We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
Throughout my life I have been hyper-sensitive to the world around me and deeply feel the emotions that this can evoke.
My upbringing exposed me to many different experiences, from being the only person of colour on my housing estate, to witnessing extreme violence and regular social injustices.
I started smoking weed at the age of 13, after struggling to fit in at an elitist school that I received a scholarship to attend. You see, although I was bought up on council estates (something that I am very proud of!), I had a natural curiosity to learn and was deemed as being a ‘bright’ kid, which then led me to attending the local grammar school.
My time in early education was marred with bereavement, non-conformity and rebellion. My behaviour was deemed unacceptable and I ended up being suspended and expelled on many occasions.
Retrospectively, it would have been good if someone had just put their arms around me and told me that “Everything is going to be ok”. Instead, I would find solace in taking a variety of illicit substances and impulsively acting out.
I managed to sit my GCSE’s and amazingly did alright.
I then decided that sixth form was not for me and instead enrolled at a local college. Here, my daily routine would consist of smoking weed and partying at every opportunity. Again, amazingly I managed to come out with a distinction in the course that I was taking – especially amazing, considering the fact that I was intermittently using crack-cocaine at the time.
I fumbled my way in to university and immediately dropped out, instead focusing my efforts towards gang involvement and anti-social behaviour. I was soon introduced to heroin, which provided the comfort blanket that I had been longing for.
I did return to university the following year to study a course that actually interested me: ‘Property and Asset Management’ – probably due to the fact that quantity surveyors earned a respectable salary. This time round, though, I lasted one semester.
In the background, I would constantly be involved in criminality and drug use.
Of course, there were times when I would try to break free of this pervasive lifestyle; normally by focusing on gaining employment as a means to live a ‘normal life’, or by accessing drug treatment services. However, each attempt would be destined to fail as the lure of the underworld was too much for me to resist.
In total, I engaged in drug treatment on and off for ten years. But the reality was that a dealer would be waiting for me to finish my appointments with a commodity that would give me immediate gratification.
Is it really a wonder that for a long time treatment was not as effective for me as it could be?
I eventually faced a stark choice. I felt that I would either live or die – to my surprise I chose to live!
So, for the umpteenth occasion I went back to treatment and stated that I would like to detox.
I did not expect the responses that I received: “Well you can’t just detox”, “There is no funding for this” and “Who told you that you could do that?!”
This was my very first experience of championing the rights of someone that used drugs – and that person was myself!
I managed to commence a home-detox on 10th September 2007, completed it on 20th September 2007 and then got married on 30th September 2007. The day after my wedding, I flew to Bali and experienced instant gratification of another kind – sitting on a beach, with the Indian Ocean lapping up in front of me.
Interestingly, the first person that I met in Bali came up to me and offered me a range of illicit drugs.
I gracefully declined.
Upon returning to the UK, I was told by treatment services that my file would be closed as “a success” and I thought, “What am I supposed to do now?” All I knew was that I wanted to use my experiences to help even just one person to deviate from the path that I had travelled for such a large part of my existence.
There was no-one practically supporting my wishes, so I went about creating my own recovery/integration journey. I was acutely aware that I did not have the qualifications or professional experience to enter the workforce so I thought that volunteering would be a good place to start…
I began volunteering and thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
One organisation that I joined (SUIT: Service User Involvement Team - http://www.suiteam.com/) had recently been set up to consult with people that used drugs and then to influence at a strategic level. The other was a drug treatment service based outside of my city. For the next few months I would undertake any courses, speak to people about my experiences and more importantly continually learn from those around me.
Within five months I was leading SUIT, and this provided me with a prime opportunity to help others that were living (or had lived) a similar lifestyle to the one that had caused me so much hurt and suffering.
What I learned next would ultimately direct the course of our efforts at SUIT, as well as my own life.
I started to notice a startling disparity between political and strategic aspirations/plans and the experiences of those whose voices we were championing.
For example, employment services would talk on the opportunities that they had available, but the communities that I was serving would feel excluded from such opportunities. Furthermore, there was a distinct lack of understanding of what our communities were facing (social injustice, poverty, unmet mental health needs, accessing broken systems etc.)
So, I opened my arms to all communities and welcomed people to come with any problems that they were encountering. I then worked with our small team of staff and volunteers, (all of whom had lived experiences of life’s hardships), to raise our overall levels of knowledge and competency in order to provide high quality support, as well as developing a bespoke data monitoring system (as data and evidence were crucial in demonstrating needs and, importantly, solutions).
As the years passed, we would attract more and more vulnerable and marginalised community members, build a solid reputation with stakeholders and achieve outcomes that crossed many sectors and disciplines.
In 2017/18 (with 2.4% of the local budget allocation for drug/alcohol treatment) SUIT supported 856 people and delivered 3816 interventions across 76 areas of need.
We achieved this by working in collaboration with 486 organisations and companies. This meant that each intervention we delivered cost the taxpayer only £34.07.
I personally progressed from a local strategic lead, to regional, national and international levels. I have also been blessed to achieve many personal accolades such as being handed a ‘Dedication to the City Award’ in 2017, and in November 2018 being shortlisted by The Guardian Public Sector awards, in the category for ‘Public Servant of the Year’.
In addition, our service model has been recognised by external bodies. In 2014 it received the Queens Award for Voluntary Service; in 2018 was twice cited as a European Model of Best Practice; and has been included in many other good practice guides.
I have now left my role at SUIT in order to continue to develop and grow.
I still long to see all of society thrive, so am now acting as an Independent Consultant, Motivational Speaker, and am currently an Ambassador for a Campaign on Drug Policy Reform.
Modern life is full of continuous challenges, wrongs and inequalities.
We are all on this journey together and if we can tap into our life experiences and use these to help just one other person, then imagine how much of a difference we could collectively make!
Conversely, if any of us are struggling, then society should show love, compassion and be pragmatic to our needs.