was just alcohol. We don't really know if there were drugs involved.
“In those days, post-mortem toxicology tests would take forever. I never even asked, to be honest.
“The only thing I remember was going to the police station to pick his passport up.”
Sadly, the death of his father did not mark the end of alcoholism’s grip on Greene’s life.
After spells living in London, Spain and Australia, Greene returned home to Greenock in 2007 to find his mother, who was traumatised by her late husband’s alcoholism and violence, had now succumbed to the disease herself.
“It started off with radio silence,” said Greene, “not answering messages, not answering the phone or answering the door, and that itself is a warning sign.
“And there were incidents, where she’d fall, or once she broke her ankle and it never seemed to get better and I could never understand why.
“It was actually her partner at the time who told me quite frankly, ‘your mum is an alcoholic and I’m going to kick her out, I’ve had enough of this and it’s now your problem to deal with’.
“And that was when I was just coming into my thirties. My childhood was in many parts horrific, but I would say doing it as an adult is more horrific, because you have direct responsibility.”
Greene spent the next decade of his life trying to access healthcare services to help his mother, trying to break the chain of trauma and alcoholism that he believes has afflicted his family going back generations – affecting his great grandfather, his grandfather, his father, and finally his mother.
Greene says that in trying to access healthcare for his mother, he was “thrown from pillar to post”, as he frantically contacted hospitals, GPs, social workers, therapists in the charitable sector, local groups, rehab centres and church groups. All the while, his mother continued drinking.
In 2011, shortly before her 50th birthday, his mum was hospitalised.
“On the second of January, I remember the exact date, I got called and told ‘your mum's in hospital’, and I thought, ‘oh, she's broken her leg again’, in another alcohol-related incident, and the nurse said, ‘no, no, she's in a bad way, you need to fly home immediately’. I was in London at the time.
“They didn’t know if she would make it through the night. That’s a ‘holy shit’ moment.
“The excesses had caught up with her. She took unwell really, really quickly and they took her to hospital, where she was unconscious for weeks, hooked up to every machine possible – respiratory machines, dialysis at one point.
“The doctor was very honest, he gave her a ten per cent chance of survival. But amazingly, through a lot of hope and prayer and fighting, she pulled through.”
To this day, Greene carries with him the trauma of that phone call from the hospital.
“I still don’t sleep with my phone on silent,” he says.
“They’d been ringing, and ringing, but my phone was on silent, and I didn’t pick the message up for hours. So I can’t sleep with my phone on silent because I just think I’m going to miss something – the trauma of missing that call has lived with me for a decade.”
When asked about the circumstances his mother was found in, prior to her hospitalisation, Greene echoes the sentiments he felt about how his father’s body was discovered.
“I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know that, and I don’t want to know how they found my dad. I’m sure it was a horrible scene, I don’t know what the situation was, but we all watch TV, we can imagine,” he says.
Following his mother’s release from hospital, the pair experienced a brief respite of abstinence, before her alcoholism took hold once more, and Greene was once again trying to find help for his mum. “We never really dealt with the psychological aspects,” he says..
All of the personal turmoil in Greene’s life served as the backdrop for his leap into frontline politics. He first stood for election to Westminster as the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran, where he came third behind Labour’s Katy Clark and the SNP’s Patricia Gibson.
At the 2016 Holyrood election, Greene came second to the SNP’s Kenneth Gibson in the Cunninghame North constituency, but was elected as the second Conservative list candidate for the West Scotland region.
“After being elected, I just remember being on the phone to one of the public agencies, just being desperate,” said Greene.
“I remember phoning the police and asking if I could section her, and asking if that’s the only way I could stop her drinking.
“Sometimes coming to work was nice, to get away from it. We have a busy job, during your first session in parliament you do everything, you’re at every event, every debate – you throw yourself into a seven-day-a-week job.
“It’s a great distraction, but it is difficult to balance. It was no different for me dealing with that and colleagues who have elderly parents, or sick children, or partners suffering from cancer or their own mental health issues, you just accept that we're all human beings and we all go through these life experiences, and you just deal with them you don’t have any other choice.
“You still have to turn up and put on a performance in the chamber but you know that when you go home, you don’t know what you're going home to sometimes and people don't ever see that.
“Because of the culture and especially political culture, they don't want to see politicians as real people, because it makes it difficult to then have empathy for them. It's so much easier to hate people and disagree with them, so you're covering it all up. You don't want anyone to think you have problems. You don't want anyone to believe you've got difficulties, or they’ll see it as a sign of weakness.”
After more than a decade of battling her alcoholism, Greene managed to get his mother onto a non-residential treatment course, where doctors prescribed set amounts of vodka each day. This was slowly reduced until she was on just 50ml a day – the equivalent of a double shot – but was still unable to give up completely. Finally, after accessing healthcare at the Wellpark Centre in Greenock, she was able to beat the disease. On April 16th this year, she will be celebrating four years sober.
Greene is at pains to highlight how “immensely proud” he is of his mum – he describes her as a “fighter” – and wants her typical story to be a catalyst for change in Scotland, and for people experiencing problems with drinking to seek help. His mum has been left with a raft of health problems due to her drinking, including diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and still admits that she sometimes craves a drink.
The pair remain close, maintaining near daily contact, and while waxing lyrical about his mother’s achievement, he received a text from his mum – he had let her know he was talking to Holyrood about her story, and asked if she had anything to do add.
The text read: “You could start by telling them about your dad being an aggressive alcoholic, Jamie. I didn't start drinking till I was 40 and I only started drinking to deal with the stress. But then it just spiralled out of control and I couldn't stop. I did a home detox which was the toughest one I could do. I cut my alcohol intake, but in the end I couldn't stop. That's when I went to the Wellpark Centre and got support. It's worth mentioning what I call ‘women closet drinkers’ because we hide everything, and you know the rest.”
Now roughly the same age his father was when he died, and the age his mother started drinking, Greene has plans to challenge what he calls “Scotland’s national shame”.
He refers to the fact that last year, drug, alcohol and mental health charity, We Are With You, found that one in four Scots were now problem drinkers.
The unweighted major study of over 5,000 Scots found that more than a quarter (26.5 per cent) were judged to be at either increasing risk, higher risk or possible dependence when subjected to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, which indicates the potential risk of drinking habits
“We can look at this in two levels,” said Greene, “one is the statistical approach and one is the anecdotal and social approach. And the statistical approach says that Scotland has a problem with alcohol. And I know that's a sweeping generalization, not everyone who drinks has a drinking problem, in the same way that not everyone who gambles has a problem and not everyone who eats is obese.
“I don't mean for this to sound like a ‘talking Scotland down’ approach, but the reality is, compared to other parts of the west, the world, probably compared to other parts of the UK, we have a societal issue with alcohol use and misuse and I think the numbers speak for themselves.
“We’ve been talking a lot about drug deaths in Scotland, which I think last year were sitting at around 1,200-1,300, but in 2020, there were nearly 1,200 alcohol-specific deaths. The true figure I suspect is far greater because of the comorbidity around alcohol and its long-term effects - drug deaths often have a very immediate cause and reaction, whereas alcohol can take much longer and the effects of it and the ultimate fatality of alcoholism could take much longer.”
Greene says he believes that to achieve meaningful change in Scotland, the “generational passing over of the problem” has to stop. “At some point,” said Greene, “this generation, the younger generation, or this parliament, or the next parliament, has to accept that there is a problem and we're going to try and fix it.
“That’s the reason I’m willing to be so frank about it, because I think it's important that people see that we're we are all human beings, but more importantly, it's not about me, it's actually about saying that if we don't start talking about it, then it will still be taboo. We have to break the stigma around it.”
On state intervention in the alcohol market, such as minimum unit pricing and restricted trading hours, Greene is agnostic, saying that the impacts of these policies on alcohol-consumption have not been properly studied yet.
However, he believes strongly in the Scottish Conservatives’ flagship ‘Right to Recovery’ policy, a proposed Bill introduced by Tory leader Douglas Ross, that seeks to enshrine that right in legislation.
“We've been talking a lot with the drug thing about this, this right to recovery legislation, and I will make a plug for it because the words speak for themselves. It's an absolute right to recovery. It's not a maybe recovery. It's not an if-you-can-afford-it recovery.
“I genuinely think that everyone in this country deserves a statutory right to help if they have an addiction, or substance addiction and that statute is the first cog in the wheel because that underpins what happens next. It means councils must deliver certain functions, it means that the health service must deliver certain treatment. It means that the government has to fund things properly.”
What advice would Greene give to someone going through what he did?
“That’s part of the problem – I wouldn’t know,” he says.
“You can speak to a GP, who’ll signpost you to a couple of 0800 numbers. One’s a charity, one’s a government body, there’s an agency, there’s all this stuff out there – we always talks about al these helplines and charities but people need something as close to them as possible. Someone you can sit down and chat with, someone to help coordinate all this stuff
“You're going to need the doctor, you're going to need mental health services, you're potentially going to need access to rehab, you're going to need the immediacy of safeguarding people's wellbeing and all of that can be a multi-agency approach.
“But who’s coordinating it? I just about kept it together coordinating it, but so many people can't.
“That person might ask me, ‘where the hell do I start?’ And frankly, if it’s not obvious to someone like me, then how is it obvious to the public? Right now, people don’t know where to turn. That needs to change.”