From an early age I found life difficult. I didn’t seem to be able to have the same relationships others had. The world was a scary and unpredictable place, where anxiety and hyper vigilance tried to out-think any potential pitfalls coming my way.
Then I discovered alcohol. It quickly became my go to medicine for all these feelings, and it worked. But, at a cost.
By my mid 20’s I had had several psychiatric episodes, as alcohol enhanced an, as then undiagnosed, bi-polar disorder. The alcohol fueled the mania and depressed the depression.
In my lucid periods I was a good worker, running a large retail store in Bath city centre. I had got married and had a young son. We had even managed to buy a house in Weston.
But I know now just how fragile life is.
One day, I went to do the banking but decided to stop for a quick drink along the way. The next morning when I came to on my lounge floor, I knew my wife and son had left for good. That I would be fired from my job as there was money missing, and I knew there would be little support from my already emotionally stretched family.
Life tumbled quickly. I narrowly missed a conviction and possible imprisonment for theft, my wife filed for divorce and stopped access to my son, and my mother stopped me from staying at her house.
All wise choices on their behalf.
I was woken one morning by the cold concrete paving slabs in a corner of downtown Bath. No money and no one to even call friend. I was dangerously close to serious self-harm and spent the day hovering around Pultney Weir seeking some sudden bravery to jump. But I sat down and talked to some of the other homeless people on the benches by the river. They told me I could get a bed for the night at Julian House.
That night I queued at the steps full of fear and trepidation, not able to compute how a nice middle-class boy like me (so arrogant I know) could end up in a situation like this.
I was ushered in as the doors opened and for the first time in what seemed months, I was treated with respect and dignity. No judgement that I hadn’t been able to wash for days, that I smelt and swayed from the alcohol I’d managed to beg. Just reassurance that I’d get a warm meal and a bed, and that tomorrow they would help me get my benefits sorted, gain a crisis loan and start the process of searching for permanent shelter.
I can’t tell you, even to this day, how powerful that memory of unconditional love was.
I don’t know how long I used the service for exactly. It was a period of extremely hostile mental health for me. I know I had periods where I accessed the service very much the worse for wear, but when I apologized in the mornings it was always met with a “No problem – you were fine.”
No judgement – no loss of compassion.
I was encouraged to go and see my old GP again. I think it became clear to the workers that I had severe mental health problems along with my alcoholism. I did and gratefully I was admitted into the RUH and started treatment. I would love to say that was the end of my story, but recovery from alcoholism and ill mental health was still a decade away.
I have never forgotten my time using the hostel. I haven’t forgotten the kindness of people and the kindness of some of the fellow service users.
I got sober in 2005, and my first paid employment in a little over a decade was in a 50-bed direct access hostel in West Berkshire.
I hope that my approach to the residents, emulating the empathy and love that I received in Julian House has done the staff proud.
I have since worked in addiction and alcohol treatment both here and in rehabs in the Caribbean. I have spoken on BBC and other national news channels as a commentator on mental health and addiction – I have a meaningful, useful life today. It’s still dogged by mental ill health, but it’s as controlled as it will ever be.
I celebrated my 10th Sobriety birthday with a trip to a Bath meeting – held in the room directly behind the one I used to sleep in. I was able to go and knock on the door of Julian House and briefly share my story – thanking the staff today for all they do.
There is always hope. I’ve seen the most amazing recoveries from the most horrendous rock bottoms.
No one I have ever met chooses to be homeless, addicted, alcoholic or suffering with mental ill health. These are not lifestyle choices.
No one ever went to a careers officer at school asking to be an addicted street worker by the age of 25. The life of anyone struggling with these issues is hard beyond belief.They cope with more in 24 hours than most do in a decade.
I hope my story will help others understand that the homeless aren’t untalented wasters.
They are simply wasted talent.
Thank you for everything you do.
Chris is now the MD of Minding Minds, a partnership of certified MHFA trainers, alcohol and addiction specialists.