University lecturer


Ex-heroin addict

Liz’s story

My life started off ok. My parents got divorced when I was six months old, and I never really knew my dad. My mum remarried when I was three or four, and had another baby, my brother. We lived in Crewe, and for a while things were great. And then they weren’t.

My stepdad was often out of work because he couldn’t read or write, so my mum worked two jobs: as an admin assistant during the day, and in pubs in the evenings. Then, when she was 12, my sister developed severe anorexia and was given only a few months to live. It meant my mum was often out, by my sister’s bedside at the hospital or working, leaving my little brother and I alone with my stepdad.

He threw me down the stairs a few times. My mum always thought I was really clumsy.

The abuse started when I was about seven. I’d accidentally broken one of my brother’s toys, so my stepdad carried me upstairs and threw me against my bedroom wall. After that, he began to beat me up whenever my mum wasn’t around. He was careful not to leave bruises, so she was completely unaware of what was going on. He’d do things like tell me to get my feet of the sofa, then wrench my ankles around. A few times, he threw me down the stairs. My mum always thought I was really clumsy.

When my sister she was 16, she revealed that our stepdad had been sexually abusing her since she was 12. She went to the police, and he was taken to court. Just before the court case, my sister moved out with people who were a lot older than her and into drugs. I started going round there to escape the situation at home: we were quite poor, so I couldn’t do things the other kids my age were doing, like going to underage club nights.

I’d sit in my room on my own, taking magic mushrooms, speed, cannabis – whatever I found under my sister’s bed

I’d dabbled with drugs from a young age. Once, when I was 12, I walked into my sister’s room, and saw this stuff on the mirror. I threatened to tell, so she said I could try it – and that’s how it began. I’d be sent to bed at half past seven and then I’d sit in my room on my own, taking magic mushrooms, speed, cannabis – whatever I found under my sister’s bed. I don’t remember any effects from the drugs – it was an act of rebellion against my stepdad: you’ve sent me to bed, and now I’m up here, doing this.

Eventually, the strain of the situation at home caused my mum to have a nervous breakdown. Unable to cope, she threw me out when I was 15, and I moved into a bedsit. It was in an old doctor’s surgery we called Castle Grayskull. The girl I moved in with had knocked a hole in the wall between her flat and the main reception area, to allow drug dealers access to all the other flats. In return, they kept her supplied. That was where I first injected.

Heroin had recently exploded in Crewe, and a drug treatment centre which freely handed out scripts for methadone had opened in town. So the first drug I injected was the heroin substitute physeptone. The people that used to hang around Castle Grayskull were much older than me – all in their 20s, they were punks, hippies, goths: anyone living an alternative lifestyle that revolved around drugs. They were all doing it, and at 15 I wanted to fit in and show how tough I was. I remember the initial excitement of injecting – how grown-up I felt. Then I started feeling really sick and panicky – followed by calmness, and then not thinking at all.

That Christmas, my mum invited me to live with her again. But she’d got another boyfriend who was just as horrific as my stepdad had been, and I didn’t want to be around him. From then on, I spent as much time as I could at the bedsit, or with anyone else who would let me stay.

I’d had big dreams as a child: I wanted to join the navy, be a doctor or archaeologist.

Despite being practically homeless and regularly injecting class A drugs, I continued going to school. Though I was often in trouble for being late, I did really well, as I was bright enough to be able to get by. I ended up getting 12 GCSEs, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I’d had big dreams as a child: I wanted to join the navy, be a doctor or archaeologist. But my mum said that poor people didn’t go to university, so there was no point in doing A’ levels; and I left school.

The other girls in my class were signing up for childcare courses, so I decided to try that. I did a nursery nurse course for about three weeks before I realised I couldn’t stand it, and went to work in a care home. I’d steal needles, but they didn’t seem to notice.

Before long I was fired, and began working at a taxi firm, living in the flat above the office. They soon realised I was hanging around with people who took drugs, and sacked me. One day, I returned to the flat to find the doors padlocked, with all my stuff – and my cat – still inside. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I found my way back to Castle Grayskull, where I started doing street heroin with a friend who was already a registered addict. I believed I didn’t need to stop taking it until I didn’t feel very well – not realising that the moment I did start feeling unwell, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I moved in with him, and we ended up getting together. Looking back, there was no real relationship – I was 19, had nowhere to go, I needed someone, and he had the thing that made me feel good. The day before New Year’s Eve in 1997, when we were off our heads, he asked me to marry him. Assuming he was joking, I agreed. Too proud to admit I was making a mistake, I went through with it. On the wedding day, my uncle told me that I didn’t have to do it, and I wavered – but my mum joined in, and that sealed it.

They’d drive me to Liverpool so that I could carry drugs back for them on the train

Things went downhill from there. I’d always worked, taking pride in my ability to hold down jobs despite my lifestyle. But I became completely focused on the drugs – if you checked my sickness absence records from those days, you’d see that my nan or auntie died multiple times; any excuse to get time off work to do drugs. My husband persuaded me to visit the local substance misuse service, not to get clean, but to be prescribed methadone which we could sell. Later, because I had a good job which I wore business suits for, I started working for dealers. They’d drive me to Liverpool so that I could carry drugs back for them on the train.

By then, my mum had moved in with a new partner, so she rented her house to my husband and I. I’d always been quite house-proud, but because of the drugs, we’d let it fall into a disgusting state. First the gas and electricity were cut off, then my husband stopped paying rent, and the house was repossessed.

Unable to hide our lifestyles anymore, both our mums discovered we were addicts, and my mother-in-law tried to intervene. She wanted to take us to a caravan in north Wales to get clean. I didn’t want to do it – I knew it would be hell, and she was a sweet old lady who would not have been able cope with us. But my husband decided to go; taking, it turned out, all the methadone we had hoarded to sell.

Believing he had detoxed, his mum wouldn’t let him live with me when he got back. However, he continued to come around to my flat to do heroin. One day, thinking I had some drugs which I wouldn’t share, he threw my phone across the room. So once again, I left the flat and never came back, leaving all my stuff. I never saw him again.

I knew I wasn’t living the life I wanted. I was still working, as a buyer for a national DIY company, with jobs at taxi companies on the side. But I was spending all my money on drugs, and didn’t have time for anything else. So I reached out for help, leaving a note on my auntie’s car confessing I was a homeless drug addict, and needed help. She let me move in with her, and I started taking the heroin substitute Subutex. For about two weeks, I was fine. My auntie thought I’d got clean, and I got another job at a taxi company. But as soon as I was paid, I bought more heroin.

Finding myself homeless once again, I rented a flat and started seeing another man, a friend who I’d known for years. He was an addict as well, but his parents were millionaires. We went on holiday to Mallorca where his parents had a villa, taking methadone in a mouthwash bottle to try and detox. But we ended up spending all the money his dad sent on cocaine, cooking up crack in the villa’s kitchen.

His dad would go out to score for us.

When we got back, I again left my flat with everything in it, and moved in with him. His parents were lovely people, and they didn’t want us to go out to score drugs: the local drug community knew we had access to a lot of money, and they feared we’d be arrested, ripped off or stabbed. So his dad would go out to score for us.

By this point, we were doing about £150 worth of heroin and crack a day, doing speedballs (a mixture of crack and heroin). I would sit watching Stargate on Sky TV all day, with everything paid for; the mum used to come round and do the cleaning, washing and ironing, and they’d do all our shopping for us. Having always worked, I starting feeling guilty, not to mention bored. I told the dad that I didn’t want to take money off him all the time, and asked if I could work for him for free.

He started me off in the warehouse before moving me up to the office and giving me increasingly important roles: initially processing orders, I covered his finance director when they were away, and was even given the key to the warehouse so that I could open it early in the morning to ensure deliveries were fulfilled.

Little by little, I started to want something different.

By this point, all my childhood aspirations had long gone, and I’d not thought I’d do anything with my life. But his trust in me signalled that he saw something in me. It made a massive difference: it reminded me that although we had been poor and couldn’t afford to go to university, I was intelligent. Little by little, I started to want something different.

One day, after dropping off our washing, the mum invited me back to her house for a cup of tea. The dad had gone out to score for us, and she was in state of intense anxiety. Walking around the house panicking, she was unable to settle, chewing her fingernails constantly. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she always worried when he was out. And then realisation hit that these respectable older people, both in their 60s, were going out to score crack and heroin, which they would cut up and dish out to us in little bags for our daily allowance. And I was letting them do it.

When they hit rock-bottom, people often talk about being homeless, penniless, starving or alone. I’d been all that when I was younger: my rock bottom was realising that these amazing people were doing all this just to keep me safe. And I wasn’t even family.

By then, my health certainly was at rock-bottom too. I’d got necrosis because my veins had thrombosed, rotting my skin from the inside out, and I had holes in my arms. But when my partner was hospitalised with deep-vein thrombosis, I decided I didn’t want to inject anymore, and went back to smoking heroin.

With her son in a critical condition in hospital, the mum broke down. She told me she didn’t want to lose him, and asked me if I felt that it was time to stop. And I realised I did want to stop – but not for myself: I believed if I carried on until I died, it wouldn’t really matter. But it mattered to them, so I would get clean for them.

I believed that if I was going to do it, I had to suffer in some way

They wanted to put my partner and I into a rapid five-day detox, in which we’d be anaesthetised while the drugs were forced out our systems. My partner agreed, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I believed that if I was going to do it, I had to suffer in some way, because otherwise it would be too easy. And I didn’t want to take any more of their money. I just knew that if I did it their way, they’d be putting me back there six months later.

I was still registered with the local drug team, who got me a bed in a Turning Point detox centre in Chester for three weeks. The centre staff saw it as a stabilising exercise – they wanted to get me onto methadone, before possibly going back to do a longer rehab in a few months’ time. But I didn’t want to do it like that: if I was going to get clean, I was just going to do it. I didn’t want to face my partner’s parents having messed it up.

A few months prior to going in, I went back to injecting as a final indulgence. The day I went in, I sat in my partner’s father’s posh car, injecting heroin into my groin at half six in the morning. Then I walked in and laid out what I was going to do: I wanted 100ml of methadone the first day, 50ml the next, 25ml the next day and five the day after that; and nothing more. They refused, offering to try and get me down to 50ml by the end of the three weeks. But I was adamant: I needed to come out drug free. I didn’t want to leave still having to take methadone every day, as I knew it would lead me back to street heroin. In the end, they agreed.

I got one out, and it rattled: he’d unscrewed the cassette and hidden a syringe full of heroin inside.

It was four days of hell – not physically, but mentally. I couldn’t sleep or sit still. If I didn’t have someone talking directly at me, I’d have a massive panic attack. On the third day, my partner came by to drop off a TV and video player along with a few videos. I got one out, and it rattled: he’d unscrewed the cassette and hidden a syringe full of heroin inside. It was agonising, and I took it out several times. But in the end, I flushed it. Looking back, I can’t believe I managed to do it. But I’m a proud person, and there was no way I was going to walk back in there six months later having failed.

After those four days of panic, I began rediscovering, piece by piece, aspects of myself that I’d forgotten. One day, as I was unpacking the shopping, I started juggling with the oranges: I could juggle. Another day, I found some art materials in a cupboard, and started making little figurines: I was creative. I think if I’d been on drugs to help manage the withdrawal, it would have desensitised me, and I would have missed out on these discoveries. Instead, I was full of energy when everyone else at the centre was hurting.

Other than my partner’s parents, being at Turning Point in Chester was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. By the end of the three weeks, I didn’t want to leave: it felt like family. Crying, I begged them to find me another bed. I was so scared; I didn’t know whether I was only able to stay clean when I was surrounded by all those encouraging people. For weeks after I left, I’d go back to their outreach centres, just so I could be around them for a bit.

While we had been going through detox, my partner’s parents had removed anything from our house that could be a trigger, cleaned it from top to bottom, redecorated and bought new furniture. They’d also driven their son around to everyone he knew to tell them they would not be welcome at our house anymore. I’d already decided to cut myself off from everyone, even my sister.

One of the first things I did when I got out was go to the pub and get completely drunk. I’d not drunk alcohol for ages, but at first, I needed something to replace the drugs. For the first time in years, I found myself with time when I was alert and aware of what was going on around me. Not knowing what else to do, I filled it with alcohol for a couple of weeks.

When I left Turning Point, I was reluctantly put on Naltrexone tablets, which block the effects of opiates. It meant I’d still be taking a drug every day, but I agreed for them. At first, my partner’s parents came over every day with a pill grinder for us to take it. But after a while, they decided they wanted us to have Naltrexone implants, which they would pay for. Again, I went along with it for them.

That day, in March 2004, I knew I’d never take drugs again.

The implants were in for three months, and I hated every moment. All the confidence I’d built up by getting clean was destroyed. So when it was time to have our 12-month implants, I refused. They insisted at first, but when I explained my reasons they put their trust in my once more. Their belief in me was powerful: that day, in March 2004, I knew I’d never take drugs again.

By Christmas, it was clear that my partner and I were on different paths, and I decided to move out. I met another man and quickly moved in with him. Within four months, I was pregnant, and he had left. My son was born two years, almost to the minute, after I’d shot up for the last time in the car outside Turning Point.

At around the same time, I moved in with another friend, and we ended up together for a few years. He had two daughters, and acted as a dad to my son. But he became really violent, once beating me so hard he cracked my ribs. I tried leaving so many times, but he would manipulate me into returning, saying that his ex-wife wouldn’t let him see his daughters if I wasn’t at home. So I kept going back.

I finally escaped when my son was three. I applied for a council house in Crewe, and got in touch with my son’s dad. We got back together, again very quickly: we saw each other again for the first time in August 2011, and I moved to Suffolk to live with him in February 2012. We got married that July.

When I moved to Suffolk, I was supposed to have a job in the new branch of a supermarket I’d been working for in Crewe. But it never opened, and I found myself with nothing to do. Rather than sit around all day, my husband suggested I should go to college. I didn’t want to, finding reasons why I shouldn’t: they wouldn’t take me because I was a drug addict; I was stupid and wouldn’t be able to do it. But I signed up for an access course, getting a distinction for my first assignment. Assuming he’d made a mistake, I asked to speak to the tutor about it. When he challenged me as to why I was putting myself down, I blurted out my story. When I finished, he told me he believed in me. Those simple words made me believe in myself. I went on to complete the course, getting distinctions for all my assignments, while often helping the other students as well.

I was hooked: right then, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

When I finished the course, I applied for a degree in criminology and youth studies at the University of Suffolk. I didn’t shop around: it was the closest one, and I’d be able attend around childcare. My first criminology lecture was given by an amazing Glaswegian lecturer, and I was hooked: right then, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

I got a first for my undergraduate degree, and was going to do a PhD straight away. But my husband and I were separating, and it wasn’t the time. Instead, I did a Master’s in criminology at Essex University, where I became close to several members of the staff. One of my old lecturers asked me to help develop a new course she was creating, and I agreed, working on it alongside my Master’s. I decided that I was going to work as many jobs as I could at the university, until they realised they had to give me a job as a lecturer.

My dissertation supervisor was doing some research into county lines drug dealing, and I began helping him with that. It was a prominent issue, and he was often called away to do media appearances, leaving me to cover some of his lectures. Eventually, the Glaswegian lecturer at Suffolk University who had so inspired me suggested I apply for a job as lecturer. I was taken aback, and he asked me why I hadn’t applied for all the other jobs that had come up. Even then, I felt like an imposter – but he told me I knew my stuff, and should apply. So I did, and was offered the job in November 2019.

Life today is pretty amazing. I’m working full time as a lecturer – something I’d never thought I’d achieve – which I love. Work is stressful – all the deadlines and assignments to mark – but in a good way. I’m also doing a teaching degree, and have started a PhD exploring the impact of addiction on identity. I’m really interested in how past addiction can shape people’s identities. And by listening to other people’s stories, I may be able to understand my own a little bit better.

I’ve also got back in touch with my family. When I got clean, I knocked on my mum’s door to tell her, and discovered that she and her partner were getting married. Along with reconnecting with family, becoming a mum has helped me maintain my recovery: when I became pregnant, staying clean became a necessity. I’ve now got a gorgeous teenage son, a nice house, a cat, and a new partner. He was the first person I’d been with who didn’t already know about my past. I’d always dreaded broaching the subject with a future partner, but he just accepted it. He said my past didn’t matter – it’s the person I am now that counts.

My advice to others hoping to make a change is simple: never, ever give up. I doesn’t matter how many times it doesn’t work: it’s going to stick eventually. Believe in yourself, listen to that person – a drug worker, a police officer, anyone who says something that resonates – and celebrate any achievement, however small. And never think you can’t do it – I would never have thought I’d go from smack head to university lecturer in 15 years.

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