Chris Cole is heading up the LEAP project at the Good Shepherd, the Lived Experience into Action Project which offers volunteers with lived experience the opportunity to support others. This is Chris’s story.
My story is a difficult one and a challenging one, but it is not something I am ashamed of. I am an open book, and everything I have been through and experienced has led me into the job that I am doing today.
Throughout my life I have probably accessed every single support service that you can think of.
I started my life in quite a chaotic family household where there was domestic violence and physical violence towards me, although not sexual.
I ran away from home as a child, and left school in Year Seven so went through social care services and children’s homes which meant I met other children exactly the same as me, without any sort of boundaries.
One thing led to another and before I knew it was involved in drugs and crime and coming into the contact with the Criminal Justice System in my early teens.
I went to prison a couple of times in my early teens but that was a relief, to an extent. I had no boundaries and no stable home life but when I was in prison those boundaries were put in place for me.
I knew when I was getting a meal, when I was going to bed, and I knew I wasn’t going to end up doing something stupid with my mates or even end up dead.
For a few years that was life, in and out of prison, but after trying alcohol and party drugs at the age of 13 or 14, it soon progressed on to heroin or crack.
I had always said I would never touch those sorts of drugs. That wasn’t for me. But when you get into the situations like I did, it is inevitable that it will progress to that at some point.
Heroin and crack were manageable for a couple of years, but then the addiction grabbed hold of me, and things went downhill very quickly.
Around the age of 17 or 18, I was homeless, smoking heroin and crack daily, and was dependent on it.
I was engaging with a service in Dudley at the time but it was a very different model for treatment services than it is now.
They would get you on a prescription for methadone to try and help you to stop using and stop offending.
But all I would do was get on the methadone prescription for a day, get my head straight and then go out and offend and buy heroin.
My drugs worker at the time would ask if it was holding me, I would say no, and so I would get some more.
In a short amount of time, I really increased my prescription dose of methadone – what was normally 60 or 70ml a day I was on 135ml a day by the time I was 17 or 18 years old. I was manipulating the system.
My mindset was that I would get anything at all that I could – I just wanted it in my body to forget about my life.
After a short while my benefits at the time and the medication just wasn’t enough to maintain my addiction.
I was shoplifting and doing whatever it took to get money.
I was homeless, sleeping in greenhouses, sheds, sometimes just walking around all night with nowhere to go.
There were days when I was in really bad withdrawal and that wasn’t nice at all.
I was in a really dark place, contemplating suicide, and had actually got to the planning stage.
I had these thoughts for a very long time, I couldn’t cope with anything anymore.
The thoughts of suicide were so intense on a daily basis, but something, for whatever reason, just stopped me from going ahead with it.
At the time I was really fortunate that I was allocated a new drugs worker in a Dudley Drug/alcohol service by the name of Karl.
Karl had seen something in me, he wasn’t just ticking a box, he was there to really help people.
He now works in Wolverhampton, and I actually worked alongside him when I was managing SUIT (Service User Involvement Team) in Wolverhampton. Who would have thought it!
I thought I was ‘Jack the lad’ at the time but every time I went in there I would cry.
I always told myself I wouldn’t, but as soon as I got behind those doors I would cry, and he said to me: ‘Chris, you have had enough now, haven’t you?’, and I would say ‘yes’.
Karl talked about trying something different, and that was Livingstone House in Birmingham, which was a Christian-based rehab centre, and is still going now.
I went in there still thinking I knew everything, but they told me everything I knew was wrong and that I had to rethink what I was doing with my life.
After six weeks I had completed the detox, I was feeling fresh and healthy and as good as I had done for years.
But what I didn’t fully understand about addiction at that time was that it’s a twofold illness and that you have to work on the mental aspect as well as the physical.
I could have stayed in there as long as I wanted with the aftercare support but because I felt better, and I felt happy, so I started planning what I was going to do when I got out.
I was over the drugs, so I thought, I had put a bit of weight on, and I had a plan in my head about getting a job, finding a partner, moving into a house.
I spoke to the manager of Livingstone House at the time, John, who was a very intelligent person with so much experience in the field, and he told me exactly what would happen.
He told me I would go out, have a few drinks, and, before I knew it, I would become addicted to alcohol and then back on heroin and crack within a fortnight.
‘Not a chance,’ I told him. That wasn’t me. I was going to get a job and a house and everything was going to be fine.
I left on the very same day he told me all of that – and then everything happened, just as he said it would.
I celebrated by having a few drinks, which I thought was o-k, but over the next few mornings, waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning at a mate’s house, there was always beer in the fridge and so I carried on drinking.
At the same time, I was on Facebook telling everyone I was a fully qualified drugs worker and was looking for employment.
But straightaway, my addiction was back.
And with it the lies came back, blagging everyone, it was all the same behaviours, just with a different substance – alcohol.
Within a week-and-a-half I was drinking every day and by this stage it wasn’t doing it for me but I knew what would – back on the heroin and crack.
John contacted me out of the blue and I told him everything he had said was right and had happened exactly as he said it would.
He asked me if I wanted to swallow some humble pie and go back to Livingstone House and I said yes.
And this time it was different.
On my second stay in Livingstone House, I was there for a couple of years.
I did a lot of work on myself with one-to-one sessions and group sessions and I volunteered to help the person who owned the Centre.
They had to humble me in there to make the right changes because I still had that stinking attitude I had carried around for years, which is how I had got through life to that point.
They smashed me into pieces in there, told me some home truths and there were plenty of tears.
It was really harsh, but that is what was needed.
They then started the process of building me back up again, and I moved on to aftercare houses, was introduced to mutual aid groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and it all worked really well.
Whilst engaging with mutual aid meetings I did the suggested things including working through the 12 steps with the support of a sponsor.
I had completed it the 12 steps three times and could see the progression each and every time.
The first time there was a lot of ego and nonsense still knocking about, the second time I could see I was getting more humble and the third time I could see there had been change.
My whole life had been wrapped around crime and drugs and getting wrecked and the big question now – which is one faced by so many addicts – is what do I do now?
By now I was in a dry house but I felt institutionalised and like I was in prison because I was scared to go out on my own.
I took the next step and reached out to someone called Steve Dixon, from the Changes UK charity, and explained to him how I was feeling.
There is a big NA (Narcotics Anonymous) movement within Birmingham and Changes plays a big part in that.
He said they had a place in West Brom where I could go and stay but I had to do certain things and attend certain meetings and that was exactly what I needed.
There were lads in there in Recovery and we had regular meetings throughout the week and it felt like a transition, coming out of my bubble and back into the community.
I had a lot of support from Steve and his team and then someone asked me to do a ‘share’ about my experience of Recovery to an aftercare project in West Brom.
I went along to do it, and that is where I bumped into Tom (Good Shepherd CEO Tom Hayden) once again.
We had known each other since we were kids as we are from the same area and he asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was there to do a share.
It turns out that Tom was running the place, it was called The Freedom Project, and straightaway I thought I am going to latch on to Tom, because I wanted to do exactly what he was doing.
The obsessive behaviour I had been through for years was still there, it hadn’t gone away.
But now I was ready to put it to far more positive use.
I had been obsessed with drugs and alcohol, went through a dating stage, a shopping stage, all kinds of different obsessive behaviours.
Now I needed to channel it into something positive, into a career, and Tom gave me the opportunity to become a volunteer.
I then became a trainee, studied a qualification to become a substance misuse worker, and when the contracts changed, I went to work with Cranstoun in Sandwell, the same as Tom.
I was there for six years during which I qualified as a drug support worker, and it was absolutely brilliant.
Then the contracts changed again and I moved over to SUIT and, before you know it, my dream had come true.
When I was in Recovery and wanting to channel my obsessive behaviour into something positive my goal had been to become the manager of a service which supported people and helped them progress forward.
At SUIT, I was managing a service where people with lived experience helped others, and I almost had to pinch myself to believe it.
At the same time all the other obsessions I had were gone, because I was channelling everything into my career.
They say at NA that you can get a life beyond your wildest dreams and I really, really have.
I am a manager, I have a nice car, an income and a nice house with horse fields opposite.
Perhaps most importantly, I also have a family, and it has exceeded my expectations.
That’s nothing to do with what I learned at school, or the start I had in life, because I just didn’t ‘get it’ at first, and it’s all been a learning curve.
Now I just want to keep moving forward constantly and enjoying life with my partner and our children.
Now at the Good Shepherd I have designed the new LEAP project (Click here for story) which trains volunteers up to help service users avoid becoming homeless and giving them support to maintain their own property.
I always said I wanted to try and do something similar to what Tom has achieved, and he reached out and said he would help me and now, both before at SUIT and now at the Good Shepherd, I am doing it.
One of the biggest turning points I had early in my career was at the Freedom Project when the Police & Crime Commissioner approached me and Tom as he had heard about my Recovery journey.
He asked if we could do a piece of work with custody officers across the West Midlands, because they were the first point of contact with people who had been arrested who needed support.
It was like an awareness session and putting together a presentation was something I had never done before.
I realised it was quite a big thing, but I said I would, and then all of a sudden, I am at the Tally Ho Police training headquarters in Birmingham, standing outside the door to all the custody officers of the West Midlands.
All I could see through the door was the biggest PowerPoint presentation I had ever seen, a pedestal on the stage and as I walked in, hundreds of people sat in a theatre-style room.
When I was delivering, I knew the comments I would get because they are the comments you get used to when you are living a life of crime.
To make it relevant I had included two case studies in the presentation and went through the rap sheets of these people and I heard all the usual comments of ‘keep them coming, keep us in a job’.
When I got to the end, I thanked everyone for listening, told them that my name was Chris Cole, and that I was actually one of the case studies.
They were absolutely gobsmacked; they couldn’t believe it.
They were all keen to learn about how they could help people get into treatment and Recovery, but from the case studies I had read I don’t think they ever really thought it could happen.
The officers were saying that they never saw people like me, they only saw people leave the custody suite and if they didn’t meet them again, they expected them to be either in prison or overdosed.
It was such a big step for me as well because I was carrying a few feelings about the Police because of how they had treated me. But suddenly it all made sense.
They never came into contact with people like me who managed to go through Recovery and come out the other side, they only saw the worst side of people, when they hit rock bottom.
Here I was now standing in front of trained professionals, and they were actually listening to me.
I had never done anything like that before, and when I look back at some of my early presentations now, I cringe but it proved the starting point to me developing and, with the help of colleagues over the years, putting more training packages together and getting better and better.
I learned on the job because I had a passion to do it and a drive to do it, and was finally putting all my energy into something positive.
People often ask if there was one event or incident which really pushed me to try and make sustained change.
There would be one, and that was when I lost my first son on the bathroom floor.
He was full-term and ready to be delivered and my ex-partner was going into shock and I had to deliver him but sadly he didn’t make it.
My ex-partner became pregnant again soon afterwards, and while I am not really a praying person – unless I was in court and hoping to get out! – I did pray then.
I was basically praying that if my next child was o-k then I was going to change, and he was.
I ended up moving to a shared hostel but all the way through, what had happened was in my mind and that I had made this promise to change.
A lot of bad things had happened to me during years of addiction but they weren’t enough to make me change, or I wasn’t ready to change.
But losing a new-born child was the lowest of the low.
I kept using for a while, and had low moods, and at times I would hit rock bottom and my mental health would be through the floor.
But I am a strong believer in people coming into your life at just the right time.
I was moving in the right circles in terms of the treatment and positive people in my life and it just continued from there.
When I was ready to engage with treatment Karl was there, when I was ready to leave rehab Steve Dixon from Changes stepped in, when I was ready to get a career then Tom stepped in, and then I was able to progress and become a manager.
I genuinely believe that if you surround yourself with positive people then positive things will happen.
I have been in Recovery for 11 years or so now, and have learnt a lot about myself, I still am.
Not once have I thought about using again or going back to my old habits, and I feel so grounded and so much better about myself that I am able to help other people instead.
My priorities are very different now.
There was a time when I was very materialistic and I wanted people to see me in a certain way but my outlook on life is nothing like that now.
I don’t really care what other people think of me anymore – as long as I am doing the right thing by myself, by my family, by the people of support then that is all that matters.
People might hear my story and they might judge me and that is fine, it won’t affect me.
At the end of the day, I know that over the years I have tried to help a lot of people and that gives me peace of mind that I am moving in the right direction.
I wake up in the morning now and know that my children are looked after, the bills are paid, and I have everything I need and everything I have always wanted.
I have made mistakes, and people will always make mistakes, and that is why we will work with our volunteers on the LEAP project that if they do make mistakes, we can work through it.
But the most important thing of all is to give people a chance, a chance to improve themselves and to make a difference. Don’t give up on someone, be there for when they are ready to change.
I am only here now doing what I am doing because people gave me a chance, and that is why I am so fortunate to be in this position where now it is me giving others a chance to take that step forward.