Gary Rutherford, RCN nurse of the year: I use my experience to support others struggling with addiction

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Gary Rutherford, mental health nurse from Derry and winner of the RCN Northern Ireland Nurse of the Year Award 2022

Gail Bell

Up and at it - what is your morning routine?

The mornings that I am able to, I train. That means a 5am alarm (followed by hitting the snooze button once or twice), getting washed, then coffee. I head to the ARC gym, train there and shower. I'm in front of my computer, ready to start, by 7.30am. The other days are completely dictated by my enthusiastic five-year-old daughter, Zoey.


What might you eat in a typical working day for...Breakfast?

Nice and simple - coffee, usually. If I train, I usually have a protein shake.


Usually, chicken or turkey mixed with salad/rice.

Evening meal?

Family meals can be anything from spaghetti to risotto or a casserole. It's hard to beat a nice steak and salad. Friday evenings are 'takeaway', so that will either be Chinese food or pizza.


Is nutrition important to you – do you take health supplements?

Yes, very much so - we are what we eat. For years, my diet was poor and processed and it impacted my energy levels and mood. I try to eat as balanced a diet as I can, within the confines of a busy life. I do supplement with Omega 3s and glucosamine - I'm not getting any younger.


Ever been on a diet – if so, how did it go?

I have done them all - that's how it went... It took me a while to understand the difference between diet, restriction and balance. When we restrict ourselves, we want more, when we learn balance, it's easier to make sustained changes in our eating habits - and health - as a result.


Weekend treat?

Elderflower tonic water and salt and vinegar Pringles. Simple.


How do you keep physically and mentally fit?

I strength-train, run and engage in fitness classes. Physical activity and positive mental health go hand-in-hand. My daughter is also very active, so we are always 'on the go', cycling or walking in the park.


Best tip for everyday fitness?

Be realistic from the start - don't go from zero to training seven days a week. You will burn out and become disheartened. Start small and build on that.


Were you a fan of schools sports/PE or do you have a memory from those days that you would rather forget?

For me, no, I wasn't a fan at all - I hated it. I remember lying to my sports teacher when I changed school, telling him that I was great at rugby. He put me on the team – didn't take him long to find out how bad I really was. I didn't properly start physically engaging in exercise until I was in my 30s.


Teetotal or tipple?

Teetotal. In August, I will have been sober for 11 years. I struggled with substance use disorder and dependence for 15 years. Following numerous rehabilitation and hospital admissions, I managed to get the right help and support and eventually got sober. I retrained as a mental health nurse and addiction therapist and now I use this experience within ARC (Addiction Recovery Coaching) Fitness to support others struggling with addiction and their families.


Stairs or lift?

Stairs – they're a great way to get the step count up. Literally.


What book are you currently reading?

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Her approach to leadership, compassion and courage is astounding. I encourage everyone to get some Brené in their lives.


Best Netflix?

The Office, both English and American versions. I think we have all come across a 'David Brent' or 'Michael Scott' at some point.


Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself over the pandemic?

I am a pretty adaptable person. Our routines massively changed, as did the dynamic of our house, as my in-laws were locked down with us for the first six months. Also, despite the massive change and uncertainty that Covid and the lockdown brought, I was able to use it to create an online academy and education platform for ARC to support people better.


Any new skills or hobbies?

I am quite socially anxious, so the idea of making video content for ARC was tough. I decided that I was going to make one educational video a day, despite how it came out, over lockdown to help get over this. Now I'm good with it. They have all been uploaded on ARC's YouTube channel.


How do you relax?

By watching Netflix or Amazon Video. I love stand-up comedy - that's my self-care; it's good for my head. Life is quite busy and the nature of the work I do can be tough, so comedy helps decompress.


What are your goals for 2022?

Balance. Trying to run a successful non-profit company and manage family life at the same time can be tough. Creating health boundaries around time and work are a constant piece of work for me.


What time do you get to bed and do you think you get enough sleep?

If I could, it would be bed at 6.30pm. I love bed. Usually though, it is around 10.30-11pm and up again at 5am for training. Sometimes those 6.5 hours just don't feel enough.


Biggest gripe?

That despite access to increasing amounts of research, education, and information, we still stigmatise those individuals struggling with substance use disorders and dependence. Anyone can fall into a hole; it's up to us to give them a hand up.


Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

My recovery has taught me that life is such a precious thing. Recently, my daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy and now my priority is making sure that she has the best life possible, full of love, opportunity and experiences.


Has coronavirus changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

Covid-19 showed us that it's not just the elderly or sick who are at risk, but everyone, and at any time. It has taught me to say 'Yes' more to new experiences and deeply enjoy the things and people I have in my life.