My life is brilliant – I am the invisible man.
OK then – who am I? I’m a 55-year-old man living in a church-run half-way house with a heroin addict and a cokehead. I’ve been living there for a few months now. Before this I was sleeping in and out of a homeless shelter in Harrogate after an unsuccessful period in a rented house. All of these came after a period sleeping rough on a bench in Knaresborough. I landed on the bench in the final week of June 2013 – isn’t it strange how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself?
I was left high and dry on a bench – homeless, lonely and invisible
And why am I invisible? Well, I found that when I became homeless I became a non-person. People like I used to be are so tied up with their frantic lives at work, home, with the kids and rushing around, they just don’t see me. The invisibles like me have the luxury of the time to watch the world turn round while normal people like you just pass us by. So I was left high and dry on a bench – homeless, lonely and invisible.
How did it happen? How did a man with a fistful of professional qualifications and a highly paid job lose the lot? Easy, really – I am an alcoholic. That’s all you need to know. I had managed to con so many people over the years about my ability to function (including myself) but at the end of the day the drink won. A minimum of ten bottles of champagne daily in the best hotels became eight bottles of fizzy wine became six large bottles of cider became four cans of cider and finally me – alone – on a bench.
Getting into this fix took a few years of trying, a broken marriage and a few other women left wondering what the hell just happened but the actual slip twixt bed and bench happened in days: a frustrated and angry partner who couldn’t take me and my best friend – my crutch, my bottle – anymore and in her violent desperation threw me out of my home for the last time. I was not going to be able to go back ever so I walked to the end of my road, turned and took one final look back, took a swig of cider and stepped out to find somewhere to lie down without knowing where the fuck it was.
What is sleeping rough? How hard can it be? Well, besides my bench, bunking down in a shop doorway or inside a large skip, it’s any place that you can find providing some level of cover. It gets cold on a night even in summer and a little rain and wind can make sleep a daunting task. The critical thing is to wrap up warm and stay dry – this is all about survival. I had found a place that was under cover but it was cold. Every night meant putting on every item of clothing I had. You wake from night terrors, through a noise or just because you do – then it’s 18 hours keeping your head down during the day with no money and no food, moving from place to place (a friendly café, a library, a publichouse), finding somewhere where you can sneak in a quick shave/brush your teeth and stay awhile drinking water until kicked out. Then back to the bench for a six-hour struggle to grab some sleep. I have been camping in the past but nothing prepares you for this.
I slept rough for a few weeks in Knaresborough before finding the homeless shelter. I didn’t know these places existed. Why would I? I had tried to find someone – the police, anyone – to help me but no one cared. Even the people who knew me looked away. I walked from Knaresborough into Harrogate looking for food. I had gone through bins in Knaresborough and found little to eat. In Harrogate I searched the places where the rats and pigeons scavenge for food – the train station, behind the food shops, then saw a sign that said “Homeless Shelter”.
The hostel is staffed with kind and supportive people who looked after me for a number of weeks. You are allowed access to a Z-bed/settee in a shared room from eight in the evening until eight in the morning, at which time you and your gear are shown the door. How to kill time during the day? You need to find food, water and shelter. You also need to lug round your kit and live off as little cash as possible – I was surviving on £1 a day.
I was drinking the rent. I was so far gone I had stopped signing on. I wanted to die
The hostel people eventually found me a room in private rented accommodation. All I wanted was a place where I could leave my rucksack behind a locked door where I had a key. I moved into a room the size of a shoebox in a house that was a pigsty. I dare anyone to approach the kitchen, showers and toilet facilities in that house with anything other than trepidation but I don’t really blame the landlord. Life is run by market forces and it was the pigsty or sleeping rough again as I had to move on from the hostel, whose resources are limited.
I moved back into the hostel when I had had enough. I was drinking the rent money. I was so far gone I had stopped signing on. I wanted to die. I woke up one morning and wondered why I bothered. Who actually really gave a damn? No one did. A friend of mine had just committed suicide – and where was I when it mattered? Looking for a place to stay out of the rain. I finally found a place to sit and cried the Irish Sea for him. The only thought that made any sense to me right then was why the fuck are tears so salty. I had no one to talk to.
I’ve had five alcohol-related seizures since December 2009. The one last November was epic. I used to fit because I had gone cold turkey when trying to clean up my act for an important event – one of my son’s birthdays, a visit to my father, a trip out with my ex-wife. But not this last one – this fit was when I was in the drink, with nothing planned other than getting rat-arsed. I ended up in A&E, then fitted. Was I trying to die? I struggle believing in god. He has done nothing for me. I hate him for what I feel he has done to me. Yet back at that moment all I could think was please, god – why?
I had managed to con so many people about my ability to function
I fitted twice that night and died. And then some bastard with a beard decided to send me back to the hell I had come from. I woke up a day later in a cot, alive and crushed. The hospital team looked after me for eight more days, after which I was “fit” enough to go. The NHS is fantastic, has kept me alive and is filled with very compassionate, lovely people. But when you are physically well enough to be released, out you go. I was told that my physical condition had deteriorated so much that if I started drinking seriously again I would fit and die. I am an alcoholic. I can’t just have one drink – I have to drink them all. So I had a stark choice – stop drinking and live or drink and die. It took me a week to get from being told the truth to the point when I put my final can of cider down. I had made a decision – I decided to live.
I then got lucky again. I was so ill that I was offered full-time accommodation back in the homeless shelter. A day later an old friend took pity on me and offered me a job in his warehouse. I was once the acting finance director of a publicly-listed company. I now work 50 hours a week on minimum wage, chucking boxes around, shredding cardboard and emptying bins. But I have something to do and I have regained a little self-respect.
I had to stop drinking. I had tried so hard before but nothing worked for me. I had never tried AA. Why bother? My deceased mother was a chronic alcoholic who lambasted the organisation. She told me it did not work – but what other choice did I have? For me it works. Has the AA experience helped me find god? No. I still wonder about him – I want to believe something is there. Why am I still living? Maybe he does exist. Have I stopped drinking? Yes. Forever? Who knows – but today I am strong.
I have been alcohol-free for six months now. I was moved into a half-way house from the hostel to help me reconnect with normal society in February. And yet who am I really? Ask the young man you just walked straight past, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall and his hand held out, who I am. Ask the old girl in the wheelchair and the dirty clothes, who is crying because she can’t get across the busy road to get to the bus shelter she is sleeping under tonight, who I am. You pretended she wasn’t there either. They know who I am. I am them. Do you care about them? Probably not. But there is nothing I can do to make you do the right thing. And me? I carry on. I must be here for a reason – I just don’t know what it is yet. I am asked a lot if I have any hope. I do.
My life is brilliant. I am the invisible man.
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