Published: 15:03, 05 February 2019
| Updated: 15:05, 05 February 2019
Fresh-faced and smiling, 29-year-old Toby Winson is a picture of good health, but the former grammar school boy has been to hell and back to get to where he is today.
He has beat several demons to turn his life around after he was gripped by alchoholism.
It’s 5.30am and Toby’s trembling hands are now reaching for the bottle of vodka next to his bed.
He’d left the 35cl bottle there the night before, knowing the sickness he’d wake up to and the uncontrollable shakes would make it impossible for him to move any further.
It’s a nauseating daily process, involving making himself sick before taking alternate sips of vodka and mixer, but it’s a necessary one, the only way to stave off a seizure and horrific hallucinations.
Once the drink’s consumed, he sits as still as possible, waiting for the vodka to burn away the symptoms of his alcohol dependency.
At last he’s functional - for three hours at least, when he’ll need another bottle.
It sounds like most people’s worst nightmare, but for former Simon Langton schoolboy Toby, it was a grim reality.
Looking back he admits he doesn’t know how he survived. He almost didn’t, after suffering serious liver disease following his descent into alcoholism aged just 21.
Seven years on from that disturbing morning routine, Toby, sitting in his parent’s home in North Foreland, Broadstairs, with his beloved dog Simba by his side, is two-and-a-half years sober - his ‘great escape’ as he calls it.
“I started drinking with my friends aged 14, but then I started doing it in the evenings on my own, just because I enjoyed it, it gave me a release..." - Toby Winson
Gone is the puffy, yellow skin, and his once alcohol-ravaged body has recovered, almost.
The 29-year-old admits that at his very worst he was drinking a litre-and-a-half of vodka a day and, in one desperate moment, downed a bottle of hospital handwash because it was 98% alcohol.
“In the beginning I just preferred being drunk to sober,” he says.
“I started drinking with my friends aged 14, but then I started doing it in the evenings on my own, just because I enjoyed it, it gave me a release.
“It was something I thought I could control but I got lost in it and before I knew it, I was dependent.
“At some point, when I was 21 or 22, if I didn’t think I’d be able to get hold of a bottle of vodka that evening I would have a panic attack.”
Toby is perhaps one of the more unique cases.
There was no trigger, no traumatic event that led to his descent - if anything, he had everything going for him.
A bright grammar school boy, he grew up in Herne Bay surrounded by supportive family and friends.
He did well enough in his exams to secure a place studying business at the University of Hertfordshire and despite being drunk every day, managed to earn a 2:1 degree.
But with his daily drinking out of hand and knowing he had to stop, he decided to take the drastic step of going cold turkey.
Little did he know how dangerous this would be.
“For two days I was violently ill and constantly shaking from the withdrawal,” he says.
“I thought to myself, ‘I just need to get through this sickness and I can stop drinking from now on’.
“What I didn’t know was that I was about to temporarily lose my mind.”
He started to hallucinate, at first seeing tiny bits of coving fly off the wall, and then small heads popping up in the doorway and windows.
“Soon my legs were being tied together with cobwebs and the floor had become a bed of insects and spiders,” he said.
The terrifying episode became progressively worse until it ended with Toby running towards traffic on a main road in just his trousers, trying to get someone to save him from the eight-foot bald man he thought was chasing him.
“Soon my legs were being tied together with cobwebs and the floor had become a bed of insects and spiders...” - Toby Winson
Luckily, an off-duty police officer stopped and he was taken to a local station, where an ambulance was called.
Toby says he had been suffering from potentially fatal delirium tremens - a severe withdrawal to alcohol.
It meant despite desperately needing to stop drinking, it could kill him to do so, unless weaned properly. His body was completely dependent on the one thing that was killing him.
“The doctors, and alcohol service Turning Point, said I had to reduce slowly, so my mum had to give me alcohol,” he admits.
“She was giving me three quarters of a litre of vodka a day, which must have been very hard for her to do.”
He’s clearly thankful for the support of his family - mum Gaynor, dad Barry, brother Joe, 31, and sister Charlie, 24.
“My mum and dad always say it was impossible to give up on me because I was still the same person, I was never a nasty drunk,” he says.
Toby, a self-employed builder, says he had two spells in rehab at Kenward House near Maidstone, totalling seven months, but despite teaching him a lot about his condition, it didn’t stop him drinking.
He was also hospitalised 20 times and detoxed using a drug called Librium, which tricks the body into thinking it is getting alcohol.
“One time I didn’t think they’d given me a high enough dosage and I knew that the handwash at the end of the bed was 98% alcohol, so I drank it,” he says.
“That sent me to sleep for a long time and my lips had swelled up.
“They didn’t know what had happened to me. It took them ages to work it out. My dad thought I was trying to kill myself but I’d done it because I thought I was going to have a seizure.”
In May 2015 - during his lowest point when he had to drink every three hours just to function - Toby noticed the whites of his eyes had turned yellow.
“I’d lost my job with a landscaping company and I was a mess - I couldn’t afford vodka so I was drinking really strong, cheap cider,” he says.
“I remember sitting on a bench and thinking ‘what am I going to do?’
“One time I didn’t think they’d given me a high enough dosage and I knew that the handwash at the end of the bed was 98% alcohol, so I drank it...” - Toby Winson
“I threw the rest of the cider in the bin and called an ambulance and they took me to Margate hospital, did some blood tests and within a day they sent me to King’s in London.”
Close to suffering cirrhosis of the liver, Toby was lucky to be alive, although his liver was so scarred it has still not completely healed.
“The worst thing is, none of this stopped me,” he admits.
But one day in August 2016, almost out of nowhere, Toby had his final drink.
“I just accepted I had to start from scratch,” he recalls. “Accepted I’d messed up, that I’d made mistakes, that everyone is ahead of me.
“I got some optimism from somewhere, I’m not really sure where, but acceptance was a massive thing and then everyday it just seemed to get a bit easier.
“It’s so easy to let alcohol get you in a chokehold, but there is a way back no matter how tight you feel the grip is..." - Toby Winson
“I think personally with me I have loads of things in place, like a support network that keeps me off drink and I exercise. I have routine.
“I also have so many people to talk to now - that is so important.
“I’m in such a strong place it would take a lot for me to drink but I know I can’t say I’m never going to have a drink again because I’m an alcoholic.”
Toby has recently started a blog called Recovery Boy, through which he tells his story.
“I would not wish the life of an alcoholic on anyone so if there’s a chance I can help someone by writing about my experiences, how I got from my lowest point to where I am now, and everything that I have learned to stay sober; then it’s worth doing,” he says.
“It’s so easy to let alcohol get you in a chokehold, but there is a way back no matter how tight you feel the grip is - I’m proof of that.”
More by this authorMarijke Hall