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Bill's story. 'Before I became homeless I owned a massive house in the country, but I feel more at home in my housing association flat than I've ever done.'

20.07.2018 21143 XX

“When I was eighteen, I left home in the north east of England to do a degree in design, but I found my real passion when I did a masters in computer science. It was the early days of CGI and I was looking to achieve something that would make me stand apart. At that time CGI was only really used to create solid objects, TV logos and the like. Moving organic material was really difficult to do, and I was the one of the first people ever to do that. I got together with a maths professor, and we ended up inventing CGI cloth animation, which is something we all see in the movies now but then it was a ground breaker. No one had seen anything like it before and it gave me global recognition. It was on the front cover of magazines. It was the future, and it launched me into the film industry.

When I graduated I was offered a fully sponsored PhD at Loughborough University, but I was getting job offers as well, and that seemed more exciting. The day before I was due to start the PhD I took a job with Richard Rogers the architect in London instead. After that I became one of the founders of the film visual effects industry and started working on major film projects. I was giving talks. I was on television. I was becoming one of the leading pioneers in the field. I just thought I was flying, and it could have stayed that way, but it didn’t.

From growing up on a council estate I was suddenly a director of one of the biggest post-production companies in London, VTR plc, later to be acquired by Prime Focus. It was a good thing, but on reflection it was way too early. I was probably doing a job that I should have been doing in my fifties, as I am now, rather than in my late twenties. I was also earning way over £100,000 a year, but I was too immature, and I didn’t know how to deal with the responsibility.

I’d met my wife at university and we married quite young, which maybe was a mistake, but I just didn’t want to be alone. We had a beautiful rural house in Kent with land, a second investment property, two cars, two motorbikes and a speedboat. I thought money was easy come, easy go. I was commuting into London every day, and I ended up having a very hedonistic lifestyle. I desperately wanted to live in London and continue the journey onwards and upwards as I saw it, but my wife didn’t, and we started to grow apart. Then the bottle started to creep in, and I was on the slippery slope downhill. Gradually I started to lose all sense of control and normality, but it took a long time, because I had the money to keep doing it. I remember working on the film Lost in Space with Gary Oldman who had his own problems with alcohol, and he once said, “It’s hard not to be an alcoholic if you can afford it.” Eventually we got divorced when I was thirty-six, but I just didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with it. I was moving from rented apartment to rented apartment, and I also couldn’t keep a job. I could pop up and present nicely for a while, but then I’d go and drag myself back into a drinking hole and hide behind email. For a while I managed to bumble along, but I was not mentally stable, and I was becoming less and less reliable. My behaviour became more and more chaotic, and then the money began to dwindle as well. I also became more ill. I could feel it. I used to think to myself that I was kind of rotting from the inside. It felt like that.

I tried all sorts of ways to get help. I went to the doctor, but he just looked at me and said, 'You’re an intelligent guy. Why don’t you just stop?' I wanted to punch him. Thanks genius, I thought. I went to the local drug and alcohol services, but I still had a little bit of the snob about me, and I didn’t think it suited me. I also met some pretty unsavoury characters there, one of whom stabbed me a few years later in a park, which was also a trigger for me becoming homeless.

I became suicidal and I tried to get myself sectioned several times, but at most they put me in the overnight unit, and then kick me out the next day, basically saying, don’t come back until you’re sober. I’d turn up at A&E, and they’d do blood tests that were terrible, but they’d kick me out too. In hindsight I know I wasn’t doing the right things, but I was completely cognitively impaired by the stress, and of course the booze. I used to joke with the doctors that I couldn’t get locked up to save my life. I knew I was in desperate need of help, but it seemed I was never dying enough, or mentally ill enough to get any.

I was barely working, but somehow, I struggled on, until eventually I did one last big project in late 2013. I thought maybe I could get back into it, but inside I was chaos. I was completely self-destructive, but I didn’t know where to turn or how to cope with it. My LinkedIn page just stops after that. It’s got no clue to where I’ve been for the last five years.

Now I recognise that I had some emotional tendencies from my childhood, that with the benefit of hindsight I could have done something about, but at the time I didn’t have the awareness. Both of my parents had taken their own lives when I was a child, and on reflection I can see that had a big influence on why I couldn’t cope emotionally when I grew up. They were both forty-six when they died, and thirty-four years after my mum died I found myself dying of liver cirrhosis in Charring Cross hospital at exactly the same age.

My mum was English, but my dad was an immigrant from Burma, so I’m mixed race, even though I don’t look like it. He’d had polio when he was a child, and later in life he got Motor Neurone disease as well, but he was also no stranger to the bottle. I’m told that he basically drank himself to death when I was two, rather than face dying of the disease. He’d started to have serious breathing problems. Asphixiation is a common ending with his condition. I would probably call that euthanasia rather than suicide. We owned a big house in Shepherds Bush at the time, but afterwards my mum decided to go back to her family in the north east of England.

I suppose for a few years things were ok, but then she got cancer. She wasn’t a drinker or a smoker, but she was living in a house full of her brothers and sisters who were. She slowly deteriorated until one day when I was twelve, I remember the doctor telling me that she was going to die, but I just hardened up. The night before it happened she was crying and screaming in pain, and I remember being really rude to her. It’s horrible, and it haunts me to this day, but I just wanted her to shut up. I woke up the next morning and she was laying in the bed, arms cold, with pills all around her. She was either going to go that week or the next. She just decided to do it herself. Those kinds of emotional traumas never go away from you.

I had no brothers or sisters, and after my mother died I was left with a decision to either go live with my father’s brother in America, or stay with my mother’s sister who was living with us. What I didn’t know at the time was that my aunt was mentally ill. I didn’t find out until about ten years ago that she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. She was really violent and angry, but I kept it quiet as kids do. I just wanted to feel like I was normal. If I walked into the house with a little bit of mud on my shoe she would go into a rage for days that would frighten the hell out of me. I wasn’t allowed in the living room. I couldn’t watch TV or sit on a sofa. If I just looked in there, there would be hell to pay. There were no friends or visitors allowed. It was just me and her in a three-bedroom house, and I was confined to the kitchen and the bedroom, so I ended up spending all my time outside. Luckily, I had some great mates, and we just played sport all the time. If I didn’t have that, or I’d grown up in an inner city, I would probably have ended up in a gang, because I would have craved the family. This is where the familiar story of childhood trauma comes in. As soon as I was eighteen I escaped to university. I only went eight miles away to Teesside, but it was like a world apart. I’d never known anything else outside Redcar, where we were living. Going eight miles was massive. It was like going to a big city.

Twenty-seven years later, Sept 6th, 2014, I was walking through the park, back in my birth area of Shepherds Bush. It was a sunny day, and one of those guys I’d seen at the alcohol services years before spotted me. He came over and threatened to stab me, and the next thing I know I woke up in hospital. He’d hit me over head and robbed me. When I came out of hospital I managed to track down the iPad that was in my bag, but the police just didn’t want to do anything about it. That was the trigger for me. I’d been trying to get help for so long, that when the police wouldn’t help me then, all the resilience and strength just left me, and inside I just gave up. It was compound effects of everything. Trauma on top of trauma.

Prevention is a big thing for me now. I’ve got six years of mental health records, and when I read them I just think, why wasn’t I picked up, why wasn’t I helped? It was only when I got into the dry hostel that I even started therapy. When I really needed help they wouldn’t give me any mental health support at all, because I was drinking. Even when I wanted to know why I was drinking. It was so frustrating. Maybe deep psycho-dynamic psychotherapy as I have now may not have been appropriate, but another other kind of support - at least some kind of peer-support would have been helpful. There was nothing on offer when I was in that place. When I most needed care, it wasn’t there. I tried to present to A&E so many times, but I was always just judged, patched up and sent away again. Judgmental doctors were my nemesis at those times. They painted all people with alcohol challenges with the same brush. Eventually I just gave up, and that’s why the relief came when I finally became homeless, but it felt like I had to get to that point, my “rock bottom” if you like, to be allowed any care at all.

I’m not one hundred per cent sure what happened after that, but at one point I was found outside the town hall, although I don’t know how I got there. Someone from the council took me inside and chatted to me for a bit, but I can’t remember that either. Perversely I was quite lucky that I had such a bad alcohol problem, because he sent me onto a kind of pre-hostel assessment centre, otherwise I would have been left out there with no help at all. It was like a triage for people they didn’t know what do with. It was a harrowing place, but it was actually the biggest relief ever, which was an odd feeling to have. It’s not the kind of place you want to live for long, but I was in such chaos before, and now I was suddenly somewhere safe, and I wasn’t just on my own anymore. An ex BBC journalist called Ed Mitchell who also became homeless said he felt the same thing about his own experience. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but the challenge of trying to get help been so intense, and so tiring, that being picked up as homeless was the only thing left. The responsibility had finally gone, but that sense of relief only lasted a few weeks.

There was about thirty of us from all sorts of different backgrounds, and I just drank my way through that Christmas. Sometimes I would play pool, but I started to sleep about twenty hours a day. Wake up, drink, go back to sleep, wake up, drink. My body was shutting down and I knew it. The staff would come and see if I was alive in the morning, but it got so bad that I called an ambulance for myself a couple of times, although A&E would never help because I was always smelling of alcohol, and the assessment centre threatened to kick me out if I did it again. Hostels get penalised by the local council commissioners based on the number of ambulance call-outs. Then, by the time the following March came around, my skin had started to turn yellow over the course of just a few days. My liver was gone. Finally, I was dying enough, and they agreed to call me an ambulance.

In the hospital I was told I had liver cirrhosis, and that I was very close to death. I was jaundiced, I was 30kg underweight, my blood tests were horrendous. I stood in the shower and looked at myself in the mirror with all these cables and drips coming out of me, skinny as a rake and a horrid deathly dark yellow colour and I thought, what’s the point? I remember some very lonely nights thinking I’d really gone too far now.

One night an elderly guy across the ward from me died. I listened to the robotic voice of the defribulator machine giving a running commentary whilst trying to resuscitate him for around twenty minutes. “Stand away, 3, 2, 1” and so on… He was very old, but I cried my eyes out when I heard. I’d just been talking to him earlier, and the next morning someone else was in his bed. His daughter came to collect his things. I realised this is what happens in hospital. I could be the next statistic. Something about that flicked a switch in me. I looked out the window in the morning from the hospital at all the people waiting at traffic lights with their coffees, and I’ve never had more of a craving for the crappy mundane normality of everyday life. The easiest thing for me to do then would have been to just let go, but that was what both my parents had done. I also had a thirteen-year-old son who I had kept away from for a nearly a year while I was homeless, apart from phone calls, and I couldn’t do to him what my parents did to me as a young child. The difference between myself and my parents was that although I was extremely ill, I was not terminally so - yet. I had a chance. It wasn’t exactly a Damascene conversion, because I’d been thinking about it for ages, but that’s when I decided to give life another go.

I began by getting myself fit in the hospital. I’d start going for a little jog around reception, gradually going further and further each time. I even got one of the nurses to bring me a skipping rope, but I had peripheral neuropathy from the alcohol abuse, and couldn’t feel my foot. After two weeks I was well enough to go back to the assessment centre, and they didn’t believe me that I was going to stay dry, but frankly, it had got to the point where I was nearly dead, and subconsciously inside me something said that wasn’t going to happen. I started eating healthily and swimming every day. There I was, all yellow and jaundiced at the pool every morning, and gradually, things began to change. I got better. I became an avid cyclist on my twenty-year old mountain bike. I kept a year’s full of blood tests and a full nutrition and exercise diary that tell that story really well.

I was never into drugs, so I could avoid that, but the booze was hard while I was still surrounded by it in the assessment centre. Luckily, two months later I got into a dry hostel run by St Mungo’s, on the same street as the BBC, one of my old haunts. It was just a little house, only three or four people, and it was really nice. We were breath and drug tested every week and it was run by a lovely chap, who I’m still in touch with today. I stayed there for thirteen months in the end, until eventually, the day came when the local council offered me something more permanent. I wasn’t expecting anything special, but it turned out to be a scruffy little studio flat right next to the assessment centre, precisely the place I was trying to escape from.

After everything I’d been through, something in me wanted to fight for more, so I told the housing officer a little of my story and she immediately said, I’m not giving you that Bill. She said to go back to the hostel, sleep well, and she’d call me in the morning. The next day she offered me the most gorgeous apartment in a different part of town. She was a lovely lady, it was a very individual decision. It made me feel so human.

Walking through that door was phenomenal. I’ve never ever felt the sense of home in my life like that. I can’t find words that are even consummate to the level of emotional experience I felt in that moment. It can’t be underestimated the value of having a sense of home. I never did in my childhood. That stability. It’s not life-long stability of course. Nothing is, but it’s enough. It’s stability for me for a while on a discounted affordable rent. It’s long enough to get myself back on my feet. I could start to think about tomorrow, and the next day, rather than just the next five minutes. Before I became homeless I owned a massive house in the country, but I feel more at home in my housing association flat than I've ever done. It means more to me now. I think that’s really interesting. There’s something important in that.

Three years on, I’ve got a completely healthy liver, and the homelessness journey has turned out well, but I’m led to believe this is unusual. In the end, I engaged and played the game. When you start to show the effort, the help is there, but I still believe it didn’t need to get that bad in the first place, and that’s my big issue. Through the luck of being able to articulate myself as though I cared, they suddenly listened to me, but I’d been asking for help for years before, and couldn’t get any.

A question. A reflection on society. Are we content that people must suffer so much before desperate intervention may be achieved, or do we turn a blind eye and blame it on the so-called fecklessness of the self without hearing the underlying story?

People know intuitively that they need help and catching it early is the key. I was being irrational and confrontational sometimes, but if you’re suffering so much that it’s chaos in your head, then your behaviour is going to be odd. I want people to understand that there are reasons for that. I know I’m unusual in the fact that I’m a little different from the usual stereotype in that I can articulate well and have an education. But let me tell you I am no different from any of those people with whom I shared my journey. Mental health can challenge anyone no matter what their socio-economic background. In fact, most people whom find themselves in similar circumstances will not become homeless only because they can afford not to. But they still will die prematurely. Celebs, business leaders, politicians, they share the same mental health and drug/alcohol issues; they can just afford to miss the homelessness bit.

As someone educated in the computer sciences, I understand chaos and complexity in pure scientific and mathematical terms, not just in simplistic allegorical narrative and metaphor. It frustrates me to see society think in far too simplistic terms about homelessness. We need to start to understand and embrace complexity. The person who is in the centre, in a literal sense, of cognitive chaos, cannot make rational decisions without the right support, but that’s what they’re expected to do. Now I’m cognitively fine, stable and rational, but back then I just didn’t have the mental strength to navigate my way through all that. I might have presented as aggressive, upset and erratic. I would have been all over the place, but that’s because I was desperate, and I just didn’t know what do. I contest that under the mental health capacity act, people who are unable to make informed and rational decisions on their own behalf, no matter for what reason, are owed an appropriate duty of care under the law. I further suggest that this means encouraging, motivating and supporting people to better their life situation. This is not happening. Instead such people are 'contained' and 'managed' by minimum-wage, zero-hours, high-turnover and often un-qualified but admittedly often well-meaning staff.

The public face of the 'homelessness industry' does not represent reality. Think 'open prison' rather than the cuddly, cosy care homes as they would like to portray. Some of the larger homelessness charities often appear to me like housing associations, sitting on enormous property portfolios. They cream government money through guaranteed and extended housing benefits, and at the same time further encourage charity donations from the unknowing but altruistic public to help build that property portfolio, whilst providing the bare minimum of 'support' for the clients' themselves.

I know what it’s like to sit in a homeless hostel in leafy west London at 5.30am - a hostel hidden in a plain sight, sharing a postcode with some of the most publicly know media glitterati – trying to get £1.50, then waiting for the off-license to open. You’re not thinking of the next year, the next day, or even the next hour, you’re just thinking on the next three minutes, but when you do ask for help, it’s as if you’re just warehoused in that condition, rather than seriously treated and helped to change. That feels like a punishment, rather than support. I had to seek out and plead to be let into the dry house (abstinence rehabilitation project) that helped me stay clean by myself. No one told me about it. I cycled up and down the road trying to find it. I was yellow and jaundiced and knocked on the door. They said I had to ask my own hostel to refer me, and now they’re closing it down because they claim not enough people are being referred there. Getting help was harder than pitching for a film. It’s no wonder people give up hope. There’s no motivation. There’s no stability.

I had two good friends in that assessment centre, who I would play pool with a lot. I saw one of them recently. He’s still homeless, and still in a terrible state. I also heard that the other one died last month in a different hostel. It took me facing my past and nearly dying to change my behaviour, but my friend died before she had the chance. I’m afraid my other friend may be heading the same way. Dying in hostels is not unusual and it doesn’t need to be so. It feels like palliative care, rather than true care. Instead of being punitive, I’d like to start a conversation where society begins to develop intelligent, informed compassion. Looking at the person, and asking why? There’s a story there somewhere. There always is a story.

Last year my aunt died, and I found a whole load of suitcases full of photos, documents and other family history that she had kept away from me. I saw photographs for the first time in my life of people like my father. Although I always knew he had brown skin I’d never seen a picture. I had no idea what he looked like. It was all a massive shock. There were photos of him in Mandalay Bay where my Grandparents where married. It amused me as I’d only ever been to the Mandalay Bay hotel in Vegas on a business trip. Not quite the same. Many buried memories re-surfaced. I even found an Encyclopedia Britannica that my mum had bought for me before she died. I will always remember being so excited by that most amazing present that mum was so proud to be able to afford for me, but my aunt wouldn’t let me have that either. I finally opened it for the first-time last September, forty years later. I cried. Mum wanted that for me.

My gran lived in London, my birth home in Shepherds Bush, but my aunt had kept her away from me too. She died during my teens and the house was sold so cheap by her other son, my father’s brother. There was some other family, like my aunt’s sisters and brothers, but they’re all dead now from alcohol. My father’s brother in the states was also an alcoholic. I look back now and I think, it’s no surprise I became one too. Doing some alcohol support groups, almost everyone I talk to has someone in their family that has been touched by it in some way. Finding out about all this totally altered my mind-set.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the last few years, and gradually I’ve turned things around, but always in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking I need to do something to help other people with my experience. Even the hepatologist at St Mary’s hospital, almost pleaded with me to use my story to help other people choose a different path. The truth is there wasn’t one massive fall for me. It was a slow and gradual one, but there was also plenty of opportunities to not let it get as bad as it did. I saw a young girl on TV recently talking about having to look after someone as a child like I had to, and they said they just had to grow up. That’s exactly what I felt, and it filled me with horror. Although adults around her were full of praise and rightly so, I really wanted to warn her, and them, that in fifteen-twenty years time, when mum is gone and you realise you can’t make relationships, and you didn’t have a childhood, then you’re a candidate for the bottle like me. Now I want to use my story to help catch other people on that downhill slope, before they fall off the end.

There are always a bunch of circumstances that are complex and individual, and that are not immediately obvious, but there are definitely lots of commonalities. Despite my success I grew up on a council estate from a broken family. I know my story is unique to me but there are definitely people from a certain demographic that it’s more likely to apply to. The only reason I wasn’t homeless sooner was because I could afford not to be.

I’ve been doing public speaking in the film industry for years. Talking about business is easy. It’s a bit trickier when I have to talk about myself, but I’ve given some talks about my experience to civil servants in the DWP that went down really well, and with St Mungo’s to some corporations, and now I’m working with Crisis speaking with housing associations, which is fascinating. I’d like to do a Ted talk now. I would love to do that. The big thing for me is smashing stigma, because there’s still a stigma on me. I’ve also gone back to my old computer programming roots at university and I’m busy writing a peer to peer support app. It’s a bit like WhatsApp meets Samaritans, where people challenged by addiction can reach out for support to peer mentors around the world, before it gets to the point where they become homeless as well.

Small things make me feel normal again. Even being able to buy a coffee. They remind me I’ve got my feet on the ground. Going to some of the old haunts like Soho can be difficult, but it’s also a test of me moving on. You know, thinking about going from a £2k/month entertainment budget on top of my salary and being told off if I didn’t use it, to a few hundred quid a month. Was I happier then? The simple answer is no, The stress was so high and the pressure of those old days I would contest was worse than where I am now in an odd sort of way. One city friend of mine said I was the most free person he knows. Funny old world. 

I had breakfast with an old pal in the city recently, and now we do it once a week. It took me ages to pick up the phone and talk to him. He told me he’s been going to therapy for thirty years because of problems he’d had at public school. I’d flown all around the world with this guy and didn’t know any of that. Other people I’ve spoken to have talked to me about their own personal and family mental health problems as well. I was so scared to open up. I thought they’d just say they always knew I would end up like that, but they didn’t. We just hide this stuff. We don’t talk about it, and that’s got to stop. It’s fascinating the conversations that open up when you do. The stigma quickly dissolves, and the sense of relief is so uplifting. It seems to me that I can’t live this experience and not do something useful with it.”

Bill, London.

Twitter @scanlondon

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