Social worker

Oxford University student

Recovering addict

Ian’s story

I was 21 years old, 8 ½ stone at 6 foot tall, hadn’t washed myself or my clothes for weeks, homeless. The veins in my arms were dissipating from injecting myself with heroin.

I was shoplifting every day to fuel my crack and heroin addiction. I had abandoned the human inside me. I felt worthless with a deep sadness within and no sense of hope. I now realise that I didn’t want to experience the intense sadness and loneliness I had felt throughout my childhood. I believe that I was chronically sensitive and the only way to cope un-nurtured was to use drugs.

So here I was in a police station again for stealing DVD box sets. This was my 35th arrest and nobody before had ever sat me down and asked why I was doing this or offered any understanding to the obsessive self-destruction I was trapped in. Prison was a safe haven, because no one could hurt me more than I could hurt myself. Looking back I think that being the way I was is something that was just expected of people like me. But this time was different and, unknown to me, would be the turning point on the start of a journey to something else – to a better way of being and an entirely new life.

Something changed that paved the way to a complete transformation.

The solicitor I was given let me know she’d previously had a gin problem. She saw and spoke to what was left of the humanity in me. Here was somebody I could relate to – who showed me kindness, compassion and patience. It was what I needed in order to become receptive to something else, even if I didn’t yet know what that something else was. It has been said by Buddhist teachers; “When compassion is present it is then we are able to see the truth.” I told her “I don’t want to live like this anymore”. I knew I had to let go, stop fighting and give in. It was at this point I finally surrendered. A strange paradox I know, but trying to control my emotions through self-medication was not working. Narcotics were my paradigm and they stopped working. I needed to be brought home, to my humanity. I’d like to say I never used again, but that wouldn’t be true. It was, however, a pivotal point for me where something changed that paved the way to a complete transformation. The seed was planted, but – as with all forms of life – environment was the key to nurturing and sustaining the growth required for me to come back to life.

The ironic thing is that, having expected a four or five year prison sentence, I was actually disappointed when I only received three years! I can hardly conceive that now, but – at the time – I associated prison with somewhere I could feel safe, at least when I was in my cell with a full stomach and a book. However, this was a false sense of security, as prison often isn’t conducive to proper recovery, reflection and non-using. Whilst it kept me safe in some ways, it perpetuated an ongoing cycle of self-destruction. I felt stuck. I knew now that I didn’t want to live like this, but I didn’t know what another way looked like. Not yet.

I attended several short courses when in prison, but they were just a sticking plaster that provided temporary space in this chaotic environment. This was my sixth prison sentence – at 21 years old. Each time, the stuff I hadn’t addressed was still there, so I went back to using.

I went on Forward Trust’s intensive, abstinence-based rehabilitation course. This was a completely different approach to what I’d experienced before

Then I encountered another key turning point: I found the ‘something else’ I had been looking for. I was shown another way to live. I was transferred to HMP Coldingley where I went on Forward Trust’s intensive, abstinence-based rehabilitation course. This was a completely different approach to what I’d experienced before and it reached something within me. I could relate to the course facilitators as many had their own experience of recovery. I was put on a wing where it was safe, regulated and conscious: where we had a shared sense of values and a goal. We were a community within the wider prison community. We supported each other. There were no drugs or violence. Immersed in this supportive environment with a culture of encouragement and care, my humanity – and that of those around me – came back to life. We remembered who we were and that we were not alone. That is what the programme did. It’s pretty magical to be able to facilitate that in a prison environment. One of the challenges of prison is that the way you have to behave which is conducive to your survival is not conducive to the path back to our humanity. As a society, we all have a shared responsibility to respond to this challenge. The Forward Trust is an example of what prison can do for some of society’s most vulnerable people.

I cannot adequately explain how different life is for me now. I remained abstinent in prison, came out and went into a community treatment centre, where I became a more rounded person. I first got a job on a building site and started grafting. In 2010, I got a job within a fostering agency, which was a subject very close to my heart. I am a former looked after child. I have worked my way up to a global level at the fostering agency and have travelled the world, including working in countries as diverse as Japan, Russia, Finland and Canada. I have travelled round Europe on a motorbike, spent three months at a college in Israel studying orthodox Judaism, and regularly do talks as an inspirational speaker – including a TedX Talk. I have recently completed a social work degree with First Class Honours and am starting a Masters degree in Research Design and Methodology at Oxford University. I am no longer marginalised by society. I am now six years in recovery and have bridged the gap from the socioeconomic disparity I was facing. I can pay my bills and my mortgage – doing all the ‘normal’ things that people do. I have my driving licence and my car is not stolen! These might seem like small things to others, but they are huge things to me because it represents my personal dignity and emancipation.

The focus also needs to be the tortured soul who is in desperate need of a humanitarian response to their human suffering

It’s funny when I look back to the time when I was disappointed to be sent to prison for ‘only three years’. I felt that life was too big and I didn’t know how to do it. My plan at the time was to spend the rest of my life in prison and I felt, that way, I would be ok. It costs roughly £40,000 a year to incarcerate someone; I have been out of prison now for ten years which is a saving of four hundred thousand pounds! The economic values in helping people who are suffering from addiction are profoundly advantageous. But the focus also needs to be the tortured soul behind public policy who is in desperate need of a humanitarian response to their human suffering… Was it not the late Nelson Mandela who said that a true reflection of society is how it treats those who are imprisoned?

After The Forward Trust programme, I allowed my ambitions to progress to just wanting a bed in a dry house with a (12-step) meetings list. That is all I wanted back then and I’ve now totally excelled any expectations I had for myself! Things have gone from really bad to really good. The one thing they didn’t tell me on the rehabilitation programme was that it was going to be this good… I am wealthy beyond my dreams and the only time I am unhappy is because I have lost sight of this fact.

Watch Ian’s TedX talk

Listen to Ian on the ‘Hope dealers’ podcast  

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