"Don't give up": How spiders helped recovering Leeds alcoholic turn his life around

An inspirational recovering alcoholic has told how his life was changed forever after he got nine tarantulas as pets - with the threat of losing them enough to stop him drinking for more than two years.

By Daniel Sheridan
Monday, 15th November 2021, 4:45 pm

Nigel Johnson-Hartlebury, 52, had struggled with alcohol addiction for much of his adult life.

In late 2016, Nigel, from Holbeck, went to his GP about his addiction and was directed to Forward Leeds - an organisation which helps people in his situation.

However, Nigel struggled to give up the drink and over the course of the next two years, relapses halted his progress.

Nigel Johnson-Hartlebury and his wife Cheryl cc Bruce Rollinson

But it was a family holiday in Hornsea which was the spark to change Nigel's life forever.

While on the holiday, Nigel handled tarantulas as part of an event and realised they are "not as bad as everyone makes out".

When he returned home, Nigel bought tarantulas to keep as pets at his home in Holbeck.

The night before they were due to arrive, Nigel drunk a few bottles of beer for the first time in six months.

The tarantulas helped Nigel turn his life around cc Bruce Rollinson

"Why am I doing this?", he asked himself.

Keen to make a change, Nigel vowed to not drink again after his wife Cheryl said they might need to go back if he did.

Since the day they arrived in August 2019, Nigel has not had a single drop of alcohol and is on the road to recovery.

He bravely spoke to the YEP to mark the launch of Alcohol Awareness Week, and to give hope to others who may have been in his position.

Nigel Johnson-Hartlebury and his wife Cheryl cc Bruce Rollinson

The theme this year is alcohol and relationships.

"One of the things I always worried about during my addiction was a life without alcohol", Nigel said.

"I did not know how to live without it.

"Now, I take it a day at a time and I hope I am proof for others that it can get better."

Nigel said he realised his addiction was getting out of hand in August 2016.

"I have young children and I had to do something for them", Nigel explained.

Nigel went to the doctors and was given a leaflet for Leeds based organisations which could help him.

He sought help but recovery was hard in the first instance.

"I was doing it for my family and friends, not myself", Nigel said.

"I kept being told I needed to do it for me."

Nigel said initially his drinking was getting worse, not better.

He went to a rehabilitation clinic for 13 weeks and managed to stay sober for more than six months.

In January 2019, Nigel said something "clicked".

He added: "I just thought, I can't do this any longer.

"I did six more months sober".

Nigel's beloved wife Cheryl - who has supported him throughout his recovery journey with help from Carers Leeds - was away from home in August 2019 when Nigel decided to have a few bottles of beer for the first time since January.

He knew that his tarantulas were due the following day.

Cheryl said: "I told him that he would have to send them back if he carried on the drinking."

The following day, a new chapter started in Nigel's life.

The arrival of the pets - in combination with support from Cheryl - has led to him not drinking since, more than two years sober.

Nigel even passed his driving test at the age of 51 in 2020.

Speaking to anyone who may be in a position like he was, Nigel said: "Don't give up.

"Take it a day at a time.

"Life can change."

James Barrie is a manager at Forward Leeds - one of the organisations which has helped Nigel during his recovery.

Speaking to the YEP, he said the awareness week was an opportunity for people "to have open and honest conversations" about alcohol.

"We’re not saying people shouldn’t drink but it’s a chance for people to reflect on the part drinking plays in their life", James said.

"People might want to think about the effects that drinking has on their personal life.

"Does it often lead to arguments?

"Have you found going for a drink instead of spending time with your children or loved ones?

"Have you made poor personal choices as a result of your drinking? Hopefully people will take the time to think about the social and health cost of their drinking as well as the financial side."

James said it was great to see Nigel "thriving" in his recovery.

He added: "He should be so proud of what he has achieved. It’s great not just for Nigel but for the whole of his family.

It’s tough, when alcohol has always been a big part of your life, to make that decision to stop. But Nigel was strong enough, not just to make that decision to quit, but with the support of Cheryl and his family, to remain sober.

"Seeing how well he’s doing now is great and hopefully he’s now going to inspire others, who are finding alcohol has become a problem, to get help as well."

How can Forward Leeds help people in a similar position to Nigel?

Forward Leeds: "If you are in Leeds and you feel you need help or support, please contact Forward Leeds.

"Forward Leeds will support anyone who feels that they need help. You don’t need to be dependent on alcohol to get help from us, we can help you cut down or stop if that’s what you want to do.

"Just call us for a chat to one of our phone advisors. You can also refer yourself for help directly through our website. If you don’t want to speak to Forward Leeds, speak to your GP or just try speaking openly to family and friends you trust.

"If you have a loved one that you are worried about you can also speak to Forward Leeds or Carers Leeds who will support people affected by another person’s drug and alcohol use."

Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.