service manager

recovering drug addict

Gary Aldridge’s story

When I look back on my childhood, I’d say I had a very normal upbringing. I grew up in Hertfordshire, and had a good, stable childhood. My parents were always around, and there were no drugs or alcohol at home. I was an average student, but enjoyed playing for the local football team. I have fond memories of walking to training with my dad.

I first started getting in trouble towards the end of primary school. I remember feeling anxious and had low self-confidence. Because I struggled socially, I started acting up. When drugs came along at secondary school, they gave me a false sense of confidence and security – even an identity and personality. By the time I was 14, I was selling cannabis and smoking it very day.

I remember having mood swings and difficulty controlling my emotions

Smoking cannabis at such a young age soon started to affect my development. I gave up playing football, and pretty much failed all of my GCSEs. I was suspended from school regularly and was eventually expelled. I remember having mood swings and difficulty controlling my emotions. I couldn’t really handle life and was unable to mature.

My dad noticed that things had gone sideways after I was expelled from school. My parents persuaded the school to let me come back and do my GCSEs, and then my dad decided to find me a job, to help me get my life back in order. However, having a full-time job at 16 meant having an income, and money to spend on drugs. I started taking class A drugs like ecstasy at raves every weekend, going back to work on Monday and smoking cannabis throughout the week.

When I was 18, I started using cocaine, and my life took a nosedive. I began to get into debt with drug dealers, selling drugs, and doing other petty crime like shoplifting to fund my habit. And when I lost my job, any remaining stability went with it.

One night, before I was meant to go on holiday the following morning, I was caught selling cocaine. I had to spend the night in a police cell, and missed my flight the next day. I think that was when my family realised how bad the situation was, and they intervened. They paid off all the dealers I owed money to, but it didn’t stop me from doing drugs. Eventually, they told me to move out. Things were getting worse, and with dealers showing up at the house demanding money, they didn’t feel safe.

I ended up being sentenced to three and a half years. It was my first prison sentence, which I served at HMP The Mount. I was 21, and completely out of my depth. I remember being on the bus from court to prison after being told by my barrister to pack my bags.

If I’d stayed in prison longer, I think things would have been very different.

While inside, I joined Forward’s 12-step substance misuse programme, which was my first introduction to recovery. I started to engage, writing my life story, despite being in denial about my addiction. I remember looking at the older guys who were locked up, and thinking that would never be me. But I wasn’t in prison long enough to complete the programme, as I won an appeal against my sentence. If I’d stayed longer, I think things would have been very different. My mum once told me she would have preferred I’d lost the appeal, rather than get out, which is kind of sad. She would have rather I was locked up than at home because my addiction was that bad. However, being in prison hadn’t stopped me taking drugs: I started using heroin there, and got into debt again.

I continued using drugs as soon I was released. I was scared of going back to prison if I failed a drugs test, but even that didn’t stop me. I would dabble with cocaine and find ways to pass my tests. I eventually got back on heroin and started smoking crack. For the next six years or so, that was my life: using drugs, getting in trouble with the police, and going in and out of prison, for crimes I would commit to maintain my drug use. I was a prolific shoplifter: I wasn’t allowed into certain shops in town, the police would recognise me straight away, and I was generally ashamed of who I had become. Looking back, I now know how much of an impact my crimes had on the victims, as well as the people around me.

Eventually, after yet another six week detox in prison, and then going back home and doing drugs, I had a realisation. I was sitting in the kitchen and told myself my addiction was going to kill me if I didn’t stop. I wanted to turn my life around.

My probation officer introduced me to a guy who was volunteering in the probation service, and was six years clean. He was very influential in my decision to seek rehab. He didn’t tell me what I needed to do, but shared his own experiences: how he went to prison, became homeless, and turned his life around.

I remember going to the supermarket to do my first weekly shop after rehab: I just didn’t know what I was doing.

By chance, he later became my key worker as well. I ended up in Bournemouth and went to a residential rehab called StreetScene, where I stayed for nine months. It really helped me turn my life around. I was introduced to AA, NA and CA, and met lots of good people there who encouraged me to stay clean and sober. But I did find it very difficult. I remember going to the supermarket to do my first weekly shop after rehab: I just didn’t know what I was doing. I lacked a lot of basic life skills.

Once I‘d got clean, I needed to develop some skills for employment, so began volunteering and peer mentoring. I also applied for a Health and Social Care course. But because I had failed all my GCSEs, I wasn’t able to enroll, and went back to college to redo them. I was embarrassed to be the only 30-year-old among all those younger people, but the knowledge that it would help me move out of supported housing, get off benefits, and into a place of my own kept me going. And to this day, I feel grateful about how much I’ve been able to educate myself since finding recovery. I learned more in seven years since getting clean than I ever did at school, and got much better qualified.

Taking it one step at a time, after five years, I became a fulltime employed therapist

I really wanted to help people turn their lives around, as I had, and managed to get a job as night support worker at StreetScene. It gave me my first steppingstone to reintegrate back into the community. And by taking it one step at a time, after five years, I became a fulltime employed therapist. I went from being a client, to a peer mentor and volunteer, and on to working in a recovery center.

As my career progressed and I helped more and more people into recovery, I felt myself mature. I started feeling more confident and comfortable with myself, and like I was my own man again. After struggling with so much the self-doubt and low self-esteem, it’s amazing how comfortable I am with myself. Of course, I have moments of doubt, but growing up through recovery, and developing emotionally, has taught me how to manage doubts and setbacks, and move on.

It took a long time, but my relationship with my family has also improved massively. Seeing their firstborn son destroying his own live was incredibly tough for my parents. We had to do a lot of healing together, listening to each other, and understanding how my behaviour impacted on them. My mum and dad kicked me out when I was 18, but only through recovery did I realise they did it with a broken heart. We have a fantastic relationship now, and though it took time, they trust me. They no longer worry about me or my addiction, which gives me great peace of mind.

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