Alcohol related brain damage is not just something that happens to aging drinkers on the edges of society, it can affect anyone.
In 2012 I received a phone call from a distraught man asking for my help. Let’s call him Mr Smith.
He explained to me that his wife, aged 42, had just been diagnosed with Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) that presents much like dementia. She was unable to remember the simplest and most important of things – where the kitchen was, the ages of their three children, for example.
Mr Smith, a 39 year old accountant, wanted to know where he could get support for himself, his wife and their young children. He’d tried dementia charities (sorry, it’s not really our field), older age charities (sorry, she’s not very old, is she?), carer’s support groups (er, sorry, we don’t really know about alcohol problems) as well as social services (sorry, you don’t qualify for benefits so there’s nothing that we can do). Even Mrs Smith’s GP couldn’t offer any advice on where they could access help.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about ARBD either but I assured him I’d do my best to find out what services were out there that could help. A week later I was still looking. I’d unearthed a few research papers, a couple of specialist residential units and the knowledge that the condition is treatable, but not much else.
The more I searched, the more I found that people with Korsakoff’s and similar alcohol-related conditions fall through the care gaps. They don’t turn up to appointments because they don’t remember that they’ve made them. They miss out on benefits because they have difficulties with the forms. They are uninhibited or aggressive and considered difficult to work with. They find financial planning difficult and can’t keep a tenancy so often end up homeless. There’s a notion that they don’t want help or they’re in denial or - my personal favourite – that their problems are self-inflicted.
Still, if we take away the AR (Alcohol-Related) and focus on the BD (Brain Damage) we may feel more sympathetic to this group of people that struggles with the everyday tasks that we take for granted. Let’s face it - brain damage is tragic, unavoidable, blameless. Not so ‘heavy drinking’, in our society.
For people with ARBD, and the people who love them and care for them, there’s a huge stigma hurdle to overcome, not to mention a lack of services that are willing or able to help. This is particularly unfortunate as, unlike some other forms of brain injury, ARBD conditions such as Korsakoff’s are treatable. Rehabilitation is long and intensive but there’s hope. Especially if we focus on the BD, not the booze. We need to think of the Smiths as being as deserving of all that our care system can provide as any other family faced with a brain injury.