Home Lifestyle ‘Alcohol nearly ruined me until Steven Bartlett said I needed help’

‘Alcohol nearly ruined me until Steven Bartlett said I needed help’

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By the time he was running the business, Dominic was using drink to cope with the pressures of success (Picture: Rick Jones)

Dominic McGregor was just a teenager when he became the head of a media agency that he founded with his flatmate and friend Steven Bartlett.

In just a few short years, the go-getting pair grew Social Chain into a US $300 million turnover business with 750 staff in offices around the world, including New York City, Berlin and London.

However, the pressure of this meteoric rise at just 19 took its toll, as Dominic turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism – nearly costing him everything.

Speaking to Metro, he describes how the drinking started normally enough; a bottle of WKD at the age of 14, beers at uni – but by the time he was running the business, Dominic was using drink to cope with the pressures of success.

‘We scaled very quickly as a company and that’s when the reason I drank changed,’ the 31-year-old explains. ‘Alcohol became medicine; my go-to way of numbing the emotions I was feeling.

‘Drinking got so habitual; it would be every day having a glass or a bottle of wine and then on the weekend it would be bingeing.’

By the time he was 22, Dominic, had experienced so many dangerous, destructive and humiliating incidents while drunk, he was having suicidal thoughts.

There was the time he was brought home in a police van for his own safety; the incident where he broke his ankle falling outside his house while drunk, when he missed his alarms and left an important client sitting in the office and when colleagues circulated video of him stumbling across roads and into the path of cars… among others.

‘I see my journey in a series of glass bottoms; where I will think I’m at the bottom, and then I smash through it to the next glass bottom’, Dominic admits. 

Dominic and Steven met at University in Manchester and began working together(Picture: Doddz)

His family and friends were concerned, including Steven – known for his work on Dragon’s Den and Diary of a CEO – but Dominic believed no-one knew how to talk to him.  He became secretive and deceptive.

When the company won a big award and an investor sent 48 bottles of wine to the home he shared with Steven as a thank you gift, Dominic squirrelled them away, hiding some in his room, and drank them all in a few weeks.

‘Drunk Dom used to be fun. He was the life and soul of the party,’ he remembers. ‘But steadily, all the stress and anxiety that was piled onto him made Drunk Dom a worse person. 

‘I would leave nights out early so I could carry on drinking at home. I became someone you didn’t want to be around. A nasty person, a liar.

‘You find yourself telling little white lies around how much you drank at the weekend, about what time you are going out. I’d hang out with different friendship groups every weekend so no one would pick up on behaviours. Addicts become masters of deceit; they do whatever they can to hide things from people.’

Dominic also felt isolated in his position; unable to speak out or show that he was struggling.

Steven was concerned about his close friend’s behaviour (Picture: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

‘My perception of leadership was someone who was highly masculine, who never showed emotion or vulnerability; don’t complain, get through it, shoulder on,’ he says.

Then in December 2015 Dominic broke his mum’s heart. ‘Every year we go to a pantomime with all our aunties and uncles and it means a lot to my mum. I started drinking around 2 or 3pm and I fell asleep at the pantomime and ended up screaming and heckling. My mum had to take me home because she was embarrassed.’

For the following six months Dominic continued on a downward trajectory. The week ended with ‘tequila Sundays’ so he could drink liquor from noon. ‘That was after having been out on Saturday and Friday night. So you get to the point where you are just topping up.’

His work performance bottomed out: ‘I was just treading water. I was really struggling. All the anxiety resulted in decision paralysis. I had no clarity of mind. I felt at any point I was going to get caught out.’

Dominic ran a 10km race the morning after drinking until late at night (Picture: Owner supplied)

Remarkably, Dom didn’t experience hangovers. He ‘bounced’ out of bed every day, and on one occasion drank until 3am before getting up at 7am to run a 10k, ‘looking like death’. And because he wasn’t feeling ill, and had plenty of money, there was never any reason not to drink.

Until July 2016, when he reached his final glass bottom.

Dominic had spent the day at Chester Races with clients and colleagues and his new girlfriend Georgina and was ‘lathered up all day’.

‘Loading someone who can’t handle their alcohol and is emotionally unstable with free drinks all day is always going to end badly. Georgina caught me texting somebody else and gave me an ultimatum. Then, one of my friends who was also in the company tried to take me out of the bar and home, and I said some things which were really horrible.’

Waking up the next day steeped in beer fear, Dominic received a text from Steven, saying they needed to talk about what had happened.

Dominic remembers: ‘We got together in the office on the Sunday morning and I broke down. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong with me, that I needed help. That it wasn’t me. I said: “I’m desperate here and it feels like this thing is controlling me”.

‘It is incredibly difficult for men to speak like that. Men don’t talk. But I’d hurt everyone. I was backed into a corner with nothing left but being honest. All I could say was that I felt broken as a person and I didn’t know what was going on,’ he says.

Steven was sympathetic and suggested his friend get professional help.

Dominic wants men to speak out more about their mental health (Picture: Leki Williams)

‘I didn’t know what “help” meant, but someone on the team suggested that I go and see a therapist. It had never crossed my mind because I thought therapists were for people who needed white coats and padded cells,’ he remembers.

It turned out to be the best advice he’d ever received. The following day, Dominic sat down with an addiction specialist called Jamie Dempsey who quickly diagnosed him with impostor syndrome, anxiety and borderline depression and explained that he was using alcohol to cope.

‘It was such a sense of relief that someone could tell me what was going on. It just felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders and I knew from that point I could make a plan.’

Dominic had burnt so many bridges that he knew he had to publicly commit to change. So he texted Steven, his friends, family, colleagues and girlfriend and told them all he had a drinking problem and that he was giving up alcohol.

Then he went into withdrawal. Waking sober on the first weekend in years, he experienced a banging ‘phantom hangover’, headaches and loss of appetite. But he stuck with it and the next three months went by in a blur. Dominic spent time with his family, avoided situations that involved drinking, gave himself lots of treats and continued with his therapy.

Dominic at his wedding last year alongside Best Man Steven Bartlett Picture: Thomas Auger)

Eight years on, Dominic still hasn’t had a drink and he believes he never will.

He stepped down as Social Chain’s chief operating officer in 2020, founded Fearless Adventures and is still firm friends with Steven. But he does wish he had spoken out earlier, and encourages other men to be more open.

‘There is that male mentality of stiff upper lip: “I will just get through it. I don’t need help.” But I want them to talk a little bit more, help each other a little more,’ he says.

Dominic now texts Jamie every year on the anniversary of that final hangover, to thank him for saving his life. And last year he married Georgina – the girlfriend who caught him texting another girl. Steven was the best man at the wedding, gave a ‘brutal’ speech. 

Looking back at that time, Dominic says he is grateful for second chances – from his wife, from Steven, from his family.  

‘I was out of chances,’ he admits. ‘If I was a cat; I’d had my nine lives. I had no choice other than to stick to my word, otherwise I would have lost everything.’

●     Dominic McGregor is author of I’m Never Drinking Again: How to Stop Drinking So Much and Change Your Relationship with Alcohol released on 23 May 23


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