Posts by Tom Westlake

I was born in Oxford in 1971, can’t say I had a bad upbringing. I have always suffered an anxiety disorder which still affects me badly to this day. Around the age of 9 I had a big phobia of vomiting, which gave me severe panic attacks. I couldn’t stand school as I was bullied, as a result of the anxiety, so I absolutely refused to go. At this stage my mum gave me kaolin and morphine and said this would stop me feeling sick. I carried the bottle everywhere and didn’t realise I had become addicted to the morphine. I didn’t see much of my parents as they had to work awkward hours as we were quite a big family. My dad’s brother lived with us and as I was the youngest he looked after me most nights, he was my idle really.

When I reached 14 years I’d tried solvents which wasn’t really my thing as the anxiety couldn’t take anything that was making me high. School was still a problem, especially when my uncle died, I just went off the rails and the school had to let me go. I started drinking and this went on for a couple of years. At the age of 17 I joined the RAF. I couldn’t do a frontline job due to the anxiety so became a fitter. After a couple of years the anxiety flared up badly and they had to let me go. I started drinking heavily again. I still dabbled in different drugs and was introduced to heroin. Straight away I fell in love with it as it took the anxiety away and I thought I’d found the answer to all my troubles. It had made me more confident and I met Louise, my eldest son’s mum. I had to hide what I was doing. I had a job in a pub in Oxford and was getting home at 5 am as I drank still to get more affect off the heroin.

I was having a few problems so I had to end that relationship. By this time I was getting a bigger habit, so to get extra money I was taking money from electric metres – mainly from my parents. When I got caught I slowed down a bit and met my future wife. We got engaged and had a party at our social club. The addiction became nearly non existent until a week later when a close friend got really drunk and wanted to see me outside. I didn’t think nothing of it until he went to punch me, I hit him back. He fell backwards, I heard his head hit the ground but thought nothing of it and went home with my fiancé. The next morning there was a knock on the door and I was arrested for GBH with intent. This didn’t seem real I thought it was a dream. I was remanded in custody, I had just turned 21 and the family were in pieces. For some reason it still hadn’t sunk in. A few days later Paul died. I was taken back to court and charged with his murder.

I was bailed 2 months later with loads of conditions and as it was a long time until my trial – I got married and only my family turned up, but it went ahead. I was getting bad panic attacks, so the doctor started me on a high dose of Valium which helped. I felt like I was in some kind of trance, started having a drink again and more Valium was given from the doctor. The two day trial in Birmingham with a high court judge and I was found not guilty. Everyone was happy but I ended up having a massive breakdown and was admitted to a mental health hospital for six months. I can’t remember when I got out on loads of medication. I started hitting drink badly, anything to take the feelings away We had our daughter, Michelle and I started to slow down again but I still was depressed and drinking heavily. I was introduced to heroin again and of course, I
loved it. My wife and all my family had enough by now and I became homeless, living in tents and sofa surfing. I had been smoking heroin but then I started injecting. I overdosed at first but still went back for more. I can’t remember how but in 2003 I went to rehab, little was known about detox from Valium then and I was taken off it too quick and ended up a nervous wreck and relapsed. 2 months later I went to a rehab in Bristol and managed nearly a year clean. I just couldn’t handle the anxiety and ended up in a Nightshelter in Bath. I had been in prison for petty things and at this time I was on the run, got caught and back in prison. My life was a constant addiction, prison, bad relationships and then homelessness. The last prison sentence I done I knew I had had enough so when I was released I went to a Nightshelter in Winchester. Finally, someone believed in me, which others had given up, so from there I stayed clean off heroin for 4 years with the odd little slip and was given move on accommodation.

I still found myself letting the wrong people into my life and ended up losing my property in Winchester but with someone believing in me (Liz) I was given another chance. I now feel secure and still clean. I manage my alcohol intake. I’m still on a lot of medication which is for my anxiety but I accept this as part of my life. With the added support I’m managing addiction and anxiety as much as I can do.

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Around about eighteen months ago today, I was, you could say, ‘lost’. I remember it well, shuffling out of the prison gates, shackled both ankles and wrists, to be greeted by the warm Caribbean sun and an awaiting prison van, waiting to take prisoner 39627 to the immigration holding centre where he would spend a week awaiting a spare seat on a flight to Gatwick.

Previous to spending just under three years in that hell-hole of a jail, suffering physical, mental and verbal abuse on an almost daily basis, I had lived in Spain for twenty-seven years, twelve of those living on the streets, a down and out alcoholic.

How would I cope in what for me is a strange land?
How do I get money?
Where do I find food?
Where do I sleep?

It wasn’t until I’d been back in the U.K. for a couple of weeks that the council found me a place in a Nightshelter. As I had no roots in Britain, I could have been sent anywhere. I was now surviving off what little money I had, and that was about to run out .The D.H.S.S. flatly refused to award me any benefits whatsoever, telling me to go back to Spain and try making a claim there, even though I was born and bred in Stoke-On-Trent, living there until I was twenty. I made many visits to the job centre and was told each time the same thing, I didn’t meet their residency criteria.

I moved into the Nightshelter where I received help from Liz Howe.  At my first interview with her, she immediately got on the phone, making calls on my behalf and, with her knowledge, experience and persistence, I received my first backdated payment within days. I was ecstatic!

Unfortunately, I ended up homeless again, sleeping on a cardboard ‘mattress’ in a multi-storey car park. Back in the NIghtshelter again I was going nowhere fast- in circles.

It was at this time that I heard there was a vacancy coming up at ‘The Dwelling Place’ in Basingstoke. I went for my interview assessment hoping and praying I would be successful and get a room there.

I was thrilled to get a call telling me I could move in and restart living something of a normal life after so many years of homelessness, prison and both mental and physical health. Any problems, be it health, benefits, judicial, or communal or anything I don’t really understand, I know that I can go to Liz and ask for help and advice and she sorts it.

Thanks to The Dwelling Place, things are starting to turn around for me now. Instead of being that homeless drunken bum that the whole world despised and ignored, I am making friends and gaining some respect. I now try and give a little back, helping out at the charity-‘The community Furniture Project’.  When I heard that Liz was setting up a winter night shelter in Basingstoke I immediately volunteered to help set up the camp beds at the Church venues each night.

Onwards and upwards

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(Johnny) had been street-homeless for almost a year before been given the opportunity to enter The Dwelling Place. “I had a few ups and downs whilst there but with the support of the staff and the housemates I am happy to have moved on. I have nothing but thanks for the gentle love and pushing that enabled me to achieve what 1 year earlier I would have thought impossible”.

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