I had a good early childhood and was well-loved and cared for. The only boy in a family full of daughters, I was a bit of a Mummy’s boy. That didn’t mean life was perfect – from an early age I felt like a bit of an outsider, like I didn’t quite fit in. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends, but I felt different somehow, like I wasn’t part of things. In retrospect, I hear that all the time with people who have been in addiction.
But my world changed when I was 11 years old. It started like any other day: I got up and went off out to school. On my way there, I was attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger. After the attack, I didn’t go home but instead went straight to school, traumatised and in shock. I remember wanting people to help me but not being able to say what had happened. It was like being underwater – I went through the day in a trance, not hearing or seeing anything.
I didn’t cry until night time when I went to bed, and even then I deliberately didn’t let anyone hear me cry – I bit the quilt to muffle the sound. I was so young and naïve – I didn’t know anything about sex. But I knew what had happened to me was wrong.
That first day I was too afraid to tell anyone. But once the shock had worn off and after a terrible night, I decided I should. So I plucked up the courage and made my way downstairs. I still remember that moment so clearly, walking down the long, Victorian staircase, steeling myself to describe what had happened. And then, as I got to the bottom of the stairs, my Dad walked through the front door and uttered the unimaginable: “Your sister’s dead”.
I’ll never forget that moment. The sound of my Dad’s words echoed in my mind, mingled with other awful noises: my Mum’s howls of pain as she broke down, my baby sister screaming, the sound of my Dad sobbing. I’d never seen my Dad cry, ever. I didn’t know what to do. I walked back upstairs and found some of my Mum’s painkillers.
I didn’t know anything about drugs at all. All I knew was that they were painkillers – they took pain away. And I was in so much pain.
I look back now and think about how differently things could have gone if I’d reacted differently – if I’d walked out the front door instead of going upstairs. Maybe my life would have been very different. I guess I’ll never know.
The drugs quickly took effect. I remember lying on my bed and feeling amazing – I just floated out of my body. I felt loved and warm and fuzzy and cuddly. So far removed from the pain I’d been in so recently. Eventually, I came back down and the happiness disappeared, replaced with the horribleness I’d felt before. But even through the pain, I realised I’d found my way to cope: a way to block out – even if just for a little bit – the hurt inside. And so began decades of self-medicating.
I used substances to escape for over 30 years. I took something every single day, anything at all, it didn’t really matter what it was. From sniffing glue or solvents to drinking or taking a tablet, even if I didn’t even know what the pills were. I engulfed myself in a life of crime.
I didn’t want reality, so I created a fantasy instead. It felt like I was playing a part – even down to the clothes I wore – creating these personas that projected an image of ‘stay away’.
I switched between three major cities, a different persona for each place. Nobody knew who I really was or where I was from, and swapping identities and locations allowed me to avoid a lot of jail. But this lifestyle, along with all the drugs, made me very ill.
One of the places I spent time in was Burnley. The person I was here was different to my other facades – I was a family man, with a wife and children. I tried hard to keep this world separate from the rest, but over time things began to unravel and I started to become less careful, doing things I would never have normally done as my Burnley persona before. It started slowly, like becoming less careful about hiding my drug use. Then things snowballed and the personas I’d created imploded and in their place a lunatic appeared.
Some people don’t have a ‘turning point’ as such, but for me it was different. One night, at the height of the madness, I went to collect a debt – the kind of job that could (and often did) get ugly. Standing in a cold dark car park waiting for the guy to show up, I suddenly saw him. But he wasn’t alone. On either side, grabbing each of his hands, were two little girls – his daughters. All I could see were the small hands grabbing his – it was like there was light coming from them.
I went back to my car and was violently ill – it was almost like an allergic reaction. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I thought I was going to die. Meanwhile, this man and his daughters walked away in blissful ignorance, not having a clue who I was or why I was there.
Once I’d recovered from the shock, I drove the car to a more secure area and parked. For some reason, even though I didn’t believe in God, I said a prayer, of sorts, though it was more of a demand! “If you’re real, you better do something, otherwise someone’s going to get hurt.” Nothing happened. I wasn’t really surprised – my thinking was that even if there was a God, He’d already let me down.
I thought that was my answer, so I picked up the gun I’d had for the job, put it under my chin and pulled the trigger. But it didn’t go off. And suddenly I realised that was my answer. God was speaking to me. I started to cry. It was like the tears weren’t for me, but the little boy I had been.
It was the beginning of a new life for me, as well as the start of my faith journey.
That’s not to say it was easy – things were tough for a long time before they improved. I was arrested for a minor offence shortly after and it became apparent when the police questioned me that I was very unwell. I wasn’t technically sectioned because I went voluntarily, but if I hadn’t have consented I was in a bad enough state to have needed to be.
I was taken to a psychiatric hospital. The patients were unbelievable, they made me feel so welcome. Someone gave me some trainers, another a tracksuit, someone else a lighter and yet another some cigarettes. I felt safe and loved, as well as this feeling of ‘fitting in’ that I’d never had before, even before the attack.
But I was still in denial about my addiction. One of the nurses turned to me and said: “Mick, I’ve rung drug and alcohol services and they’re coming in, what do you think”. “That’s great”, I said, “What are you using?” He looked at me and paused slightly before clarifying: “No, Mick, it’s for you!”
“Oh I’m alright, I don’t need help.” That was the level of my denial, despite the fact that not only had I been nearly sectioned, but I’d been so desperate to get hold of drugs in the hospital that I’d already been caught trying to snort instant coffee (which incidentally was decaff!)
I was only in there for four months but it felt so safe that the fear of leaving was horrendous. I came out sober, for the first time in years. But I was terrified – the real world beckoned and I’d lost my home, my wife and my money. I ended up in a homeless hostel. That was really hard because I didn’t know I had so much pride.
Even though I wasn’t using drugs, I still had a lot of the behaviours of an addict. For example, even though I barely had any money, one of the first things I did when I got to the homeless hostel was buy myself a suit and a shiny pair of shoes, because I was worried about what people who knew me would think if they saw me. I had nothing to eat because I’d spent it on the outfit! I didn’t clock that people thought I was a lunatic walking round in a suit. It was like I was pretending – trying to go back to my lifestyle before, just not using drugs.
Then I had what I believe to be an angelic experience: a three-night visitation from an angel. He told me three things, I did them and it changed my life. I’d never had any visions like this before, even during the height of my drug-taking. And yet I was stone-cold sober. It was a sign.
Not long after I managed to get a place on a day treatment programme for addiction. It wasn’t easy, and I had a difficult moment in group therapy early on that was quite triggering, where I had to ‘confront’ my abuser in the form of an empty chair. The emotions bubbled up and I took out all my anger on ‘him’ by stabbing the seat. But from there on, something changed. I wasn’t ‘fixed’ but the anger wasn’t bubbling away quite as much. I also had this faith in God. I really felt a connection with Jesus – he’d gone through so much pain, like I had, and he hadn’t run away from it. So I wouldn’t run away from it by burying the pain in drugs any more.
A key part of recovery is something called ‘service’ – basically helping others. I decided I wanted to help people like me who had drug and alcohol problems. And it turned out I was pretty good at it: I just knew what to say and when to say it. So I started volunteering, which eventually become a paid job.
Not long into my helping others with drug and alcohol problems, I met a homeless man who was an addict and needed help. I helped him find recovery and although he died two years later, he did so sober, having reconnected with his family.
He was my abuser.
I’d known the entire time who he was, from the moment I first approached him. But he clearly had no idea who I was and never did. I think that was the single biggest experience that has transformed my life. In the end, I didn’t hate him anymore. I didn’t love him, but I didn’t have that loathing in my heart.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting what happened or saying: “What you did was alright”. It’s about not living in it anymore and letting go of the pain.
That experience kept me on the right path. Don’t get me wrong, I still made mistakes, especially in relationships. I wanted to be settled and had this image in my head of what relationships should be like. I’d meet someone and I’d try so hard to be this person I thought I needed to be, instead of who I actually was, and always ended up sabotaging them. But I learnt with time to step away from relationships I wasn’t ready for and focus on myself.
My faith was still a huge part of my life and after working in drug and alcohol treatment services for a while, I decided that I wanted to get ordained and work in service to God. I also got myself a degree, which I’m hugely proud of as I’m dyslexic and found the reading writing assignments really tough. But I knuckled down and worked hard, hand writing out my assignments because I struggle with computers and getting someone to type them up for me. It was tough but due to my perseverance I went from nearly failing in the first year to passing with flying colours, just missing out on a first-class degree.
After getting my degree and ordination, my path was clear. Not for me a typical parish, but instead working with the most vulnerable and at risk. I set up the Church on the Street Ministries in December 2019 supported by a couple I knew from the Salvation Army, David and Mary. We started with just a suitcase, a packet of fags and a flask, chatting to the local homeless people in Burnley and offering them a cup of team and a chance to chat.
It quickly grew and now encompasses support for not just street homeless but anyone who is in need such as those in poverty, the elderly, children and families, prisoners, people suffering from addictions and those with disabilities. The support we offer incorporates everything from food banks and hot meal services to help with homeschooling and support for people who are suffering bereavement and financial aid to cover unexpected funeral costs. We also run recovery groups using a programme I wrote myself.
This past year has been so hard for so many people, especially in Burnley. The amount of people needing our help has been at times overwhelming and it’s heartbreaking to see the impact of the spiritual and economic deprivation: from the suicides and opiate deaths to the number of families that can’t afford to feed their children or pensioners who don’t have enough money to pay for their gas and electricity.
But what’s got me through has been seeing the number of people change and grow because of the work we do. We don’t just support them in practical ways (although that’s incredibly important) but also help people out of spiritual poverty. It’s heavy stuff, but rewarding and I wouldn’t change it.
On a personal level, I’ve rebuilt relationships with some of the people I hurt in the past. I’m in contact with my children and I made amends to my second wife Lynn (my first wife sadly died a long time ago). I was even by Lynn’s side when she passed away from cancer last year.
After a long period of focussing on my personal growth, I’ve also been lucky enough to find love again. She’s also in recovery and a woman of faith, and we were friends for a long time before we got together romantically. We got engaged last year and were going to have a long engagement, but she was diagnosed with cancer so we decided not to wait and got married last September in an intimate ceremony.
My life is a testimony to hope over despair.
If you’re going through a difficult time right now my advice would be that there is always something good and hopeful inside you – even on your worst day – if you stop and take a deep breath. When life gets tough, we get tougher. You just need to find the spark inside you. If you can find that, nothing’s impossible. There are people out there that can help you find it. People loved me when I couldn’t love myself. It’s not easy, but you can do it. There’s hope for us all.