Darren overcame his three year struggle with addiction to forge a new career supporting others to get out of vicious cycles of substance abuse. He joined Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust as a Peer Supporter in April at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most challenging time in the NHS’s history, but has quickly adapted to help some of the most vulnerable people in the North East turn their lives around.
(Please note, this article contains descriptions of addiction that some people may find uncomfortable to read.)
“My life has been full of ups and downs. In 2014, I lost my mum. I was a single dad bringing up three boys, and I just started to fall apart. I had a successful business in the building trade, and at first I kept a mask on and pretended everything was ok – but I couldn’t keep it up.
“I had a breakdown, and made a bad choice – I took heroin. It gave me a kind of warm glow, and within a week I was addicted.
“I kept it a secret for a while, but before long I started smoking crack cocaine – some days I was spending £1,000 a day. This went on for a year; I lost all my money, my belongings, and my children had to go and be taken care of by their grandparents.
“I was living in pure misery; I was trapped, and it kept getting worse. I became involved with organised crime to feed my raging drug habit. I spent time in and out of prison, ended up living on the streets, shoplifting every day, suffering from overdoses and hepatitis, on the run from the police. I was completely broken. I didn’t want to live.”
This final stint behind bars was to be the end of Darren’s cycle of addiction. A prison officer talked to him about a residential rehabilitation service run by a charity called Betel, and upon his release from prison, Darren got the train from prison in Liverpool to the Betel Centre in Hexham, and his journey of recovery began.
The road to recovery
“Betel is a peer-led program. When I first went in I was smashed, but after withdrawing and getting better, I saw new people coming in who were in the same position that I’d been in and started to help them. As the weeks went by, I began to deal with the roots of my issues and found some hope in my life. Working each day, encouraging lads who were broken just like I had been, was so rewarding. That’s part of why that rehab worked; you just naturally start to lift up the people coming in after you. I really took to it.”
Darren had decided he wanted to make a new start, and settle in Northumberland. After 16 months he left the Betel Centre, in recovery from his addiction and with a real passion to help others do the same.
Over the next few years Darren made this a reality, volunteering for several local support organisations. Last year he was thrilled to come across a job advert to work for Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW) as a Peer Supporter.
Becoming a Peer Supporter
The Peer Supporter role was created by CNTW, who provide mental health, disability, and addictions services across the North East, to improve the support that patients and carers receive. Peer Supporters draw upon their own history of mental ill-health, addiction and other experiences to offer guidance, compassion and hope to the people they work with. They also help staff to empathise with and understand those they care for.
“When I saw the advert that CNTW were hiring Peer Supporters, at first I thought I wouldn’t be good enough for the post; that my past would hold me back,” Darren explains. “But it was something I am so passionate about, and I was encouraged by people around me to apply for the job, so I did.
“Before the interview I really started doubting myself, but I knew deep down that I could be good at this – so I told myself, ‘don’t be afraid, just be yourself.’ The very next day I got a call to offer me the job.”
Due to the pre-employment checks process taking a little longer due to Darren’s past mistakes, and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it took a while for Darren to start work, but he eventually started his new role at the end of April – in the midst of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’.
“Starting this job in the middle of a pandemic was strange, but management and my colleagues have been really supportive – I already feel like I’ve been there for ten years.”
“My perspective is really valued”
Darren now works with the Northumberland Recovery Partnership (NRP), a dedicated service for anyone in Northumberland, 18 years old or over who is experiencing problems with drugs and alcohol. NRP is a partnership between CNTW and charities Changing Lives and Turning Point.
Many of the people he works with are at a critical point in their life, at risk of losing their children or becoming homeless if they can’t make a change.
Throughout this time, despite the disruption of the pandemic, Darren has still been able to work with some people face-to-face when their situation is particularly serious (taking every possible precaution to keep both safe from infection). “Nothing can replace being in a room with someone,” he explains. “Phone and video calls are useful to help me connect to people during the restrictions, but when you’re with someone you just get a much better idea of what they’re going through. They can open up to you much more easily. For people who aren’t used to video conferences, it can be quite a hard way to interact, especially if they’re already feeling low and not very confident.”
In the future, Darren hopes to set up some new addictions support groups in Northumberland and even has plans for an allotment, football and music groups, to provide places to get people talking to each other and feeling motivated.
Darren has been pleased to find out how much staff value his insights. “When I was first invited to a Multi-Disciplinary Team meeting [where different staff meet to discuss and make decisions about treatment and care options for patients] I thought, ‘why do they want me there?’ But every time I’ve actually been able to really help with certain patients, and support staff who just couldn’t make a breakthrough with them. My perspective, having lived through what some of these patients are dealing with, is really valued by the team.”
Breaking down stigma, offering hope
Darren also wants to share his story to try and break down some of the stereotypes around addiction. “I never thought it could happen to me – I had everything, three kids, a job, nice house and a holiday home – but none of that stopped me in the end, once I’d gone down that rabbit hole. People judge addicts and the homeless so harshly, and think that it only happens to certain kinds of people who they look down on. But it doesn’t.
“My job now is all about offering people hope, and someone who they can trust and open up to. Lots of them have issues with authority, they’ve had trouble with the police and stuff before. So when a hospital staff member tries to help them they might dismiss it and just say ‘you don’t know what it’s like, you’ve never been through this.’ But I can say to them, I have been there, I’ve been on the streets, I’ve been on heroin. They often don’t believe me, I have to show them photos! But I can show them that change really is possible.
“Speaking to other people, and reading their stories, about how they’d changed and got out of addiction – that was what helped me when I was trying to turn my life around. Now I get to do that for other people. Helping and seeing someone make that change is just the best feeling ever.”
Darren hopes his story can show people that it is possible to break free from addiction. “I live life now with a peace that I never had before. My kids are back in my life and they are so proud of me, now that I’m the good dad they deserve. I have a nice home, I drive again, I have a lovely caring partner who is a nurse. I have a bright future ahead of me. Never believe you cannot change – you can. There is always hope.”