Mental Health Awareness Week
Please meet my friend Mark, an insightful and sensitive man who has asked me to help him share the story of his life experiences so that others might perhaps avoid the cycle of homelessness and drugs that has held him in its grip for some twenty-five years.
Mark is not using drugs currently. We meet in the dockland area of Liverpool at Cotton Street Homeless Shelter, a bright and non-judgemental safe environment for people in need. The city is not his natural environment, he feels much more at ease in the peace of woodlands and hills in north Wales, where his story began.
Mark was born in Wrexham. When he was just a few months old, his parents carried out an armed robbery on a local post office. They were captured and held in custody. For two days they did not reveal that they had left two babies home alone. Police rescued Mark and his sister Katrina and took both siblings to a foster family in the rural village of Rhydymwyn in the upper Alyn valley.
While the area is known for mineral works and a quarry, the pastoral scenery moved Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) to compose ‘The Rivulet’, a short piano piece that evokes the serenity of the landscape. The German composer stayed with a family friend in the village and wrote to his father, ‘Wales is a wonderfully beautiful country, but this sheet is so small that I will have to describe it to you in person.’
His connection with Rhydymwyn is celebrated on an inscribed plaque on Nant Alyn Road. Author Charles Kingsley also receives an honourable mention, he too loved the wooded landscape and walked with streams through the hills.
For Mark, a young boy taken into the care of a foster family, Rhydymwyn was a special place to grow up. ‘I don’t know much about my biological parents’ he explains. ‘My mum was an alcoholic, I know that. But I call Doug and my Margaret my parents. I was with them and their three children for a long time. I wasn’t adopted but it was home with them.’
In a village of around eight hundred people, everybody knew everyone else’s business. Mark’s parents were respected in the community and his dad worked at the mine.
Mark was a nature boy, exploring caves, scrambling through woods, following trails. ‘I miss it’ he says. The family lived next door to the quarry from where rock was transported to build coastal defenses.
The boyhoood thrill of watching of watching rumbling trucks pass to and fro inspired Mark to become a lorry driver. ‘I never made it’ he laughs. ‘I wasn’t allowed into the quarry grounds but I’d stand by the gate, waiting to ask the drivers where they were going. They all knew me and my dad knew them. In the summer holidays I was allowed to ride with them. I loved it. If I got lucky, I could do several trips a day to the sea defences at New Brighton and Colwyn Bay.
I remember a time when it was really wild at Colwyn Bay, there were huge waves on the beach and I was watching from the lorry. It was special! On the journey the drivers would ask if I was behaving myself for mum and dad. Sometimes I got into mischief and in the small village I was usually blamed for all kind things I hadn’t done. I was accused of smashing up a greenhouse once but we were away that bank holiday weekend.’ Though his parents made Mark’s innocence clear, the child never received an apology from his accusers.
‘I was troublesome though’ Mark admits freely. ‘I didn’t feel right in school. I was struggling; I found it hard to control my temper. I had tantrums. Looking back, I was disruptive. So I’d bunk off. I’d go to the caves or the woods. It was peaceful there. I’d just sit and watch the badgers. My dad usually knew where to find me and he’d take me home. Though there was a ruined church in the hills he didn’t know about.’ He smiles at the memory.
Mark recognises that his loving foster family did their best to keep him safe but as he grew older, they struggled to cope. Social services offered them a respite break and sent Mark to a north Wales children’s home. He remains unable to speak of the trauma he experienced there.
On return to the family home he had nightmares. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I went into mum and dad’s room; I woke them up and told them I knew I was going to be sent back to the children’s home. They sent me to bed but sure enough, I was right. When they needed a break later, I got sent back to Broughton. It was a horrible experience.’ I see in Mark’s face, and in the tension overtaking his body, how deeply painful trauma remains.
‘We had a good life.’ he says, changing direction. ‘We had family holidays once a year. We didn’t go abroad, we stayed in Wales. Mum and dad taught me a lot. When I needed stuff like trainers, mum would deduct a bit of my pocket money to show me the importance of saving up and the value of things.’
And while Mark was a challenge, he knew instinctively where to find peace for himself. ‘I always had those places, the caves, the woods, the dilapidated old church, where I’d feel comfy and at ease. Sometimes I’d cry to myself in my own space where I could just be me, away from everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I had mates in the village but I liked my own space. I needed it, still do.’
Mark left home after his fifteenth birthday, though he stayed in the village, moving in with a friend’s family. He quit school to work as a labourer in a steel and timber yard in Buckley. When he was sixteen he got a flat of his own. Around this time his sister was in a relationship with a man she was to marry.
‘I begged her not to marry him’ Mark remembers. ‘I thought she was too young. She didn’t need a wedding certificate to live with him.’ When he heard from others that she was being abused, he went to see her at work.
She had black eyes and wounds across her face. ‘I could see what he had done to my sister; my only real family, and I knew I had to do something to stop him. Straight away I went and bought a can of petrol and poured it through their letterbox. I set their flat on fire. At the time, I wanted him to be in there. Now I am glad he wasn’t.’
Mark was arrested for arson, convicted and sent to a young offenders establishment in Shropshire. ‘I was detained for five years. I knew I had done wrong. I accepted my punishment and knew I just had to get on with prison. My sister divorced her husband after the fire and we stayed strong together.’
Reaching his twenty first birthday, Mark was moved to Walton prison in Liverpool. ‘I’d heard about it and I was terrified. I learned to keep my mouth shut. I learned you have to keep your head down and just get on with your jail. I didn’t think about anything else. You blank things out just to get through. Prison is volatile. Things happen that might not be your fault but you can get pulled in. So I stayed out of trouble and I didn’t give cheek to the officers.’
In this environment, Mark discovered drugs. ‘Prison woke me up to another world. I was a kid from a sleepy village in Wales. I’d never used drugs but going to jail was a culture shock. One day the vicar came to see me. He told me Doug, my foster dad, had an aggressive form of cancer. When he left, my pad mate asked if I wanted heroin. I turned it down but later, when I was looking at him, all smashed and relaxed on the bed, I thought I want to be like that and so I took a smoke. I knew nothing about addiction. I didn’t know then what heroin would do to me. I just knew you got off your cake.’
‘By the time I left prison at twenty-three, I was a heroin addict and didn’t even realise it. A mate told me. He’d come to pick me up, and as were driving back to Rhyl, he noticed I was feeling sick. He was using himself and recognised the symptoms. He offered me a smoke, said it would sort me out. It did. I felt brand new. That’s when I realised I needed heroin, not for the buzz, but just to function.’
Breaking free from heroin is a monumental achievement and addiction remains a daily battle even in recovery. Mark has been in and out of drug use for years. ‘I’d get clean for a long time and then something would happen in my life and I’d go back to it, and the stealing, the robbing cars and breaking into houses to fund it. I’d get caught, I’d go back to prison and I’m not proud of any of it.’
Five years ago, Mark became aware of an abscess in the groin area of his right leg. ‘I knew it was there, I felt it. But the next fix was more important. I’d say ‘I’ll go to the doctor after the next fix.’ That was more of a priority to me than getting the doctor.’
When the abscess burst, Mark was in his council flat and fortunate to be with friends who called an ambulance. Rushed to hospital, he learned his leg would be amputated and he wouldn’t be going anywhere for six months.
‘I lost my flat while I was in there because it wasn’t suitable for a wheelchair user. I felt like scum in hospital. I was a drug user and I’d done this to myself. I just shut down from everyone.’
When the time came to leave, Mark was deemed, by Chester Council, to have made himself homeless intentionally because his flat was unsuitable for a wheelchair user. ‘I came out of hospital and went to the homeless hostels but they had no places available for people with wheelchairs so I stayed on the streets. Later the council found me a room for thirty days at a Travelodge in Liverpool. After that, payment stopped and I went back to the street. Now I’m here and I want to make changes.’
‘None of this is self pity. I don’t blame anyone for where I am. I got myself here and there comes a time when you need to make change. If I don’t, I’ll be in the ground.’ I ask Mark about the bandage on his leg. ‘I had cuts and scratched at the scabs. My fingers were dirty from the street. The cuts got infected and turned into ulcers.’
Mark has asked me to share his story with you because he is determined to raise awareness of how choices around drugs impact the users, their families and friends.
‘If I can change one life, for someone not to use any drug – cannabis, ecstasy, spice, heroin and all the rest – then I’ve achieved something. I want people to just say no. Please don’t make the choices I did.’
And if Mark could have three wishes, what might they be?
‘First I’d have my family back. After dad and mum died, our family split and I’ve lost touch with all of them, including my sister. Second, I’d have my leg back. And third, I would not have made the mistakes I’ve made in life.’
This takes you to a version of Mendelssohn’s beautiful ‘Rivulet’