AS SHE sips tea in the front room of her parents’ house in Accrington, Sylvia Bruce looks every inch the successful, attractive, well-dressed thirty-something.
No-one would realise she has been to hell and back.
For Sylvia is a recovering alcoholic who has gone to the depths of degradation, sleeping rough on the streets and even selling her body to strangers to pay for her next drink.
Now she has courageously offered to tell her story in the hope it will help others in the same situation.
Sylvia, now 36, says her drinking saw her change from a hard-working wife and nurse into an angry self-loathing drunk.
A pretty, normal teenager, her life began to change when she had her first taste of lager at the age of 17.
She knew immediately that she enjoyed the sensation of being drunk.
While studying for her A-levels and then her pre-nursing exams at St Mary’s Sixth Form College in Blackburn, she became well-known on the party circuit.
She said: “Looking back, my drinking was already getting out of control but I would never have said so then. I could never go out and just have one drink. I would always go out to get really drunk.”
While doing her nursing training at Blackpool Victoria Hospital she met her ex-husband, a service manager from Essex, while he was on a rugby tour of the north. They married after a whirlwind romance and settled in Northampton.
Sylvia recalls: “At this stage I was drinking two to three bottles of wine a night but still holding down a job and a relationship, so to the outside world I was normal.”
But she knew she was kidding herself, especially when her husband began to find bottles she had hidden all around the house.
This inevitably led to the breakdown of her marriage and she began to socialise and drink ever more.
Soon things had got so bad that she packed up and returned home to Accrington where the alcohol tightened its grip on her life.
By this time she had left the health service and was working as a volunteer in a charity shop, and she was taking drink into work to get her through the day.
She said: “I didn’t even like vodka but I started drinking it because I believed that it was the only spirit that could not be smelled on my breath.”
In 2005, Sylvia met a new partner who was fighting his own demons with alcohol, and they moved into a house in Hermitage Street, Rishton, together.
By now Sylvia was funding her addiction throught benefits and money stolen or conned out of family and friends.
Her new relationship had become increasingly aggressive and one drunken row saw her arrested and served with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order banning her from entering any off-licence or pub in Hyndburn and from contacting her parents.
Her mother, who did not want to be named, said: “Some people may not be able to understand why we would not let Sylvia come home but it got to a stage where we were worried about our own health. It was difficult but we knew we had to be cruel to be kind.”
Her violent relationship ended in 2006 with Sylvia having a miscarriage as a result of a beating.
While she was in hospital she took the first tentative steps towards recovery by agreeing to go into rehab but her heart wasn’t in it and she soon slipped back to her old ways.
Her mum said: “Despite how much it hurt, I again had to turn her away. I knew she had to find her own depths of despair to get better.”
Now Sylvia was homeless, sleeping rough and not eating but she still managed to spend up to £25 a day on vodka.
She turned to prostitution but at this lowest point in her life came a knight in shining armour.
She said: “I was walking back from court after my first and last appearance for soliciting when a friend I hadn’t seen since schooldays stopped in his car and offered me a lift.
“He took me back to his place and cared for me, no strings attached, and tried to control how much I drank.
“One day I just woke up and decided I didn’t need any of this anymore. I wanted help for my own sake, not to please anybody else. At that moment I knew I would beat it.”
Sylvia went to social services and was offered a place at Pierpoint Rehabilitation Centre in St Annes which has a reputation among alcoholics as being very tough.
She entered rehab on 18 January this year and has not had a drink since.
She said: “I have back my self-respect and most of all my mum and dad.
“If you want help it is out there but until you really want it for yourself, it won’t happen.”
Sylvia has now got her life back on track, moving out of the area, though she visits her parents regularly.
She is embarking on a college course, getting her driving licence back and hopefully returning to nursing.
She said: “I really believe I was destined to be an alcoholic. It was in my make -up as a child, I’ve always had an addictive personality.
“I don’t know what the future holds. I know it’s an old cliche but I really am taking it one day at a time.”