Charity founder

Active Christian

Ex-offender in recovery

Tony Attwood’s story

My resistance to authority, I believe, stems from my childhood relationship with my family – particularly my father, who was keen on physical discipline. My earliest memory is of him holding a knife to my mum’s throat when I was four years old and me trying to get in between them – the fear, vulnerability and powerlessness in that moment was indescribable.

I spent the rest of my life proving to the world and myself I was not that little boy. Dad died from cancer when I was twelve years old and, in the period when I was dealing with grief and his loss, I found out from my GP that he was not my biological father. This shattered my identity and led me to develop a huge lack of trust in authority. Not only did I feel my mother and father lied to me, but that the GP, another authority figure, should have maintained professional confidence about this.

I turned to drug culture, where I found a sense of belonging

Shortly afterwards, I went to find my biological father and discovered he did not want to meet me or have anything to do with me. The rejection and abandonment were too much to bear. It left me feeling unwanted and lacking any self-worth.

I had a desire to be loved and wanted but in my resentment, and anger, I started to isolate myself from my family. At twelve years old, I started drinking and smoking cannabis daily and quickly moved on to selling it. I turned to drug culture, where I found a sense of belonging. When I was selling drugs, my phone was constantly ringing, which fed the feeling of being needed and wanted I had been longing.

Amazingly, I managed to stay out of trouble up to the age of 21, when I was arrested for the first time and ended up in prison. It was here that I developed a heroin and crack cocaine habit. The most serious drugs I had taken before prison were coke and ecstasy. I had always looked down on people who took heroin and crack, but it was a way of coping in that environment. I thought I could put it down after prison – it turns out I couldn’t.

I was trapped in a cycle and needed to keep using to be able to manage the self-loathing I felt

I started stealing to fuel my habit, even off my mum and nan – I am ashamed to say. I did everything I said I’d never do, and nobody trusted me because I was using. I was trapped in a cycle and needed to keep using to be able to manage the self-loathing I felt. I spoiled everything of value in my life – including relationships.

I had previously attended a course run by The Forward Trust (then called RAPt) in HMP Bullingdon and had accumulated the knowledge of how to help myself, but hadn’t put this into action.

I got into a relationship at a treatment centre I attended and ended up having my first child. Suddenly, I had a son coming into the world. I thought this would jolt me into sorting my life out and being the dad I never felt I had. But I couldn’t do it.

I continued to struggle with authority, particularly the police as I had seen a lot of corruption in the system. I continued to prove everyone right – that I was ‘no good’. My partner and kids were sent to a refuge because of my abusive and threatening behaviour, from the hurt and pain I was experiencing and the overwhelming fear of my son becoming me. I lost my trust in my partner, as she didn’t put my name on my son’s birth certificate, and I knew all too well the damage having an absent father could cause – it was like history repeating itself.

I had heard so many times the words “You’re never going to change”, so I believed it myself

I went on to have 15 prison sentences. I felt so much guilt and shame. Everyone in my life had given up on me – the police, courts, probation, friends, and family. I had heard so many times the words “You’re never going to change”, I came to believe it myself. I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how.

I still believe the RAPt course was the start of my journey to recovery. But I was still in a prison environment at that time, so it was hard to reach the level of vulnerability and be the authentic person I knew I had to be to heal properly. Prison was a place where I did not feel safe and had to be someone I wasn’t in order to survive. I made progress, but could never be my real self when inside.

I ended up before Judge Peter Ross who sentenced me for a burglary and dangerous driving. When I got out of prison, I went to rehab. It was a beautiful environment, especially as I had gone so long with no grass or any form of nature around me. I thought being in rehab might actually work, until four weeks in when I had to write a letter to my dad as part of my healing. I felt so emotional that I ended up using the drugs I had brought in with me from prison “just in case I got kicked out” – if ever there was a self-fulfilling prophecy! The rehab found out I had used and kicked me out. During my four weeks there, I was repeatedly recommended a book to read. I didn’t. I was not ready to listen.

I ended up back at my mum’s the same day to hear my friend had committed suicide in prison the day before. Three days later I returned to prison myself. The guards laughed at me when I went back, saying they were expecting it. I was given ten days in segregation, with nothing but four walls and my own head. I began to go crazy. I rang the buzzer and asked for a book to read. Imagine my surprise, when the book they brought me was the very one recommended to me in rehab not even a week before! It was really a very spiritual experience – like God slapping me round the face and telling me I hadn’t been listening, but he’s been there all along. Now, he’d put me in a place where I had no choice but to read this book.

It was really a very spiritual experience – like God slapping me round the face and telling me I hadn’t been listening, but he’s been there all along

I no longer believe in coincidences. I wrote a letter to the rehab I had put at risk and been kicked out from, and was amazed that the rehab team asked me to go back. That was where I started noticing things I’d never noticed before and seeing things with new eyes – including a robin that used to visit me each morning and sing to me – accompanied by a significant feeling. I had many more experiences like this in rehab. Once I had a dream of being baptised in the sea, and then saw the same beach for real the next day. I found this all extremely hard to believe.

Five months in, I discovered mum was diagnosed with cancer. The fear and pain resurfaced from losing my dad and I ran home to be with her. I managed to stay clean and sober for nine months, as well as getting a job.

Unfortunately, the consequences of my past then caught up with me and I bumped into a nephew of someone I had robbed years before. He stabbed me five times – in my legs, chest and back. In hospital, I told them I was an addict and couldn’t have any drugs, but they still put me on morphine for four days. I left hospital with a habit and no use of my legs. Bored and in my own head, I ended up on the phone scoring drugs.

Again, on remand in HMP Bullingdon, I found myself in a cell with a friend whose father had just died and he was talking about suicide. I found myself telling him about my robin story and he went white. He told me that morning that he had seen a robin on his cell bars – an amazing coincidence. After this, he started to get better.

I had to go up in front of Judge Peter Ross again, who had another five-year sentence in mind, but I asked him for rehab. In prison, I had seen an advert in a newsletter for another rehab centre with a quote from a client that read, “I grew up without a father and I don’t want my son to experience the same”. Not only did the words really resonate, but this was illustrated with a picture of a man with a robin on his finger! After I wrote to the centre, they came to see me and I told them about my experiences. They offered me a place and thankfully the judge gave me the opportunity to go. My life hasn’t been the same since.

When I went up in front of Judge Peter Ross, he said I had proved him wrong by changing.

I experienced grace from someone in a position of authority, and it softened my heart to have a relationship with the ‘ultimate authority’. I was that ‘hopeless’ case nobody believed could change and I did! I found God transforming me in a powerful way. From this grace flooded gratitude and my life has changed!

In the second part of my treatment programme, I thought “what next?” I noticed people leaving treatment and relapsing and returning to prison. I didn’t want to go back. It was wondering why the support had to stop that gave me the idea for Hope and Vision Communities, the charity I now run.

I never used to go to my court review hearings as we didn’t need to, being in treatment. But I wanted to go along to one of mine to thank the judge for giving me the opportunity to go to rehab. I arrived a bit early with some cards I had made to sell (including one with a robin on it) to raise money for the rehab centre. When I showed them to the police officer outside, she suddenly started pointing at my feet. She was holding the card with the robin on the front and pointing to the robin that had flown in and was sitting at my feet. It gave me goose bumps!

When I went up in front of Judge Peter Ross, he said I had proved him wrong by changing. He even took a year off my driving ban, then came down from the bench and shook my hand. At this point, I was inspired to invite him to join me for lunch and he accepted. It was here that I asked him to join me in forming the charity Hope and Vision Communities. He accepted. Today he is my chairman of trustees. We hope to demonstrate the relationships required to encourage change and bridge the gap within our society – changing perceptions and the stigma attached to addiction.
Previously, there was no option to request rehab at sentencing, but Judge Peter Ross set up the Prison Rehab Project after being inspired by my turnaround, and has so far sent 25 people into rehab instead of giving them a sentence. He knew if it could work for me, it could work for anyone! So, my story has made a difference already.

Now I have a purpose, to help others out of the brokenness of my past

I’ve now been out of prison and sober for three years. Hope and Vision Communities opened our first house for people coming out of residential rehab in December 2020 and nobody has relapsed or reoffended. We have just received a £10,000 grant from the National Lottery and £4,980 from Berkshire Community Foundation. We are working with The Forward Trust and are sponsored by Reeds solicitors, who have supported me for 15 years. I honestly believe relationships like these are so important as a collective response to addiction and crime. In truth, connection was always there, but I was not willing to accept it. Nor was I able to accept authority.

Everything has fallen into place for me. I have developed a relationship with God and three years later revisited the beach from my dreams to be baptised.

My whole life, everything I wanted did not happen because I selfishly wanted it for myself. Now I have a purpose, to help others out of the brokenness of my past. Everything has been given back to me and every relationship has been restored. I am a father, and my son has his dad in his life.

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