'I had alcohol problems - now I'm addicted to gardening'

Gerry McCluskey
Gerry McCluskey has turned his life around after starting a programme that teaches him gardening [BBC]

Gerry McCluskey was addicted to alcohol for years.

It caused problems in family relationships, including with his children.

He lost everything and found himself homeless.

Now, less than a year later, he has replaced drinking with a new addiction - gardening.

Originally from East Kilbride, Gerry moved to Canada with his wife and two children more than 25 years ago.

When alcohol issues led to the breakdown of his marriage, he moved back to Scotland and into the home he grew up in in South Lanarkshire, with his 94-year-old mum.

A family fallout led to Gerry becoming homeless, before help came in the form of the Eva Burrows Centre in Cambuslang, run by The Salvation Army.

It provides supported accommodation to single men, women and families who are homeless.

Gerry McCluskey
Gerry McCluskey has developed a new passion which has helped his mental health [BBC]

Specialist care staff help residents rebuild their lives.

One of the activities offered is gardening on an allotment.

It's been a game-changer for Gerry, who only six months ago said he was in "the deepest depression".

"It's therapeutic, it soothes the soul," he said.

"I just look at the weeds as being all my negative thoughts. I'm getting rid of them, pulling them all out. I like tidying up, trimming the hedges".

'I thought I'd be dead'

Gerry is on a quest for self-improvement in every area. The allotment is next to a large park and getting his 20,000 steps a day is part of a routine that includes gardening, reading and socialising with other residents.

He added: "Being out in green space has helped more than words can say and I think it would help anybody".

He loves the outdoors and says the Gerry of old would find it hard to imagine the Gerry of today - weeding, nurturing seeds and watching wildlife.

"I thought I'd be dead. But here we are, living life to the full now".

He acknowledges he has swapped one unhealthy addiction for another, very positive, addiction and that the need to be outside amongst the poppies, herbs, onions and beetroot is a necessity not a luxury.

Yvonne McKenzie and Gerry McCluskey
Yvonne McKenzie works with homeless residents at the Eva Burrows Centre [BBC]

Gerry, 59, has been through it.

He had worked in construction but was forced to quit his job after a car accident, unable to work for seven years.

He also survived a cancer diagnosis and his mental health suffered.

Gerry says the Eva Burrows centre has helped him rebuild his life.

He is hoping to find work and a place of his own soon.

He said: "It has been a humbling experience. But the staff have been amazing. They are godsent.

"What I particularly enjoy is the garden space here. During the day I can potter around and at night I can sit in my room and look out at it and feel good. I don't sleep a lot at night so I’ll sit and watch the wildlife come and go. It's just amazing to watch nature in action.

“I love to pick weeds in the garden. My mind is like a fertile garden and if I don't keep cleaning it then the bad thoughts get out of control."

Yvonne McKenzie
Yvonne McKenzie said the gardening programme had been very successful [BBC]

Yvonne McKenzie is a support worker at the centre. She's seen countless men and women, with no initial interest in horticulture, turn into green-fingered garden-lovers after getting involved in the allotments programme at the centre.

"We brought this out to give people another option of support, for mental health but also wellbeing. It was to let people feel a part of something. It's been very successful."

Residents are taught how to grow, nurture and cook the fruit and vegetables from the garden just outside their windows.

She said: "It's a place that people can escape from their day-to-day struggles, forget for a wee bit, clear their mind.

"It gives them a place in their minds. There's always a reason for the addiction, their coping strategy is the addiction.

"When they come in here into the garden it's as if they've been given another form of addiction. I'm not saying they stop (taking drugs) but it reduces their intake, so it's a start."

Yvonne finds the garden gives people a new perspective.

"There's a lot that they've seen - turmoil, trauma. To then see plants and flowers, life starting to grow. It is showing them positive things, things that are alive and growing.

"They respect their own life more.

"Anything positive in their life when they have no hope is a lifeline".

Gerry McCluskey holds a bunch of onions
Gerry has been learning and has taken to his new skills with enthusiasm [BBC]

Yvonne works with Stirling University where researchers have found spending time in green spaces can be "life-changing" for people experiencing addiction and mental health issues.

And with high levels of drug and alcohol use in Scotland and long waits for psychological therapies, research from the university shows that time spent in parks, gardens, woodland could be a way to support this rising demand for support while limiting costs.

Dr Wendy Masterton, lecturer in criminology at the university, told BBC Scotland News: "Most people know that being outside in nature is beneficial for their health and my research is looking at why that is the case."

She said it came down to several things.

"First is the effect of nature itself, getting away from stressors of day-to-day life and feeling removed, also having space and time to reflect when you are outside.

"The other factor is thinking of changes within individuals, so when you are learning new skills and that can link to a sense of purpose.

"Then finally the social aspect. People that go and take part often get the chance to work with other people and the programmes can reduce isolation."

Her research also reinforces existing evidence of outdoor benefits.

She said: "I look at how the mind quietens down when outside, there is a sense of quiet in the brain and a reduction of thoughts, there is also evidence showing stress is reduced when people are going out - their physiological stress reduces significantly."