Tony joined the LIFE Course in late 2016. Chatting with Stu, Life Recovery Manager, it soon became apparent that his recovery journey was as much about family as it was about drugs. This is his story:
We became carers for my mum at an early age, me, my twin brother Franky and my older brother John. My mum had significant learning difficulties – she couldn’t even work a washing machine or cook. She had love, but she didn’t understand feelings. My dad was always at work – seven days a week on building sites. It was quite a weird upbringing, really. Quite a lonely one, to tell you the truth, for all of us.
I lived on a council estate in south west London. Obviously there were a lot of drugs going around, and a bit of crime. I got into drugs from an early age, about 12. Heavily glue-sniffing first. My parents didn’t know, or really didn’t want to know. We must’ve had glue all down our clothes. I got into small bits of crime and then it was cannabis and speed. I got a bit of work, labouring on road works. Then I got into heroin. I was on heroin right up until the age of 40. Never had a day clean.
I used to be quite financially comfortable from drugs – I used to sell a bit to people that wouldn’t come knocking on our door. My twin also started using around the age of 25 but we didn’t feel comfortable using together, we didn’t really want to acknowledge it was going on. He is still using today.
Anyway, my dad died when I was about 30. And I knew that it would be left to me to look after my mother, even though I was an addict. I’d sort of prepared myself for it through the years. For five years I was flat out using and looking after mum, but by the age of about 35 all I wanted to do was get clean. I knew I’d have to walk away from my mother. It would mean leaving London altogether.
The darkest places and hardest choices
The decision was too much. I couldn’t cope. I tried committing suicide, putting dirt and fag ash into my hits of heroin to get septicaemia. I thought I would just die in my sleep, but I woke up one morning and was ill as hell. I could hardly breathe, hardly walk.
The ambulance crew knew straight away – God knows how they knew – exactly what it was. I got taken to hospital and all my family came down. I could see the surgeons talking to them. I knew what they were saying. ‘You’d better say your goodbyes. We really don’t think he’s going to make it.’
I was in an induced coma for seven months. I had to have so much surgery throughout this time, because a lot of the cells in my tissue where I’d injected had all completely died. When I woke up from it, I wasn’t happy – I really did want to die! I was about six stone and because I had been tube-fed for so long. I’ve still got the scars round my mouth from where the tubes went in.
I ended up getting looked after by my two brothers. Even now, I still don’t think my family really understand me – or what happened. There was no notice given at all to what I’d done, no one said a word about it. I went back to looking after Mum.
I stayed doing drugs until I was about 40, until I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I said to my mum ‘Look, I’m getting myself into prison, I can get you put into care.’ She was not happy at all. But I did it – I got over two and half years in prison for robbery. I wanted to get caught; I knew prison was the safest place for me to get into recovery, where I could sort my head out and not have to worry about anything on the outside.
Getting clean and seeing Mum one last time
So my mum went into care full time and I got clean, completely. Came off all the drugs in about a year. I knew I’d get the chance to relocate, so I came to Bristol, which was weird – I’d never lived in another city before. I did a lot of recovery programmes in Bristol. It was all good.
I had gone a long time without contact with my family, but when I tried to get back in touch I got nothing whatsoever. I couldn’t even find out where my mum was. So I just sort of left it… I felt shut out.
Things with my family left me feeling lost and depressed. Eventually the door got opened to see my mum, but not as I would have wanted it. It was about three years after coming to Bristol when I got a call from my older brother John. He said Mum was on her deathbed and if I want to see her I needed to come to London soon. It felt like the worst weekend of my life. I’d been clean in Bristol for three years but this trip back to London was too much. I went on a two-day bender because I could not cope with my mum dying. I wished I’d had the chance to see her earlier as her mind had completely gone from dementia.
She passed away in September 2016. I didn’t carry on using after that weekend, but I had to decide whether or not I should go to her funeral. I didn’t decide until the day before and I chose not to go. I knew I would use again, and I didn’t want that as my last memory.
My family didn’t understand and I was heavily criticised for it. But to me it made perfect sense.
The LIFE Course and a new future
I joined the LIFE course because I had depression due to everything that had been going on with my family. It was the one thing that really helped me after Mum died. It got me talking again, especially about my family. I had extra sessions with Stu, who was a brilliant person to talk to. I’ve kept in contact with him (we even play badminton together sometimes).
Talking together tapped into lots of emotion around my family and how I really felt. It was during my time on the course that, with Stuart’s help, I got a tree of remembrance for my mum. It was on a plot of land just outside Bristol. We went there together one wet afternoon, walked through the long grass to my mum’s tree, planted some flowers at its base and said a prayer. I grieved and said goodbye to her.
I’ve also managed to get back in touch with my older brother, John. Family is very important to me, and I think I’m naturally a very caring person, but for now I have to do family relationships from a safe distance.
While on the LIFE course we were encouraged to do volunteering. I’d been a good brick layer in the past, but I wanted to train in new skills like plastering and rendering. So I started back at college and then Stuart helped me explore options for volunteering and eventually linked me up with a builder, through a contact of a CCM trustee. For the last year I’ve been working voluntarily three days a week for him, and I’ve even been offered a full time job for when I’m ready. I’m learning some other stuff in the building trade and my plastering and rendering are coming along great. I also volunteer at The Arc Café [at St Mary Redcliffe] one day a week just to break things up – it’s a café run by ARA, who run the recovery house I am in.
The LIFE course has helped me regain my confidence to do life, to get out of depression, and to build better relationships without compromising my recovery. I still haven’t totally accepted Bristol as my home (I’m a Londoner!)... I just know London’s not a safe place. I am soon moving into my own one-bed flat for the next chapter of my recovery. I hope to continue to feel settled in mind and spirit, and, remembering my family, be at peace with them all.