Down and out in Derry . .

Film maker Gavan Patton, pictured in Derry this week. 2203JM25
Film maker Gavan Patton, pictured in Derry this week. 2203JM25

Gavin Patton’s footage of Derry street drinkers doesn’t paint a pretty picture. It’s a raw and honest look about the harsh realities of those whose alcoholism has forced them onto the streets. In one harrowing scene, a man covered in bruises seems completely unaware of how he got them. In other footage, a drinker speaks directly to the camera about how he’ll get sick if he doesn’t have a can of beer.

Gavin’s footage is important.

In the midst of all things vibrant and positive which are happening in the city every week, this group stands on the fringes, visible but invisible to everyone passing by. Gavin knows what it’s like, not just because he’s spent hours gathering material, but because he’s lived that life.

On March 6, the 38-year-old celebrated five years of being sober. His story for years before that, however, was of a man totally consumed by drink.

“The best way I can think of to describe it is that I was soggy with sickness and booze,” he says.

“As soon as I woke up, every cell in my body wanted to drink. I could feel it in my very nerve ends and my brain was a sponge of alcohol.”

The product of a normal family upbringing, Gavin had no desire to drink during his teenage years and didn’t take his first sip until he was 19.

“Looking back I probably even had a sniffy attitude about the blue bag brigade. I certainly didn’t think in a million years that I’d become one of them.”

It was when he went to Surrey in England to undertake a film studies degree that Gavin first started drinking. Alcohol got a hold on him straight away and the consequences were catastrophic.

“It robbed me of everything,” he says frankly.

“For over eight years, drink controlled my life. I went from being someone who was completely driven to someone who depended on drink just to get out of bed in the morning. I started taking blackouts and I denied for years that I had a problem. It was only when drink completely brought me to my knees that things changed.

“I drank whenever I could. Every last penny was spent on it. I would sell everything I owned just to get the money to buy drink,” he says.

While he lived in England, Gavin worked hard at trying to keep up the pretence of a normal life.

“I brought the shame of it home, and everytime I left, I left with the shame. When I was living away from here, drink was just the main focus of my life. It ruined so much. It ruined relationships and friendships. I have no doubt that if it hadn’t been for it, I’d be married with children by now, but it just robbed me of everything.”

Gavin reached his lowest point between 2007 and 2008.

Living and working in America at that point, his weight plummeted to nine stone as a direct result of his alcoholism.

“I was admitted to hospital in New York and diagnosed with pancreatitis,” he recalls.

“The doctor said that all my internal organs were shining and swollen because of the amount I was drinking on a regular basis. I was very, very sick.”

In the period leading up to this Gavin had been the victim of an assault. He’d also suffered injuries as the result of being knocked down by a motorbike.

“None of it mattered,” he says. “Even when I was in pain after that accident, I would have crawled somewhere just to get drink.”

Gavin hopes his films will change people’s perceptions on alcoholism and alcoholics and firmly believes he had an illness.

“I didn’t choose that life for myself. I had a normal upbringing, I was intelligent, I went to university, I had interests, I had friends, but I had a disease. I never enjoyed one drink that I had. The minute I put it to my lips, I felt fear.” he says.

Remarkably, the 38-year-old, who’s still in recovery, says he believes his problems have made him stronger.

“It was painful, but valuable, I wouldn’t change it. I’m not ashamed anymore” he says.

“A few years ago, I never knew what ‘tomorrow’ held. Now I do. I’m always planning something, always doing something.

“Last year, I got a development grant from Northern Ireland Screen for a production I’m now working on. I’ve been filming ‘The Cure’ since 2004, when I was still drinking myself. Now that I’m sober, I want to put the stories that I’ve carried out there. I never lost my aspirations in terms of film making and it’s still a passion for me.

“My alcoholism is something I was born with and the people who drink on our streets are the same. No-one sets out in life to end up like that and I think, as a society, we need to do more to help them.

“I got help from my family and from the Northlands Treatment Centre, but not everyone has that kind of support. I just hope I can give something back now and that my films raise some awareness.”

To view Gavin’s work, search, Gavin Patton films, Derry City, on You Tube.