'Three years of prison and probation'
- 16 August 2010
- From the section Magazine
Most of us have seen them - and likely given them a wide berth - as they stagger outside off-licences, faces pinched and ruddy, arguing with each other.
To listen to Karen Devlin today, it is difficult to imagine that she could have been one of those whose daily life consists of little more than the pursuit of alcohol.
Nevertheless, that is exactly how this bright, engaging 35-year-old describes how she was just 12 months ago.
Only after completing a probation program that helped her rebuild her life can she recall a decade of alcoholism which saw her three children taken into care, her family relationships break down and her living rough.
"In the last three years, my life has been all about either probation or prison," she says.
"I was shoplifting on a daily basis. Nothing else mattered to me apart from having a drink. I was lethargic and had no appetite. If I ate something, then had a can, I would be sick."
Karen left school in Corby, Northants, at 16 with five GCSEs and dreams of a career in childcare.
But after picking up her first week's pay from a summer job in a factory, she quickly abandoned the idea of college for the lure of nights out and bar work.
In November 2000, after the birth of her first son, her father died and she "hit the drink". Within two years, Karen was hospitalised with alcoholic hepatitis.
Her life spiralled out of control as she began shoplifting to feed her habit and her two sons were taken into care.
"It was terrible," Karen recalls.
"I went to being completely homeless, seeing the children three times a week at a contact centre."
She and her partner eventually secured a flat through an addiction project. But, in December 2007 - five days after Karen again gave birth, their daughter was taken away and they were again homeless.
"That's when the shoplifting got to be a serious problem. So-called friends charged me per night to stay, then once winter passed we could sleep in garages or sheds."
Numerous brushes with the law followed. In July 2007, she was sentenced to a community order with alcohol treatment requirements.
But it did not solve Karen's addiction. She continued stealing and, last May, was given her first prison sentence of three weeks.
Far from being terrified, Karen viewed it as a chance to take a break.
"Prison has never scared me. It was the first time in eight years I'd been off alcohol and I spent a lot of my sentence on the hospital ward coping with withdrawal symptoms. I don't remember the first few days."
However, the effect of the short sentence was to end her probation order - and the support that went with it.
Within five weeks, she was back behind bars - for less than 20 days. When she again returned to court in November, magistrates were considering ordering her to do unpaid work.
But she says: "I asked to be sent to prison because I knew I would get detox help. It had hit home that something had to be done about the alcohol."
Karen also asked the court to send her back to probation.
"I'd come to the realisation they were there to help me. I needed some counselling. I needed to accept my guilt [about my children] and not let myself think 'why carry on'."
Since coming out of jail in January, she has undergone a detox programme and begun taking alcohol blocking medication which prevents her from drinking.
She was placed on a new probation programme called Reach, combining counselling with practical help to rebuild the subject's confidence, help them shore up their basic education, develop a CV, interview skills, and ultimately prepare for work.
"It's opened a lot of doors and given me a big boost in self-confidence. I haven't slipped once in six months. I've no desire to go back to alcohol and I've seen the opportunities that are there for me."
Describing herself as "completely computer illiterate" just six months ago, she is now preparing to take a European Computer Driving Licence course and hopes to mentor with Reach.
"It's given me my ambition back. When I first started, they would ask me about a job and I would say 'no, not yet' but I feel like I've got something to offer society now."