FEATURE: Sobriety starts with a single step

Gary Topley has been sober for 7 years and wants to reach out to others who are struggling with sobriety, by launching a walking group to help distract them from their problems and help them take the 'first steps' to tackling their problems, meeting up with others like them
Gary Topley has been sober for 7 years and wants to reach out to others who are struggling with sobriety, by launching a walking group to help distract them from their problems and help them take the 'first steps' to tackling their problems, meeting up with others like them
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Gary Topley remembers the exact moment he knew he needed to stop drinking.

“My daughter was just a few weeks old,” he recalls.

Gary Topley Sobriety Walk

Gary Topley Sobriety Walk

“I was in her bedroom one evening, just watching her sleeping in her cot, so peaceful and quiet. I thought ‘she’s going to rely on me and I’m relying on alcohol.’

“I knew I wanted to be a hands-on father, I wanted her to be proud of me and I couldn’t let drink keep taking over. I made a choice, that night, that she was more important.”

Gary has been sober since that day - January 1 2009. Seven years on, he’s worked hard to battle the demons that led him to 15 years of excessive drinking.

“I had a lot of issues when I was growing up and I drank to block a lot of things out,” says the Chesterfield man.

Gary Topley has been sober for 7 years and wants to reach out to others who are struggling with sobriety, by launching a walking group to help distract them from their problems and help them take the 'first steps' to tackling their problems, meeting up with others like them

Gary Topley has been sober for 7 years and wants to reach out to others who are struggling with sobriety, by launching a walking group to help distract them from their problems and help them take the 'first steps' to tackling their problems, meeting up with others like them

“When I drank, I didn’t have to talk, I could just forget and it went on like that for a while. But then I started causing problems when I went out and getting in trouble with the police. When I drank, I projected my pain out and it led to me serving a six-week prison sentence for criminal damage.

“I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted for myself, or for my family.”

Since getting sober, Gary, aged 37, has turned his focus to helping others struggling with the same battle. He began volunteering with Derbyshire’s Drug and Alcohol Action Team after leaving prison, and eventually launched The Free From Addiction Project - a peer-to-peer alcohol support group - for which he won a number of awards, including two Pride of Chesterfield Awards and a Peak FM Local Hero Award.

He also began working with the police, talking at schools and colleges about his own personal struggles and speaking at both national and international conferences about the Social Impact of Alcohol Misuse.

Gary Topley landscape

Gary Topley landscape

“Free From Addiction was a diversionary group,” he explains.

“There were group meetings every week, regular activities for people to get involved in - where they could try their hand at things like woodwork, work on the group’s allottment or join us on a day trip. It worked really well and reached a lot of people. But I decided, about a year ago, that we could do more, that I wanted to reach and help more people, across the UK and the world.”

Gary took the project online, creating a private Facebook page which already has well over 800 members, as well as another public Facebook page where people can find support and advice.

Gary is also in the process of launching a regular Sobriety Walk, which he hopes to use to get people battling with addiction out and about in the fresh air, meeting new people and getting some exercise.

“The idea came to me while I was out walking in the Peak District over the summer,” says the dad-of-three.

“I wanted a good way, outside of the gym, to train my legs and get some exercise, so I began doing lots of walking, especially in and around Sheffield. It’s a great way to clear your head and it’s something that can be done whatever the weather. We live in this beautiful part of the country with all these great places to get out and walk - the Peak District, Lady Bower, Padley Gorge. I’ve been able to get out with my kids too which has been brilliant.

“It was on one of these walks, that I started thinking about creating a sobriety walking group. So many people in recovery talk about isolation being one of their biggest issues. It’s easy to become reclusive as you really have to step away from what your life was before, the people you socialised with and drank with, you lose friends, you have to let go of others, so it can be lonely.

“This group will allow people to meet people, make friends, support one another, while enjoying exercise, a fantastic distraction from whatever else is going on in their lives, whatever point they’re at in their sobriety journey. And the group isn’t just for recovering alcoholics; carers of alcoholics are very welcome too.

“I have a big list of walks I want to do and I’m planning on starting out with fortnightly meet-ups and then increasing from there depending on the interest.

“Getting sober truly changed my life,” adds the dad-of-three.

“I’ve come so far from where I was and my mindset is completely different. I know how tough it is when you’re just starting out, trying to pick up the pieces of your life. I’ve been there, so now I just want to help make that fresh start a little easier for someone else.”

Visit www.garytopley.co.uk for details on the new walking group.