Matthew’s Recovery Story: ‘Making most of the opportunity’

Matthew set himself up a personal recovery plan to overcome his addiction to opiates, gambling and overeating – and his life has been transformed.

 “At times, life feels strange. Five years ago, I was on a probation order as an offender and now I work for the probation service. I could have never imagined when the magistrate told me to make the most of the opportunity for a fresh start that I’d end up here. It has been a long, long journey.”

Matthew continues to move forward with his personal development and is enjoying life in recovery. For someone who thought he couldn't cope with the crazy world 'out there', he has shown you can dig yourself out of a deep hole, learn to believe in yourself,  and interact in a rewarding and meaningful way with what is going on around you.

Matthew continues to move forward with his personal development and is enjoying life in recovery. For someone who thought he couldn’t cope with the crazy world ‘out there’, he has shown you can dig yourself out of a deep hole, learn to believe in yourself, and interact in a rewarding and meaningful way with what is going on around you.

1. Early years
What I remember from my early years is that I wanted – in fact, needed – consistency and familiarity. I had trouble handling change. Little did I know at this time was that I wouldn’t be able to live my life on my own terms. I would be forced to try and fit into a world that usually seemed crazy to me.

People who don’t know me really well often think I’m just shy and introverted, but it’s more complicated than that. When a situation feels unfamiliar, I get very tense and worked up and that is why I can appear shy. However, when I do become familiar with people and situations I am no longer shy and nervous. I remember having a need for familiarity and feeling uncomfortable with change as far back as my early days in primary school.

Despite these ‘problems’, the years leading up to starting secondary school were, to a large extent, happy ones. I was brought up in a middle class family in the largely working class town of Denton in Greater Manchester.

My dad was a teacher and my mum a social worker; we were comfortable rather than wealthy. Simple pleasures such as the Commodore 64, a popular computer in the late 80’s and early 90’s, kept me occupied for hours. Although I was never good at sports, I was still physically active and took long bike rides on a weekly basis.

Life seemed to make some sort of sense. However, a big change was about to occur. I knew that secondary school would blow my routine and familiarity right out of the window. I knew it was going to be tough, but I don’t think I quite realised how tough.

2. Everything changes
I remember looking around the large assembly hall for familiar faces on my first day of secondary school. At this point in time, my name wasn’t Matthew Kidd; it was Matthew Trumper. A teacher started reading out names and I was dreading mine being read out. I knew what was coming and, sure enough, all the kids burst into laughter when they heard my name. What’s more, they wanted to find out who I was. At that moment, I felt like it was the rest of the school versus me. It was a feeling that I would become familiar with over the course of my life.

My first week at secondary school seemed to last forever. The process of having to make myself known to all these new people felt so intrusive and unreasonable. For a while, things seemed to get easier, once everyone knew who Matthew Trumper was and they had had their laugh. Once I’d become a little more familiar with the big strange building and with my new teachers. Things settled down and I thought I might be able to get through this after all.

I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I was probably twelve when I suddenly became very uncomfortable with feeling different. Up to then, I’d always been aware that I was different to other children, but it had never really bothered me. I was now trying hard at school, always paying attention and contributing in most lessons. However, most of the children thought this was something at which they could poke fun.

I eventually came to the conclusion, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I became disruptive in class whenever I could get away with it. Over the course of the next five or six years, I turned to shoplifting and petty theft, fighting, underage drinking and trying every substance I came across. I did these things thinking that it would make me more like my peers, who seemed to be enjoying life much more than I was. I always thought that life must be really straightforward for popular people who weren’t routinely teased.

It’s hard to say when I stopped using substances in order to fit in and for the enjoyment they gave me, and when I started to use them to cope with adult life. From an early age though, I always had a preference for substances that helped me to relax, reduced my anxiety, and made me feel like I could be someone else.

Initially, that was mainly alcohol. I had some good experiences with cannabis and LSD, but also plenty of bad experiences. I never took to amphetamines though; something that denied me a night’s sleep was never going to appeal to me that much. Cocaine and ecstasy appealed to me more, but the cost of the club scene didn’t.

3. Wilderness years
I decided my substance of choice when I was 17 years old. The turning point probably came in the aftermath of a drunken night out. I had drunk way more than I could handle and had lost control. I did a number of things that I wouldn’t normally do, and was arrested for assault and criminal damage.

However, it was to get worse. The police were a little too rough for my liking and I started lashing out in an attempt to break free. I punched and kicked anyone who got in my way until I was eventually restrained. I was fortunate enough to avoid a custodial sentence, but the consequences of that night still meant that nights out drinking became less appealing.

Shortly after that night, I started to experiment with heroin and for the first time I felt I’d found a drug that really suited me. In the film Trainspotting, the experience of taking heroin is described as being like, “Multiplying your best orgasm by 1,000”,but as far as I was concerned it was never that powerful. It just gave me a warm, relaxed feeling and made me less anxious. I felt like everything would be okay. It took me a long while to realise that for as long as I continued to take this drug, things would be far from okay.

I was aware that heroin was highly addictive, but at this stage I thought addiction was just a physical thing. It took a fair while for me to develop severe physical withdrawal symptoms, possibly up to 15 months until I was well and truly addicted in that sense. Prior to that, I used heroin as a crutch, as a coping mechanism.

During the first three months or so, I used heroin when I had the money and purely to seek a buzz, but this pattern soon changed. I remember setting off really enthusiastically for a job interview one morning. Unfortunately, I got my directions wrong and missed the interview. I was embarrassed, ashamed and furious with myself. I had £25 of a college friend’s money with which he has asked me to buy him cannabis, but instead I got myself two bags of heroin to wash away the negative emotions. This type of behaviour became fairly typical over the next few years.

For the first year, I smoked heroin and told myself I’d never inject. However, my tolerance to the drug increased and when I couldn’t get a buzz from smoking it, I tried injecting to see if I could get the original buzz. Within five months of injecting for the first time, I was doing so on a daily basis.

I never got too far involved in criminal activities, but I had to find ways of funding my habit, which meant I lost the trust and respect of friends and family. I started by borrowing money that I never intended paying back, then sold household items, and on the odd occasion I stole cash from wallets or purses at home. For a while, I worked as a heroin dealer’s “runner” for three £10 bags of heroin a day. This meant the dealer answered the phone and I met people for him. In short, he was getting most of the profit while I was taking most of the risks.

Within seven or eight months of starting to use heroin, the drug had taken over my life. Although my physical withdrawal symptoms were still fairly mild, I had stopped going out at weekends and my days revolved around scoring and using. I still went to college sometimes and despite my drug use I managed to pass two A levels.

I was now becoming aware that I was developing a real problem. Depression and self-loathing had also kicked in by this stage. Everyone locally knew I was a heroin addict and many people looked down on me. My appearance suffered – tooth decay, weight loss, and bruises and track marks from injecting marked me out as an addict. I looked like shit and I knew it. I questioned whether my non-addict friends would ever have anything to do with me again. 

I started to think that going away to university might be a means of escape. However, I hadn’t done a UCAS form and there wasn’t a great deal of choice through the university clearing process with the points I had from my two A levels. I chose to go to Bretton Hall, a college of the University of Leeds that accepted me on a social sciences degree.

I didn’t realise that Bretton Hall’s main speciality was performing arts. The term ‘culture shock’ doesn’t really begin to describe what I experienced there. I felt like an alien. At the time, I had a very strong Mancunian accent and Liam Gallagher style walk. I just didn’t fit in. During fresher’s week, I chose to spend my grant money on returning to Manchester to buy enough heroin and methadone to make my first couple of weeks just about bearable. (I often bought black-market methadone before I was ever in treatment, as it was cheaper than heroin and stopped me from withdrawing.)

I stayed at Bretton Hall for a year, living in Barnsley during the week and going back to Manchester for the weekends. I usually travelled back on a Thursday evening, as I didn’t have any classes on a Friday. Although I managed to keep my heroin use to the weekends for most of the year, my other efforts at control were less successful. Each week, I told myself that I would stay in Barnsley for a month to shake my habit off once and for all, but after four days of loneliness, discomfort and insomnia, I lost the battle with my willpower.

I found a solution for the mild heroin withdrawal symptoms I experienced in the middle of each week. Someone I knew had managed to obtain a huge script of dihydrocodeine, valium and temazepam and each weekend I bought £20 worth of these substances. I also used cannabis, just to make sure I got a good night’s sleep.

Alcohol then started to creep in to my daily routine as well. There were a lot of ex-miners on my course, looking for new careers following the recent closure of local pits. These guys could really drink and they would follow every lesson with a trip to the student union bar. I felt I fitted in more with the ex-miners than the performing arts students, as they were more down to earth. Needless to say, I did little or no course work.

Sooner or later, this routine was going to come to an end. After my student loan and grant had gone and my first student credit card had run dry, I started to sell things – coats, bikes, CDs, etc. Some things were mine, some belonged to other people. I finally ran out of cash completely.

I then had several failed attempts at detoxing and clean living. On one occasion, I locked myself away in my room with no drugs or alcohol, except a bottle of flu medicine, for a week. By the Saturday, I was starting to feel better physically – at that time, I still thought recovering from addiction was as simple as not having physical withdrawal symptoms.

I managed to get hold of a little bit of money and told myself I should go back to Manchester for a drink to celebrate getting clean. If I had been honest with myself, I would have admitted that I was heading home because I wanted to use. Within two hours of being back in Manchester, I had overdosed in a friend’s house. Even though my tolerance had gone down, I had injected my usual amount of drug.

I was given an injection of naloxone in the hospital to reverse the effects of the heroin; it made my violently ill. As soon as I woke up, the nurse passed me a sick bucket and I vomited. I was then asked to stay in hospital overnight so the nurses could monitor me. However, I discharged myself after a couple of hours so I could buy more heroin, electing to smoke it this time. This near-death experience didn’t really change the way I thought, not for long anyway. Within a few days, I was injecting again.

To be honest, I was often contemplating suicide at this point of my life anyway. (I was only 20 years old). Addiction had truly taken hold of me and a way out started to look less and less likely. I felt like an outcast and I lacked the confidence and belief to create a better life for myself. As I now had no money, I tried unsuccessfully to quit a couple of times, before I realised I could run up more debt if I used my bank card at certain stores. I could get cash back even though I was well over my overdraft limit. I also decided not to pay my last term’s rent.

After failing my first year at university, I had built up huge debts and developed a habit bigger than ever. I reflected on the fact that trying to run away to university to sort my life out probably hadn’t been the best idea I’d ever had. I went back home and signed on the dole. I just let the pressure with the people I owed money to build up for a while.

Salvation of sorts came from an unlikely source. I was signing on one day and the advisor said there was a job opportunity – with no experience necessary – as a cashier in a betting shop. I was interviewed that day and started the following week. For around a year, this job helped me maintain my drug habit whilst paying small amounts each week to my creditors.

I finally realised that it made financial sense to go in to treatment. I had always been put off in the past by the waiting times for treatment, which at the time were four to six months, and always told myself I would be off the drug by then. However, I was slowly starting to realise I probably wouldn’t be.

It took about four months to get a prescription for methadone and once this occurred my life at work was a lot easier. My first experience of treatment was very much focussed on picking up my methadone on a daily basis. In many ways, it was just another addiction and routine to which I was chained. I had a reasonable relationship with my treatment worker, but have few recollections of any conversations about what my recovery might look like. My appointments were fortnightly and lasted between five and ten minutes. The discussion focused on what I had used in the past fortnight and whether or not I had committed any crime.

At the beginning of my prescription, I used on top of my methadone, but not huge amounts. After a few months or so on this prescription, I decided to give up the street drugs, as there didn’t seem to be much point in taking them anymore. The methadone meant I wasn’t suffering from any real withdrawal symptoms and the process of scoring had become a bit of a pain.

This heroin-free period lasted for over a year, at which time I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in a bookies shop. I made plans to reduce and detox off my methadone and then go back to university. I wanted to be free from any form of addiction; you can never truly feel free when the stability of your routine is dependent on your being able to get to the pharmacists.

At this stage (I was now 23), some of my confidence was beginning to return. I was fairly popular at work and realised that many people liked the drug-free Matthew. I started to find my ‘voice’again. In the past when my self-esteem was non-existent, I had just gone along with what other people said, allowing myself to be bossed around and disrespected. I noticed that people tried this less and less once my confidence and ‘voice’ returned.

4. Déjà vu
In April 2002, four months after starting my reduction plan in earnest, I took two weeks off work to do a home detox. The community drugs team sent a nurse out twice a day to provide me with medication and moral support throughout the detox. My treatment worker also visited on two or three occasions. However, the withdrawal symptoms lasted more than two weeks; three months later, I still didn’t feel well. I left work in mid-August ahead of starting university again in September, but ended up sitting around all day feeling sorry for myself. I started using heroin.

By the time I started university, Leeds Met this time, I had developed a heroin habit again. This year at university didn’t prove much different to my last attempt. I made an effort to stay in Leeds and move away from heroin, but turned to other substances -alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. I fell behind with my work.

After a while, I began thinking that nothing else could give me the comfort which heroin did. I was soon catching the train back to Manchester to buy a few bags of heroin, telling myself I’d make them stretch over the week, only to go back again a couple of days later. I repeated the pattern of leaving university after a year, having failed the year and built up huge debts with banks and landlords.

By this stage, I had lost every ounce of my self-esteem. I felt as if I had let everyone down and proved once again that I didn’t have the self-discipline to truly better myself. The only friends I’d made were heavy drinkers and drug users – “like attracts like”, I told myself. I was now 24 years old and I had yet to form any constructive relationships or ties away from drugs and alcohol. I felt like an outcast, a let-down, and went back to what I knew best. The suicidal thoughts came back and I often injected a dose of heroin which I hoped would kill me. I blacked out for a couple of hours on more than one occasion, but always came around.

On returning to Manchester, I took a job as an assistant manager of a betting shop. I was using more than I had ever done in the past, at least £30 (often more) a day on heroin and topping this up with valium and temazepam.  This level of use caused me a lot of problems. People at work were often suspicious as to why I looked so tired and sleepy all the time and relationships with my family were strained to the limit. My mother and brother repeatedly found needles and other drugs paraphernalia in my room. Living with me was becoming impossible.

After somehow getting through eight months of this hell, I decided to go back in to treatment, where I was prescribed 60ml of methadone. Over the next year or so, I managed to reduce my illicit drug use a lot. Moreover, without the influence of my university mates, I wasn’t drinking much at all.

However, I became more of a loner and isolated myself as often as I could. I didn’t really have the confidence or self-esteem to go out and make new friends. I started to once more feel like I had addict tattooed across my forehead and questioned why anyone would want to have anything to do with me. I still had the occasional bag of heroin and got myself some tablets (benzodiazepines and dihydrocodeine) once a fortnight. I used these drugs to combat the utter loneliness and emptiness I felt.

Eventually, I replaced heroin and tablets with comfort eating and gambling. I worked long hours and made the long days more bearable by filling my face and betting on the horses and football.  The horses and football made way for roulette machines. It only took about three months of betting on roulette machines for me to become well and truly addicted. I just loved the thrill of being able to bet over and over again without a break in-between.

5. My rock bottom
I started by betting on machines in other shops, before I turned to using the machines in my own shop and eventually borrowing the shop’s money to use the machines. I got away with this theft for a good while, possibly four or five months, although I often had to use most of my wages to pay back the money I had borrowed. On the occasions I did win big, it made me feel like a success. I loved having hundreds of pounds in my pocket. It made me feel better about myself; the only problem was that it never stayed there for long.

One morning, I had a particularly bad losing streak and when I was down £2,500 I realised enough was enough. I phoned my employer to confess everything and they informed me they would be phoning the police. The reality of the situation started to take hold. I had been telling myself I was doing okay because I wasn’t using heroin, but now it was pretty clear I was far from okay. I could now be facing a custodial sentence. I weighed over eighteen stones, my teeth were rotting and I hated myself. It was finally time to make some lasting changes.

The police arrived. I knew straight away that things would never be the same again for me. The police were much friendlier than the last time I was arrested! They told me I would only be charged with one count of theft and would most likely avoid a prison sentence as a result.

It was a long, long road back from that point (February 2007), but right from the start I had motivation and determination like never before. It was like all of a sudden I had woken up to what the rest of my life would be like if I didn’t tackle my addiction. It felt this was the ‘last chance saloon’. I’d kind of got by somehow until this point, but now I knew I was on the verge of losing everything. My life was certainly going to change one-way or the other, and I was determined that it was going to be for the better.

I had turned to drink, drugs and gambling to deal with the pain and misery I associated with my life and my inability to ‘fit in’. I fell in to a pattern every time I felt uncomfortable and unhappy. It was as much about having a crutch and a routine, as it was about any particular drug. My routine of using methadone, overeating and gambling had been broken by my arrest and subsequent unemployment. The breaking of this routine was probably just as big a factor as anything else in making me realise that I needed to change.

I had never seen myself working in a bookies for the rest of my life. I’d always viewed my job as something to fall back on if nothing else worked out. Now that my fall-back position had disappeared, I had to start thinking about, and planning for, what I really wanted from life. Any kind of positive future would require a lot of hard work. I would have to take myself right out of my comfort zone. I would have to do meet new people, form new relationships, learn new skills, and plan and organise. All the things with which I had traditionally struggled!

I had to start rebuilding relationships with my family, and spend time talking to my mum and my brothers about what I should do now. I needed to try and solve problems together with them. I had to stop living in my own private world and avoid the temptation to sit in my room alone.

I remember returning home from the police station after being charged and bailed and saying to mum, “I’m sorry.”She just replied, “I know.” My family believed me when I said this would be the turning point. This belief was incredibly important to me, particularly as I had I half-expected them to disown me. I was scared I would have to deal with the change in my life all on my own and it was a great relief that I didn’t have to do this.

For the first couple of months, I focused on getting my finances sorted out and the court case out of the way. Getting back on benefits was a struggle at first. I had to keep describing the circumstances of losing my job and my employers were slow in providing the letters I needed to prove my employment had been terminated. I had to get help from Tameside council to write letters to my creditors with offers to pay £1 a month so they would stop phoning me every day. Until my claim for benefits had been processed, I wasn’t eligible for legal aid and for this reason the court case kept getting adjourned.

It felt like I wasn’t being allowed to get on with the rest of my life. However, these problems didn’t affect my motivation to change too much. I was also managing to stick to my methadone script, without using heroin or tablets, and without drinking or gambling. At this stage, having no money probably helped me curb my addictive behaviours.

My benefits claim was finally processed and I had my pre-sentence probation report written, recommending a six-month community order. The magistrates went with the recommendation and I still remember what they said to me just before I left the courtroom: “Mr Trumper, make the most of this opportunity to make a fresh start.”

I had every intention of following this advice, although I didn’t know what direction my life would take. By this stage, I had been suffering from addiction problems of one form or another for just over a decade. They had taken more or less all of my adult life away from me. I was now twenty-eight years old. It was time for a new chapter in my life before I reached my thirties.

6. A fresh start
My motivation to make lasting changes grew after the immediate crises in my life were resolved. I decided to diet and exercise more, and tackle the daily methadone (60ml) habit that acted as my comfort blanket. At this point, I was still seeing the drugs team once a fortnight and visiting the pharmacist’s on a daily basis to pick up my methadone. I hated going to the pharmacist’s. You can’t deny you’re still an addict when your morning routine revolves around obtaining your substance. Legal or illegal, more harmful or less harmful, it’s still an addiction as far as I am concerned. I wanted to be free from any kind of addiction, once and for all.

I spent around a year working on myself and tackling my demons. I had to deal with a lot of inner pain. For example, I’d never really dealt with being bullied at school and I still felt like a victim. The feeling I had at school of it being ‘everyone else versus me’ had stayed with me. I also had this inner voice telling me that people were trying to ‘take the piss’. In the past, I had always blocked these thoughts out with drugs, but this was no longer a viable option.

I now started to challenge the way I was thinking, and the way I had isolated myself and taken things for granted. There are lots of thinking distortions you go through as an addict, such as minimising and blaming, consuming yourself with self-doubt and guilt, isolating yourself and withdrawing into your own world. It’s not easy to break free from all of this, but I knew I had to do just that. I also realised that I needed to grow up and learn the practical day-to-day things that are part of living a normal life.

I shed two stone, had my remaining teeth fixed, and got dentures to replace the teeth I had lost. (Heroin addiction tends to go hand-in-hand with tooth decay, as dental hygiene tends to go out of the window when you’re using).

I completed my probation order and community service (painting walls to cover up graffiti) successfully, and started to reduce my methadone dose. These reductions in dose were of my own doing. I had to regularly ask the drug treatment team to reduce my methadone dose and was sometimes discouraged from doing so. However, I was determined enough to always measure out 5ml less in my dose each day for a fortnight. When the dose was reduced, I again took 5ml less than prescribed.

I really wanted a better life for myself, but at times I did get a little de-motivated by my employment prospects. It seemed unlikely to me that I would ever get a job with any real level of responsibility again and every advisor I spoke to seemed to agree with me. I had a two-week work trial at a foundry and absolutely hated it. I realised just how difficult it would be for me to work in a job like that for any length of time.

I was referred to an abstinence-based treatment service towards the end of my probation order. For the first time in my life, the treatment I received amounted to more than the same old questions about whether I was using on top of my script and whether or not I’d committed any crime since I was last seen by the service. I wouldn’t say that any of what I now received was life-changing in its own right, but it definitely helped having hour-long key work sessions as well as access to support groups with other people in recovery.

[It is hard to say with any certainty whether I would have been motivated enough to engage with such a service in the past. I sometimes wonder whether the five-minute sessions and prescription were all I really wanted most of the time I was in active addiction.]

I had started to engage in something meaningful that involved other people for the first time in many years. It was good to be interacting with, and be accepted by, people who were not using, and to be in a situation where people wanted to help each other. Moreover, discovering people like me at a time I didn’t feel worthy of being liked had a positive impact on my self-esteem. All of this helped me to recover emotionally little by little.

I started to think about being a drug and alcohol treatment worker in the future. I applied to join a training course called ‘Bridging the Gap’,which is for people who want to pursue a career in the drug and alcohol field. However, I discovered that a course had just started and I would have to wait six months for the next one.

I enrolled on an ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) course through learndirect and this helped me pass the time – feeling bored had often been a trigger for my using in the past. The course also made me much more confident in using computers.

On the whole, I was starting to feel much more relaxed and in charge of my life. I had been a broken man in the first few months after losing my job, but now I was finally starting to feel free from my addictions and feel comfortable with who I was as a person. I’d reached something as close to a peace of mind as I’d ever known. The one thing that still really bothered me was the fear I had that I’d never get a job that I enjoyed. I continued to pin all my hopes on working in the drug and alcohol field, since I just couldn’t see any other options.

I also struggled to make new friends. I was still very isolated and this meant I spent too much time on my own worrying about the direction my life was heading and not enough time with people I could talk to about these worries. I didn’t like to burden my family, as I didn’t want them to think I was struggling and might relapse. However, I managed to deal with the problems and insecurities around my isolation, because it was always clear in my mind that I couldn’t go back to addiction again. I always felt that if I did, I would ruin the rest of my life.

Another thing I did at this time was to change my name by deed poll. I had considered this many times since turning eighteen, as the name Trumper always brought back memories of the bullying at school. I now decided it was time to finally just do it. A true fresh start required a new name and I took the name of my maternal grandfather – I became Matthew Kidd.

7. A man with a plan
The six months finally passed and I started on the Bridging the Gap course. It was coming up to two years since my appearance in court and I now had a clear plan in place in my mind. I would finish detoxing off my substitute medication whilst on the course and then start voluntary work and hopefully be in a job within a year or two. By this stage, I had gone from 60ml of methadone a day down to around 8mg of subutex. I’d be out of treatment services in a few months and could then look forward to my new career.

However, it soon became clear that things wouldn’t be that simple. Most treatment services wanted you to be two years out of treatment and at least two years drug-free before you could even start any voluntary work. On hearing this, I started to wonder whether my desire to work in the drug and alcohol field was worthwhile. Two years seems like a life-time when you’ve got little to do to fill your time.

In the past, these sorts of difficulty would have easily knocked me off track, but this time around it was different. I was determined to get to my‘destination’ somehow, even if it took another two years. I told myself I would see things through. At the same time, I must have sounded like a broken record:“What do they expect us to do after this course? Go and sit and twiddle our thumbs for two years and then come back to volunteer?”

Whilst on this course, I met Michaela Jones, who was involved in the local service user forum. She convinced me to join, although I had mixed feelings about doing so. I was uncomfortable with being referred to as a service user or even an ex-service user. However, I did get lots of social support from other group members, which was of great benefit. For the first time in many years, I started to develop real friendships.

I believe that anyone who spends more than a decade in addiction will end up with certain emotional and behavioural problems. A lot of people talk about your emotional development standing still whilst you use opiates, as the drugs numb you emotionally and stop you from having to truly deal with any of your problems. What I started to experience in recovery was a need to get to know and understand myself. I started to ask, “Why couldn’t I be the person I truly wanted to be?”

I also remember really struggling with developing a feeling of familiarity with people again. I didn’t know how to handle thinking about other people’s needs and often second-guessed what they thought of me. For a while, I was continuously trying to people please. I wanted to be liked and needed by people and I worried that this would mean having to always act in a certain way.

When people acted in a way I interpreted as being bad, I often took it personally, believing that I must have done something wrong. I didn’t understand that a person can act badly because of something that was going on in their life, something that was independent of me. A person’s behaviour can change depending on how they are feeling, the type of day they’ve had, the pressure they’re facing. I erroneously thought I was somehow responsible for the inconsistencies in their behaviour.

I was feeling drained by this constant worry and effort. Building relationships had both pros and cons. I was happier that I wasn’t bored, isolated and depressed anymore, but finding a new purpose and social network came with its own set of pressures, anxieties and insecurities. It all started to get a bit too much for me and on one occasion I shouted at my new friends for no good reason. I was then looking for answers. Why had I sabotaged my new-found friendships? Why had I lashed out at people as they grew close to me?

8. New insights and facilitators of recovery
Even as a child, I had experienced difficulties in social interactions and fitting into a world that I didn’t really understand. A possible explanation for these problems was suggested to me whilst we were on a family holiday around this time; some family members suspected I had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.

[Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s syndrome or Asperger disorder, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. (Wikipedia)]

At first, I reacted defensively. I knew I could be socially awkward at times, but I told people I couldn’t be autistic as I had worked with the public for years and this would be impossible for someone with autism.

When I returned from holiday, I became more intrigued as to why some people thought I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I felt insulted and wanted to prove them wrong.

However, as I started to read up on Asperger’s, I suddenly thought,“Oh my god! This explains my whole life.” My reading helped me understand that autism exists on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are people with mild Asperger’s who struggle with social interactions to some extent, but who live independently and have satisfying and successful lives. At the other end of the spectrum are people with autism at a level that prevents them from living independently and makes more or less every social interaction difficult.

I started to feel a bit better, even more so when I read I was in good company. Bill Gates and Albert Einstein were reported to have Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s also tend to be loyal and dependable, qualities to which I aspire. The only part of the description I wasn’t comfortable with was the idea of it being a ‘syndrome’, i.e. it was there for life. This made me feel somewhat doomed to a life in which relationships and friendships were every bit as confusing and hard work as I had always found them to be.

When I went to see my doctor, he told me that although I would always have Asperger’s, I could learn to manage it much better the more I understood it.

I managed to successfully exit drug and alcohol treatment services by taking measured reductions in my subutex until I felt ready to stop taking the drug altogether. By this time, I believed that ongoing peer support would best help me maintain my recovery. Although I had benefited a great deal from my treatment keywork sessions in the aftermath of losing my job, I no longer needed them.

I was now drug-free and hadn’t gambled since two months after losing my job in the bookies. I drank with family members on occasion, but rarely to excess and never more than for a night or two at a time. I now wanted to be free from all prescriptions and professional support and to be able to stand on my own two feet.

Things began to change when Michaela launched a community interest company called uchooseit, which provided me with the vehicle to prove myself. Uchooseit was a peer support service, a community of recovery. It provided a range of support for people, no matter what their stage of recovery, from resolving practical problems to offering volunteering opportunities.

The early days at uchooseit were a period of marked transition and a challenge for me, getting back into the routine of work for the first time since losing my job. I had finally been offered an opportunity, although at this stage it was voluntary work rather than paid employment. However, the position still came with responsibility and an opportunity to develop and progress.

Initially, I struggled a lot with feelings of pressure and fear of getting it wrong, although I didn’t realise that 95% of the pressure was generated by me. Moreover, the people who had previously provided my social support had now suddenly became my work colleagues and this was something that took lots of getting used to for me.

My emotions were all over the place and my mood was up and down a lot. At times, I felt like I was having a breakdown. My emotions became increasingly powerful and hard to deal with. I sometimes felt very lonely, and at other times I felt really frustrated at the way my life was turning out. I might have been approaching my thirtieth birthday, but I was still learning how to cope with adult life for the first time.

Fortunately, around this time I found two great sources of support, in the form of Wired In and SMART Recovery. Both of these forms of support really helped me through the transition in to a responsible adult life without drugs and gambling.

We first started using the web community Wired In To Recovery after attending a recovery conference in Stockport. I remember being very impressed by the number of supportive comments I got after writing my first blog and was immediately hooked. I loved the recognition and understanding I got from other members of the community when I blogged.

I soon started commenting on other people’s blogs, hoping that this would help them in the same way I’d been helped by other people’s comments. I started to blog regularly and found Wired In to be a great source of inspiration and motivation. I was always left with a desire to tell the world about my latest thoughts on the recovery movement.

SMART stands for self-management and recovery training and it is an alternative peer support group to 12-step based groups. SMART uses tools and techniques to help you identify and challenge any irrational beliefs you have which may lead to urges or thoughts and feelings about substance use. It also helps a person build motivation, cope with urges or cravings, solve problems and achieve lifestyle balance. What impressed me about SMART meetings was the balance that was struck between being relaxed and informal, yet serious enough for you to be able to work through whatever issues were bothering you that week.

We made the decision to set up a local SMART group in early 2010, as there were none in our area. We found this to be a relatively easy process, as all the relevant literature is available to download online. Carl Cundall visited our first meetings in Tameside and provided facilitator training. Following this, it was just a case of practicing and learning as we went along.

I have attended virtually every SMART meeting in Tameside since we established the group and still use some of the tools and worksheets on myself when I’m feeling low. SMART hasn’t freed me of all my irrational beliefs, but it has helped me recognise them and challenge myself when I find myself thinking that way. Now, if I ever find myself thinking that people don’t like me or that I can’t bear it when I feel stressed or frustrated, I know how to identify these thoughts as irrational and unhelpful beliefs.

Around this time, I began to realise that I didn’t actually want to be a drugs worker or a counsellor; my real interest was in learning and development. I did some mentoring on the next Bridging the Gap course and really enjoyed the experience. The mentoring involved befriending the students and helping them with any problems they were experiencing with the group work or academic side of things.

After a bit of a push from Michaela, and a huge leap of faith personally, I enrolled on a two-year foundation degree course in training and work-based learning. This was a University of Sunderland course delivered at Tameside college. This proved to be one of the best decisions I have ever made and successfully completing the course is one of my proudest achievements. I am now converting the foundation degree to an honours degree in education and development.

As soon as the training and professional development of our volunteers became my main focus at uchooseit, I started to enjoy my work even more. I started to design my own volunteering training programmes, as well as support volunteers through their NVQs by providing advice and guidance. For a while, we were all happy and Michaela and I remained very much aligned with the national recovery movement, getting involved with Wired In, the Recovery Academy and several other recovery-focused groups and forums.

9. A stumbling block?
Sadly, we were not able to get funding for uchooseit, despite the significant impact this initiative was having on people’s lives. It seemed that we were ineligible to apply for most streams of funding. One major obstacle was that many funding streams require companies to have two years’ trading accounts before you are eligible to receive funding. After five months of working full-time whilst struggling to make ends meet, Michaela and I made a joint decision to discontinue uchooseit in February 2011.

You begin to question everything at a time like this. uchooseit had changed so much in Tameside – all in a positive way – and was highly regarded by the many people it had helped. Why didn’t the system find a way of funding such a successful initiative? What would happen now? Would the peer support we had developed disappear? Would the appreciation of the value of volunteering be lost?

These sorts of issues were really important to me personally, particularly as I might not have been in my current situation if it wasn’t for the peer support and volunteering opportunities I had received. If I’d had to go back to the foundry or the job club, and if I’d had to return to the misery, depression, isolation and feelings of being a misfit, then surely I’d have sought a comfort behaviour to take the pain away. It was what I had done my whole life.

It’s only natural to worry about your personal position at a time like this. As much as I’d worked on myself and developed personally, and as much education as I’d received, I knew that many employers wouldn’t be able to see past my ‘theft from employer’ conviction. I could so easily be back to square one now that uchooseit had dissolved. All the insecurities and worries about my long-term future now came back. A satisfying career was something that I didn’t think I could live without in the long-term.

At the same time as experiencing these concerns, I started to question myself whether my thoughts should be focused on myself, when many other people had been affected by uchooseit’s closing. In the end, I told myself I had to look after my own interests first, but I did carry around a lot of guilt about this decision.

10. Take two and the future
Luckily, I was offered a job coordinating the volunteer peer mentor scheme we had earlier established as a partnership between uchooseit and probation. I currently fulfil this role as a full-time employee of the probation service in Tameside.

At times, life feels strange. Five years ago, I was on a probation order as an offender and now I work for the probation service. I could have never imagined when the magistrate told me to make the most of the opportunity for a fresh start that I’d end up here. It has been a long, long journey. I am still learning from my mistakes as I go along. I’m still trying to develop and better myself. I still question myself a lot and often focus on my weaknesses. However, every now and then I just sit back and reflect on what I’ve managed to fit in to the last five years.

My next goals are more personal than professional. I’m working on my physical health and currently exercising far more than I have done at any point since leaving school. I am beginning to feel the benefits. I recently ran 10km for charity, something I never thought I’d do. I also want to tackle the self-doubt and social anxiety that I still suffer from, and then I want to learn to drive.

It often feels like I have to fit ten or fifteen years of growing up in to five years to try and compensate for my addiction. I know it will all be worth it in the end. I’m just as determined as ever to reach my full potential, but now I feel that by reaching my personal goals the professional ones will fall in to place.

Living life and coping without resorting to addictive behaviour isn’t always easy, but I do manage independently now. Sometimes, it feels as though there aren’t enough hours in the day. I am connected to a network of people now, which means I would find it hard to bury my head like an ostrich or isolate myself in the way that I used to.

However, I won’t lie and pretend that sometimes I didn’t wish that I had a hiding place. But you have to balance that with the flip side to this; when you isolate yourself it’s extremely difficult to get the support at the times you need it most. The feelings of loneliness and desperation I used to suffer have been minimised. I feel more comfortable in social situations. I have faith in myself to handle new situations.

Lately, I have started to question whether I actually do have Asperger’s syndrome. In his book ‘The Psychopath Test’, Jon Ronson argues that society has moved towards diagnosing all awkwardness and eccentricity as conditions and disorders. I now find meeting new people and being introduced to new situations and changes a lot easier. I have matured a lot emotionally and don’t feel the need to second-guess people’s thinking quite as much. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t blame myself for other people’s inconsistent behaviour anywhere near as much.

On the other hand, there are other things that suggest I do have Asperger’s. Did you ever have a feeling of being pre-occupied when you were with company? Like everyone else was “tuned in” to the conversation, but you were just waiting to get away? Well, I’ve had that feeling my whole life. The only way for me to deal with it is to make the effort to tune in to that conversation, to feel the awkwardness but fight it until it goes away.

I am able to have both romantic relationships and friendships now without it causing major emotional and psychological distress. I have been in a romantic relationship for four months with a wonderful woman who I can trust and never worry about her questioning me. At times in the past, I’ve doubted whether this was at all possible for me.

I suppose ultimately it matters little whether I have Asperger’s or not. If I do, I have learned to manage it effectively enough to live a full and satisfying life free from addiction. If I don’t have Asperger’s, then I can just be a bit socially awkward. Maybe we shouldn’t feel the need to categorise this in to a condition or a disorder? In any case, I can manage this awkwardness now without the need to run to any “comfort” behaviour.

A few months ago, I finally took the plunge and moved out of my mum’s house. I had been living there ever since returning from my second failed attempt at university. I had been talking about the need to move out for a while, but had reservations about my ability to cope, both financially and in terms of keeping on top of household tasks. At many other times in my life I would have crumbled under this added pressure, but now I’m ready for it.

Having a job that I enjoy is at times a double-edged sword. When it goes well it is really satisfying, but it is also a job from which it is impossible just to switch off. My work and personal life often become blurred and some days just never seem to end. But on the whole, I wouldn’t change it. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the misery of working in the foundry or in the bookies.

My appetite for recovery is as strong as ever, although sometimes I get frustrated at not being able to change the world overnight. I sometimes question whether or not I can really make a difference. The insecurities and the growing pains are still there. The wounds are beginning to heal, but the scars still show. I suppose I still need that affirmation and day-to-day support of other people. I don’t know whether that is healthy or normal at this stage of recovery. I suppose what it does show is the value of recovery networks.

What I now need to learn how to achieve is that precious 4th point of the SMART recovery programme, lifestyle balance. I need more hobbies, interests and friends outside of my work life. I still put too much pressure on myself, but I know that I’ll get there in the long run. Maintaining my recovery hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it.

Matthew’s Story (pdf)