Early life and first introduction to drugs
Matthew was born in Leeds in the late seventies. He had a good upbringing and a loving family, and went to a good school. He suffered some bullying due to a cleft palate but feels this was not severe.
He first got involved with drugs at around the age of 15. He used drugs only at weekends, and his use was very much recreational in nature. Initially using cannabis, then ecstasy, then LSD, by the age of about 18 Matthew first tried heroin. Again, he was just using heroin very occasionally, and only smoking it. The use was not problematic, he could afford the drug, and was not sacrificing anything else in his life to pay for it. He was not involved in crime, and exhibited no lack of functioning in other areas of life. At this time Matthew was working in an electronics factory and doing very well, having been promoted to supervisor.
Problematic drug use
At around the age of nineteen, he found out that his mother was having an affair. This was hugely traumatic for many reasons. He had always viewed family life as very important and had never imagined that anything would happen to change this. His mother had known that he knew about the affair and had asked him to keep it from his father. On the one hand he experienced terrible guilt for not telling his father, but on the other hand he was acutely aware how much he valued his relationship with his mother. He felt split between them in a situation that had no feasible solution. It was whilst trying to deal with this trauma that he started to use more and more heroin. The comforting, warm glowing sensation had once been a desirable occasional escape from day to day life. It was now fast becoming a necessary alternative to dealing with the indecision and guilt surrounding the impact of acting or not acting on the information he had.
Matthew did not realise he was addicted to heroin until one day he tried to go without it. Even then he wasn’t sure what the problem was. It was a friend who explained that he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. This was a turning point as he now had to use heroin every day, and in order to get the same effect he had to use more and more. His inability to function properly had a knock-on effect on his ability to work. For a few months he managed to hold it together but was eventually sacked because of his poor attendance and timekeeping. This then brought completely new issue – with no income and no real ability to work how would he pay for heroin??
At this point he disclosed to his dad that he was using heroin. His dad immediately threw him out of the house. Matthew managed to stay at a friend’s house. He had now started to commit petty crime in order to fund his heroin habit. His dad was quite supportive and took him back at home a couple of times, but the problems he brought with petty crime and his association with ‘undesirable’ types made it impossible for his dad. He was thrown out another couple of times. Matthew now realises his dad was really trying hard to support him through this period.
By this time he was now injecting the heroin. Smoking heroin gives the same effect as injecting it, but using it habitually causes the body to build up resistance to the effect of the drug. This means the body comes to require more and more heroin to achieve the same effect. Injecting means that the drug is used to maximum effect. The same amount of heroin injected will give greater effects than if smoked. Most heroin addicts cite this as the reason for moving from smoking to injecting.
Slipping into homelessness
As Matthew lived in the local area, he eventually managed to get a council flat. About eighteen months later, suffering threats of violence from some nasty characters in the area, Matthew was forced to flee from his flat. All the people that Matthew knew lived in the area that he was forced to leave, and looking for support, he ended up in the city centre, where he had access to support services. Dealing with his drug issues was imperative for Matthew. Doing this was exceptionally difficult; the longer time went on he increasingly took actions he would later regret; all his relationships disintegrated further and further; his self esteem became lower and lower; he increasingly adapted to this different, arduous lifestyle…and the more normal it all became to him. Looking back, Matthew recognises that at the time, one of the reasons that the support services were unable to help him move on with his life was because he was not ready to take this step.
All the chaos, hardship and distress served to reinforce Matthew’s desire to take more heroin – to cloud the pain and suffering. In short, he felt that he could not cope, either physically or psychologically without heroin.
Life, or just existence as it was at that time, continued. He had no home to go to, and was unable to dedicate a full day to securing housing (a full day being part of the necessary process), because heroin withdrawal symptoms would start, meaning he would leave before the process was completed, in order to get more heroin to stop the withdrawal symptoms. Homeless, with no practical options left, Matthew began to sleep rough. He also began to sell the Big Issue. This helped enormously. He could now make enough money to get by without having to commit crime, because drugs were his only expense.
Soon after starting selling the Big Issue, Matthew met and befriended Wayne who was also sleeping rough. Their relationship became something quite rare amongst rough-sleepers and very problematic drug users, because it was solid. Most ‘street’ relationships are built on short-term gains and marred by people cheating one another making them very short-lived and without trust. His relationship with Wayne was different. They looked out for each other in every sense and shared what they had – which wasn’t much. The many problems associated with the life of a rough sleeper were to some extent made easier by virtue of the relationship with Wayne. Having a release from the acute emotional isolation that comes with homelessness made the physical hardship bearable. On more than one occasion an offer of a hostel space was made to one of them which they refused because it would mean leaving the other sleeping rough alone. In this way the relationship which was undoubtedly a positive in his life, was also a complicated one, because it meant he did not move on from living on the streets.
Matthew and Wayne managed to maintain their position for a couple of years. The bad things in life were very bad, but having someone to trust and share with made it bearable. Then Wayne became ill and died. He had an infected heart valve, caused by the drug use. At this point Matthew knew that it was vital that he changed his life, got out, stopped the drug use – but knowing this and feeling able to do it are two very different things. Wayne’s death made Matthew realise just how vulnerable he was, especially as Wayne had always been the fitter and healthier of the two. The loss of Wayne also made him realise how isolated and alone he was – Wayne was who he would normally turn to in such a traumatic situation but now there was nobody!
Once again Matthew’s coping strategy was to take more drugs. Heroin- the cause of so many problems also seemed to be the only solution to his predicament, or at least it numbed him, helping him to forget for a while. Leeds Simon Community had known Matthew throughout his time as a rough sleeper and had always managed to engage with him. As at that time Matthew was very resistant to change, the best the Community could do was to continue to engage with Matthew, and work with him to try to reduce the harm of his lifestyle. The Community, staff and volunteers, were always using different techniques and strategies to try and motivate Matthew to change. It was at this point when life got even more difficult for him that he started to consider these ideas about change. This was a very slow and sometimes frustrating process, but gradually Matthew was beginning to decide that his life could change if he made it happen.
Then Matthew became ill and was admitted to hospital. He was seriously ill. As a complication of his drug use he had developed a large, deep abscess leading to septicaemia. To treat this he required months in hospital with intravenous antibiotics. At this point Matthew knew that he was ready to change. He was prescribed methadone, a substitute drug used as part of treatment for heroin addiction, in addition to treatment for his other health problems.
During this time, the Community were offering support to obtain housing upon discharge from hospital and – what Matthew values most – emotional support, ensuring that he felt valued and included in his care. In this way, he was given an opportunity to add structure to his life, to reflect upon where he was coming from and to plan where he was going to. Far from an easy journey, relapse occurred three times but on all three occasions Matthew was determined to get back on track and the Community never gave up on him.
Daring to look to the future
Today Matthew is living in a hostel, he is stable and drug free. As he puts it, ‘he has got his life back’. He is in regular contact with his family again and receives ongoing support from the Community. His aspirations for the future are to move out of the hostel into his own tenancy, to become independent, to re-learn the skills he needs to live and to get back to work.
Although things are going well, Matthew is aware there is still a long journey ahead of him. He sees the role that the Community can play in this journey as vital, “Everything I’ve achieved is down to me, but without you guys I’m not sure I could have managed it! But just because I’m not on the streets anymore it doesn’t mean I don’t need support. The thing about Simon is you know they’re always there for you, when other agencies are looking for reasons to move you on or stop supporting you Simon keep on going, keep on saying ‘don’t worry we’re here for you’ and they are and that’s vital ‘cos I’ve seen loads of people move out of hostels, start using drugs again and end up right back at rock bottom!”
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