“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been someone’s project” [Part 1/5: An Impossible Start to Life]

John’s life has been one of violence, abuse and institutions – but scratch the surface and you see resilience, recovery and the chance of a new life. 

By Richard Dawson

I met John in Birmingham’s quaint Victorian Tea Rooms, where over coffee he told me his life story – a story dominated by trauma, violence and navigating Britain’s prison system.

The setting is important, because it’s such a far cry from any of the places you’d associate with John’s story – and an indication of the considerable progress he has made over the last few years, as he builds a new identity and life for himself.

Part 1: An impossible start to life

John grew up in a troubled environment. He spent the first eight years of his life in foster care before living with his Mother, who was an alcoholic, until he was 15 when he returned to care. As a child he experienced serious physical and emotional abuse, which developed into deep-seated psychological issues and would influence much of his adult life.

The wider community was socially and economically deprived with little opportunity or stability for the likes of John. “No-one had anything”, he recalls. Hanging around with older men – some twice his age – and starting to get involved in crime seemed like the only route out; not only did this offer a teenage John money, status and respect, he also felt a sense of belonging and stability.

John was 13 years old when he began to develop a serious dependence on alcohol. “Due to the abuse I was often socially withdrawn. But the alcohol took that away; I felt more confident, more outgoing.” He started by taking his Mum’s alcohol substitute to school to consume with his friends – but soon the social element faded and John started to drink alone: “by 15 I was a full blown alcoholic.”

It was at this time that John became more involved with crime: “I started with small jobs, often because of my size I’d have to get through windows to unlock and open doors.” He recalled the feeling of being 14 years old, driving around with one of the area’s prominent criminals and how it provided a sense of fulfilment and dignity– two things in short supply in such deprived communities.

“They used to have money, nice cars, respect – I wanted that for myself.” At 14, he had taught himself to drive solely by stealing cars. Less than two years later, he found himself in his first Young Offending Institute. “It was short, but bad – I didn’t cope with it very well. But I wasn’t deterred from doing more crime.”

Just 3 weeks after his first stint, John was back on the inside, this time for 20 months. A cycle of re-offending soon developed:

“I didn’t have anyone around me, didn’t have any stable factors. I just couldn’t break the cycle – when I got out, the same people used to meet me at the train station. These were my family, we knew intimate details about each other. It was very hard to say ‘Look, I want to go a different way.’ Even to this day it’s difficult.”

But John’s life was about to change beyond recognition. He was becoming more out of control and this eventually culminated in a disagreement between him and a friend turning very ugly.

The incident was so serious that John was left with the choice of calling an ambulance or leaving his friend to die from his injuries. He chose to call 999 and was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.

Next week: Part 2/5: “A downward spiral”

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