A Derry man who overcame drug addiction and is now a registered mental health nurse is helping others who struggle with substance misuse through a fitness training programme.
Gary Rutherford’s addictions began at a very young age. He has been completely sober for the last eight years and he found that exercise was an integral and essential part of his recovery.
“Growing up in Derry I suffered with social anxiety and bullying at school,” he said. “I began drinking and started taking drugs and after going to university in Scotland. I went mad.
“The drugs got a bit harder and while I was functional for a long time, eventually everything fell apart.”
Gary returned to Derry in 2009, after stints in Scotland, Dublin and Tralee, with two black bags and a push bike.
“I went into my first treatment centre and was clean and sober for the first time in 15 years. When I came out I went completely mental because I had to deal with all this stuff I had been ignoring for so long.”
Gary said his addictions spiralled and at one point police had to prevent him from harming himself.
He had a second spell in a treatment centre and relapsed on and off for the next two years before finally getting completely sober.
“My life started over. I began volunteering, went back to the Tech and started running.”
Gary said he was encouraged by a friend to join a running club, but ‘absolutely hated it’.
“After the first session I said I was never going back. I did and that was the start of the exercise. I ran five marathons in eighteen months and after that I stopped running and started cross-fit.
“Exercise was a massive integral part of my recovery. It helped me rebuild self worth, self esteem confidence and I got fitter. Over the years of my addiction I broke my back, lost fingers and thumbs and dislocated shoulders and ribs.
“Exercise gave me all that back, it gave me my health back and the damage that had been done was reversed.”
Gary said the decision to become a mental health nurse was inspired by his own experiences.
“When you reach the point of mental distress and you have an understanding of it, you know you want to help others get out of it.
“My experience has taught me so much and I became so capable through it. As a student nurse, I went to Westminster and was nominated for student nurse of the year. Before that I would have been drinking Buckfast and using Heroin.”
After qualifying, Gary worked in Gransha Hospital in both inpatient and crisis services. For the past six months he has been working in the addiction service, a job he ‘absolutely loves’.
The Waterside man has always been very open about his experiences and engaged with people who were struggling with substance misuse.
“A friend of mine suggested setting up a social media page and I went home and set up ARC fitness page, with the intention of signposting people to other services. It completed exploded and eventually I just decided to do it myself.”
Gary organised a trial recovery programme with six people and measured their success with the help of King’s College, London, and Queen’s University, Belfast.
“I set ARC up as a non-profit organisation and the six participants trained two nights a week and got a one to one session at the weekend. The preliminary results for everything that was measured - anxiety, depression, cravings, sleep, quality of life and relationships - shows they have all improved. It is just absolutely incredible.”
The second programme is due to begin in September and Gary hopes that at some stage in the future it will be used for social prescribing.
“Everyone from the first group are remaining clean and sober. Some of these people have never trained or been in a gym before, but it is empowering them and encouraging them to thrive and succeed.”
Gary said he wants the group to realise ‘they can change and grow and go on to do this for someone else’.
“We spend enough time looking for the dirt in people, I want to try and find the gold. I want to find out the strengths of everyone in my group and build on that.
“There is such a stigma around addiction, people think you did this to yourself. I know I didn’t make an active decision that I had to take diazepam and a drink before I got up in the morning. I want to change the conversation as labelling someone an alcoholic or a drug addict is harsh. If someone has a negative relationship with something lets focus on that.”
Gary said that there is a real problem in Derry with prescription medication and people are ‘sedating themselves from life’.
“Life is so much better sober and people are missing out on that and it’s sad.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see people come through it and commit to a programme like this. There is hope for everyone, but as a society we write so many people off and we have no right to do that.”