I am lying in my bed at 8:51pm on a Saturday night writing this and I can honestly say that I am as happy with my life today as I have ever been. Oddly enough, materially speaking I am not doing too great.
I experience financial worries on a regular basis, I have a cooker which does not work which I cannot afford to fix, I have had the same phone since 2015 and it is barely readable such is the severity of the cracks on its screen and I have had to tell my son’s mother recently I may not be able to afford to get him a Christmas present. My bike was stolen last month, somebody attempted to defraud me last Thursday, my upstairs neighbour kept me awake most of last night for the umpteenth time after having another one of his parties, my love life is non-existent and I said goodbye to my 5 year old son recently who returned back to his home country of Slovakia until the next time I see him in January 2019.
You would be forgiven for failing to see what reasons I have for such happiness. Allow me to explain….
My earliest memories are mostly negative. They are of me in school at play time avoiding other children in the playground because I don’t want to hear the comments they keep making to me about the fact that I still wear nappies and they don’t. I was born with Spina Bifida and although it is only a mild form, I have never had, or never will have natural control over my bladder and bowel and I never got out of nappies until I was 16 years old.
Throughout school I was picked on for wearing nappies and I spent all that time trying to hide my disability from people because it made me feel like I was worth less than everyone else. Home life was dysfunctional as my parents used drugs and alcohol heavily and episodes of heated arguing or fighting between them was not uncommon.
I now know my coping strategies were very unhealthy. However, the little bit of respite from being bullied that keeping secrets to myself gave to me, coupled with an internalised view of myself as worthless which I had developed out of the messages being given to me by the children making fun at me, I had taken on a belief that I am better off not expressing my emotions to anybody. That I would be stronger if I bottled things up, as though I was proving to myself that I was coping. Little did I know but this would wreak havoc in my life for the next 24 years.
To compensate for this void that had been swelling up within me ever since I was a 6-year old boy I began to develop an alter-ego. As I was growing up I would portray an image to people that I was happy, if not a little cheeky and then as I approach high school years I began behaving quite rebelliously. By the age of 14 I had gone from victim to bully. To my mind it was the most effective way of avoiding the same treatment which had left me so badly bruised in my younger years.
I associated with other boys in school who were behaving anti-socially and I began doing things which went against my own personal morals and values to gain their approval, something I now know that I was simply unable to give to myself due to my unresolved childhood experiences of bullying.
My entire agenda seemed to revolve around gaining approval from the people who I was most afraid of. Throughout this period in my life I hurt many people, physically and emotionally but I refused to acknowledge any of the guilt and shame caused by my behaviour. I buried it deep down inside me, so far down I was not even aware of it.
At 14 I first tried cannabis. Although it was not a conscious thought at the time I think I latched on to the ease with which my thoughts and feelings could be altered by taking this drug and my use of it escalated very quickly. For the next 5 years I used it almost every day and began drinking alcohol heavily too. Around the age of 16 years old I had a couple of major operations which meant I no longer had to wear nappies and I finally felt like “one of the boys”. I immediately embarked upon a spree of casual relationships with girls which upon reflection was another self-centred attempt to fix my feelings, seemingly oblivious to feelings of the girls involved.
During that year my Father committed suicide. Life went from bad to worse. My Mother responded extremely badly to the suicide and was sectioned under the mental health act and I ended up in a youth hostel with very little support, some quite complex but undiagnosed emotional problems and a drug and alcohol misuse problem. It took quite a while for things to settle down after that.
Settle down it did though, my mom came out of hospital and although she was clearly dependent on alcohol we maintained a close relationship. I had gotten into several relationships which meant I was forced to stop using the drugs, but the drinking never subsided. I had managed to hold down some long-term jobs of a few years here and there and in 2012 I met a girl with whom I would have my Son.
I thought she was the one. She was practically perfect in every way. Gradually though I began to take her for granted. It seemed like the spark had disappeared and I “needed” something more, so I began being unfaithful.
The mask I always used to put on to fool myself and girls in to a relationship with me had started to slip and yet again I was looking for something to fill this void. The pressure of parenthood was overwhelming for me. My drug use and cheating had reached unimaginable levels despite all the lies I was telling my Partner, and in 2016 she did the one thing which might have saved my life and left me.
She took my son and left our family home. 2 months after that happened my Mother died of alcohol-related liver failure. For the next 4 months I drank myself in to a stupor whilst attending a local community support group for drugs and alcohol wallowing in self-pity.
That was until I got accepted for a 4-month residential rehabilitation placement in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. I went in to rehab mainly because I ran out of money to fund my addiction at this point and I was becoming so physically unwell I genuinely feared I was going to end up dying the same way I had seen my mom die just a few months previous.
I couldn’t live with the thought, knowing I would only be doing to my son what had been done to me by my dad’s sudden passing. So, I went in to the rehab full of determination, and full of fear. It was the hardest thing I have ever done but it is also the most rewarding.
The therapy in there was intense. They did not mince their words. My denial of my addiction was so strong it had to be beaten out of me, as did my huge ego, and it was incredibly painful. Nevertheless, I graduated from the programme in April 2017.
Following on from my placement in rehab I immediately got involved in alcoholics anonymous because I had observed how effective it had been for other graduated peers in the maintenance of their recovery following graduation from the rehabilitation programme and I began volunteering to give me some structure without the pressure of paid work and as had people who had been through the programme before me had said, I found it to be a truly amazing experience.
I was beginning to find joy in things that I could barely have imagined would have been possible 6 months prior. After 4 months I managed to obtain a full time paid job for a prestigious law firm in Birmingham even though I was honest about my stint in rehab and that was an important moment for me because I had stayed true to my values of being honest even though it might have been easy to avoid the truth in case it harmed my employability prospects.
My job has enabled me to make significant in-roads on the thousands of pounds of debt I had built up funding my drug and alcohol habit in years gone by and is an endeavour which continues today and explains the financial strain I spoke of at the beginning of this story.
After being 6 months sober and despite my best efforts in court to prevent it from happening a ruling allowed my Son's Mother to return to her home country Slovakia to live with my Son and to my astonishment I did not find it necessary to use any alcohol or drugs to cope with that either.
It is also important to add that despite fears that him living abroad would cause irreversible damage to the relationship with my son, nothing has been further from the truth. My relationship with him today is beyond my wildest dreams. I feel genuine love for him, which I was incapable of doing before, and he tells me he loves me after every one of the skype calls we have twice per week.
I am also lucky enough to be able to get to see him 6 times per year through face to face arrangements I have agreed with his mother. This has only been made possible by me admitting my mistakes to her, sincerely apologising and remaining committed to making amends to her for all the hurt I have caused her over the years. Rather than point the finger of blame at her like I used to, I am grateful for everything she has ever done, and still does today. She is a great mom to my son.
I have been able to resume my studies towards a BSc in Psychology since putting down the drugs and drink and the marks I am getting now I can apply myself properly to it, are unbelievable. I aspire to one day go on to become a counsellor or a clinical psychologist to help others as I feel a sense of duty to give back to people in the same way I have been helped so greatly over the last few years.
I have found a new purpose in life which is helping others. I have also begun learning to play the guitar which is a life-long dream of mine. Yes, progress is (very) slow but that’s ok. I no longer rely on instant gratification in life. I have a new-found patience, tolerance and humility which has only been given to me through the help of others and the maintenance of my recovery. The list of rewards for recovery is endless and all I must do is go to a few meetings a week, pray each night to say thank you for the life I have and be other-centred rather than self-centred.
So, when I compare this to the list of trivial things I mentioned at the top of the story which by the way I know is no different to anybody else’s life, is it any wonder I am so grateful? I know there are people out there who would love to only have the problems above. I have no right to be here, the fate of my parents tells me that but here I am (now at 10:39pm) writing this for you.
Thanks for reading my story. Don’t make my mistakes. Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength.
Joe is a 4th year undergraduate psychology student studying with the Open University and in his own words "loves volunteering". "My area of interest is addictions. I am proud Father to a beautiful little boy. My passion is helping others who really need help. I am trying to learn to play the guitar and learning a second language as well (Slovak)."