Cambridge Research Fellow

Award Nominee

Recovering Addict

Kirsty’s story

Growing up, both of my parents were addicted to class A drugs. This meant I was involved with the care system from an early age, staying at several foster homes throughout my childhood. I had little contact with my parents from around the age of six. I only had one long-term placement during this time, and although they did their best to care for me, by age 9, I didn’t really know how to connect to a family system, even a loving one.

I didn’t know any different throughout my life. Although my home life was disjointed and chaotic, I thought that what I had witnessed was how normal families worked. This kind of life taught me not to trust humans. I associated getting close to someone with pain: they would either hurt you, leave you or die. However, that’s not to say I felt this way about everyone; there were some streaks of gold amongst the dirt. Some of my foster families had faith in me the whole time and have always supported me.

Then, when I was about 15 years old, my Dad passed away. I had been reintroduced to him only 10 months earlier. This was a major blow.

I just stopped caring about myself or my future.

At 16 I moved again, this time to Preston. I was able to find some more permanent accommodation and I also managed to get a job.

But five days into my new job I was attacked. And raped.

I reported the incident to the police and they were able to find and successfully convict the perpetrator. The impact of this event caused a landslide in my emotional world. I just stopped caring about myself or my future.

I had used substances in the past, but this was a new low. I fell into a heavy addiction. Most people don’t realise that often where there is addiction, there is trauma and pain. I’d had enough trauma in my life preceding this incident that I probably would have ended up that way at some point. The rape was a catalyst in causing my addiction to take over when it did and my life to spiral downwards. During this time I felt lost and completely separate from the world around me. I felt unworthy of help and had no hope or idea if, or when, my life would turn around.

With addiction, the offending came hand in hand. By the time I was 19 I was arrested for a petty offence and sent to prison for two weeks. Being sent to prison did not have the effect I thought it would. It didn’t frighten me out of re-offending, and instead I adapted to the new environment and continued on as I was. I was given a drug detox and then locked away. At that time, support services for addicts were minimal within the prison system; people just had to crack on.

I couldn’t carry on with the longest, slowest daily suicide. I was tired in my soul.

I was released after the two weeks and from then on it was a 10 year cycle of addiction, re-offending and release. I needed to spend time in prison because I had exhausted every other option. The nine-to-five community services and courses had no effect on me, and I never took them seriously. I usually couldn’t engage anyway, because my life was so chaotic. In the end I was jailed for a total of 31 months.

In July of 2007, whilst I was serving my sentence, I woke up one day with the dawning realisation that I just couldn’t do it anymore. Not for one more day. Whilst there was no obvious crisis that caused my mind-set to begin to change, I just knew I couldn’t carry on with the longest, slowest daily suicide. I was tired in my soul.

I talked to a drug and alcohol worker and faced a crossroads: head south to HMP Send to attend the RAPt (now The Forward Trust) programme for substance misuse, the only intervention of its kind in the country. Or head further north to a prison where I knew drugs were everywhere. I chose to go to HMP Send; I saw it as a fresh start. When I was on my way to Send, for the first time in my 28 years of life I just knew, inherently, that I was doing the right thing. When I arrived at Send I remember walking onto the wing and thinking, “Good things happen here.” I felt hope that maybe things could change for me.

I immediately started engaging with Forward’s 12-step programme, and managed to begin the healing process.

I think the proof of how far I had come was when my Mum died and I still didn’t use. In one of my darkest times, I didn’t turn back to drugs and my head was finally in the right place.

On the one year anniversary of my clean date, I was released from prison.

Around the time of my release from prison I started thinking about my future. Someone from Forward got in touch with The Nelson Trust, an organisation that provides residential addiction treatment. They managed to negotiate a bed for me there when I was released. On the one year anniversary of my clean date, I was released from prison – 4th August 2008.

I later graduated from The Nelson Trust’s residential rehab and was able to move into their resettlement community, where I began looking towards the future and what sort of career could be out there for me. I wanted to give back to the field that helped me, so I began volunteering in several different places, taking whatever training was offered to me. I worked in different sectors to widen my knowledge base. Then I applied to work at The Nelson Trust, and have been working here ever since – nearly seven years!

After starting my new role, I was able to secure a research fellowship with the Griffins Society, who partnered with both The Lankelly Chase Foundation and the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Our research was named ‘Losing My Voice’ and studied the experiences of sex working women in residential drug treatment. From this research we developed three new programmes to support sex working women to address shame, stigma, trauma and identity. I finished the research four years ago and the feedback we’ve had from women graduating the programme has been humbling.

I present myself to others as evidence of rehabilitation.

My role at The Nelson Trust is now ‘Learning and Development Lead’. My day-to-day responsibilities involve internal colleague development and consulting with and developing external agencies in adopting a Trauma Informed Approach to improve services for trauma survivors.

I have recently been shortlisted as a nominee at the National Diversity Awards. I was put forward for the ‘Positive Role Model Award for Gender’ category, recognising my work in helping women recover from addiction and trauma.

People often make presumptions about the type of person you must be having been to prison and being in recovery, but I haven’t experienced any judgement because I present myself to others as evidence of rehabilitation.

My past does not define who I am now. While I used to feel defined merely by the fact that I survived, the power of my story is that I have moved forward from that now – I’m not simply surviving, I’m thriving.

I got married recently to my partner of over 10 years, with my step-daughter alongside us. It was a truly wonderful day. Life for me is finally the normality I rebelled against yet so desperately craved. 

Listen to Kirsty’s episode of the More Than My Past Podcast with Jason Flemyng

Want to share your story?