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On the path to progress: Tommy’s story

“I couldn’t wish for a better job. I know from experience that making just the smallest difference to someone means everything.”

From 1990 until 2013, I was a heroin addict. I also took crack, amphetamines – anything really. And I’d been in prison. From day to day, I was just doing everything that society doesn’t approve of.

Eventually, when I’d stopped taking drugs, I decided I wanted to do something different, so I started volunteering at the Pennine Care drug team. I did that for about 18 months. Somehow, I ended  up being a service user representative in the tender process for Pathways when it started in April 2014. About six months later, once Big Life had started to deliver the service, I applied for a role as part of a programme for people who’ve previously been using services, and I got the job!

When I first started working, I’d not had a legitimate job for more than 20 years – even then, they were jobs that involved no policies or procedures – it was all short term and cash in hand. I had absolutely no knowledge of real work. My fear was that I was asking dumb questions – it stopped me from asking.

When I first started working at Pathways, my first instinct when someone asked me about my weaknesses or background – even though they wanted to help – was to say ‘nothing’. But Jo, who interviewed me, really made me understand that my history wouldn’t go against me. I use that memory now with volunteers when I ask that question – I tell them my story so they don’t just say ‘nothing’.

Of course I had weaknesses – I had anxiety and I was on medication. What was great was that Jo was very open with me that she had her own history of mental health problems, and that made it easier for me to open up about my own issues. Now I’m on the other side of the fence, I try to remember what it was like to be a service user. When I used to ring services, some people would talk to me like I wasn’t a normal human being, because of all the stigma that goes with drug use.

I know that a lot of people get flustered and nervous when they call Pathways, so I make sure to put them at ease and tell them to take their time. I feel like I have a really good understanding of the reality that our service users face. I couldn’t wish for a better job than this, because I know from experience that making just the smallest difference to someone means everything.

Everybody’s journey is unique, and everyone who’s in recovery will have ups and downs. But when you know that support is there from your employer, it’s massive. It’s important that people know
that having mental health or drug problems isn’t the end of the road – I’m proof of that.

Pathways was a confidential and personalised alcohol and drug recovery service delivered by Big Life from 2013 to 2017. It worked from community settings with people in Rochdale, Heywood, Middleton and the Pennines.