If someone told you they’d discovered a novel therapy to beat alcohol addiction and cancer, you might think they needed therapy of another kind.

Yet this was exactly my experience. It’s no exaggeration to say novel-writing saved my liver and probably my life. And the same fiction factor also helped me to get through two close encounters with cancer, 20 years apart.

I started writing creatively in 1989 on psychiatric advice at the end of a long and painful battle against alcoholism. The idea was simple: replace a destructive activity with a constructive one and 34 years later, it’s still working.

Even when I got oral cancer in 1991 and again in 2012, I was never tempted to reach for the bottle. I was, though, able to rely on the substitute I’d found – writing novels. Nothing takes me away from my anxieties and to a better place than the one I inhabit when I’m working on a story.

Great British Life: David with shiatzu-poodle Ralph in Smithills Hall Country Park, Bolton, where he often walksDavid with shiatzu-poodle Ralph in Smithills Hall Country Park, Bolton, where he often walks

Each time cancer made my future uncertain I made a deal with myself: ‘You take eighteen months to produce a novel and if you’re still here when you’ve finished this one, you’ll be of out the woods, at least for now.’ As a therapy, a distraction, a positive motivation, it worked.

Of course getting – and staying – sober in the first place was easier said than done. Because when you quit drinking, it’s not just the booze you leave behind – it’s also the enormous amounts of time and energy you once devoted to getting your daily fix. Take this away and big holes start to appear in your life. And the more empty time you have on your hands, the more likely you are to fall off the wagon.

Even if you’re in work, it’s incredibly difficult to keep your system topped up from the moment you wake up to the moment you crash out – or black out. You have to find the money – and whatever you earn is never enough. You need to buy and carry large volumes of booze from various retailers – even more of a problem if you get banned from driving, as I was. And you have to find time to drink it – often inventing reasons to disappear from your desk or from a meeting for a few minutes, or a few seconds – all I needed to down a vodka miniature.

Great British Life: David at work during his years as a hard-drinking hackDavid at work during his years as a hard-drinking hack

Nonetheless, in the 1980s I loved what I was doing for a living. I uncovered an exclusive story that put me on board a Falklands War destroyer. I went on a bender with Screaming Lord Sutch, the leopard-skin tuxedo-clad founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. And I interviewed survivors of the Zeebrugge disaster that claimed 193 lives when the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized in 1987.

There’s no doubt journalism back then had a ‘lunchtime drink’ culture, and for many years I got by as a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, able to do my work to a high standard despite the booze swilling around my system. By the end of the decade, though, my lifestyle as a hard-drinking hack was catching up with me. I was forced to leave one newspaper, then another. I was never fired but sensed huge sighs of relief from my editors when I quit due to ‘nervous debility’.

By this time even I was becoming embarrassed by me. I absconded from a Bolton psychiatric unit wearing only slippers, pyjamas and a dressing gown. Then I walked across the town centre and caught a bus home, to be met by two police officers when I got off. The look on my mum’s face when they escorted me to our front door still wearing bedtime garb still haunts me. I hallucinated. One time I almost caused an accident by grabbing the wheel of my dad’s car to avoid people I saw in the road who weren’t actually there.

Great British Life: After a heavy drinking session in the 1980sAfter a heavy drinking session in the 1980s

I was a liability to those who still loved me despite it all, and I started to see myself as the pathetic creature I’d become. The medical realities finally penetrated my brain. I was 28, one doctor told me, did I want to see 30? He sent me for tests: my liver was enlarged but not permanently damaged – yet.

So I decided to stop. Sure, I’d done this many times before, but it had always ended badly. So no-one took this latest announcement seriously, which made everything so much easier – no pressure, no expectations, no hopes to be dashed.

I succeeded because I was blessed with a binary cast of mind. It was all or nothing. For me, drinking meant getting blind drunk every day, or not drinking at all. Arriving at this big decision was a long and tough process, but I knew from the start back in April 1989 that I’d quit for good. And more than 30 years later I’ve never once thought about taking a drink.

Writing is my passion, and it has been a life saver. You might have read this and been reminded of someone you know – or once knew. Yes, I have consciously engineered my survival but I also know I have been fortunate.

Do I write about myself? I have definitely used some of my own experiences in creating characters – many are complex, with bad habits, and half hidden or totally unexpected histories. I only have to look inwardly to find inspiration for those. The past isn’t always pretty.

But looking ahead, I will continue to thrive on my daily mental health work-out of researching, plotting, and writing fiction. I know I was lucky, when many others weren’t – and this is one blessing I never stop counting.

Great British Life: His new book is out nowHis new book is out now


David Chadwick is a full-time author and retired journalist whose work has appeared in many regional newspaper and magazine titles in Lancashire and Greater Manchester. His new novel, Tin Soldiers, is a political crime thriller set in Nixon’s America and is the first of a trilogy. The second book, Headload of Napalm, will be published on April 30. The final instalment is scheduled for early 2025.

His debut novel, Liberty Bazaar, is set in Liverpool during the American Civil War and received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. He is also a co-author of High Seas to Home, a non-fiction book telling the story of Blackpool Gazette reporter Cliff Greenwood, who fought Hitler’s U-boats aboard the frigate HMS Byron during the Battle of the Atlantic