'I thought I could never live a normal life': A former heroin addict tells how an interview with The Independent helped his recovery
In 2001, Kevin Dooley was a heroin addict, living rough. He explains how an interview with The Independent marked the start of a remarkable change in fortunes
On Christmas Eve 2001, The Independent ran a feature about 36-year-old twins, Kevin and Brian Dooley. In the accompanying photograph they sat on a park bench, staring at the camera with blank expressions. They were homeless heroin addicts, and this newspaper had decided to highlight the important work of Crisis' Open Christmas Shelter, where hundreds of vulnerable Londoners would go to seek help, by telling their story. In the piece, Kevin Dooley spoke of his wish to some day be in a position to be able to help others who were in a similar situation to him.
More than 10 years later, Kevin Dooley contacted The Independent. "The Soho world of addiction and homelessness my twin brother and I lived in for years was devoid of basic humanity, kindness and dignity," he wrote. "I recall the interest in us from your newspaper touching us deeply and we felt respected, that we mattered."
Last month Kevin celebrated being clean and sober for nine years. And just as he had hoped, he is now working as a recovery coach and mentor for offenders and those experiencing difficulties with substance abuse.
His is quite a story, the story of a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. One that begins in his hometown of Glasgow, that takes him to various maximum security prisons, the streets of Soho to finally finding a kind of peace in Weston-super-Mare, where he currently works and lives.
"There was a lot of poverty and unemployment growing up in Glasgow," Kevin recalls. "My only ambition was to grow up and become a gangster or drug dealer and that's exactly what I did. I was involved in the criminal subculture from an early age." He was expelled from school when he was 15 years old and a year later had started to work his way up the ladder of Glasgow's criminal underworld.
In his early twenties he was finally arrested for attempted murder and possession of firearms and sent to various high-security prisons for eight and a half years, during which he was often put in solitary confinement. The longest stretch he did was three months. "I'd be alone in a room, naked sometimes, or just wearing shorts. There was no window, and the light would be on 24 hours a day," he recalls. "I didn't know if it was day or night. There was no furniture, no mattress, no blanket. You start to withdraw into yourself. The prison officers wouldn't speak to you. You have cat naps, do press-ups. I didn't see a lot of the Nineties."
He had got into class A drugs – heroin and crack cocaine – before going to jail and, most of the time, he found them easy to get hold of inside. On his release in 1997 he moved down to London to join his brother Brian, who had become involved with London's own underworld. Together they slept on the streets, stealing to support their burgeoning heroin addiction.
"I was a daily drug user, I needed about £400 a day to fund my habit," he says. "I remember waking up at the St Martin-in-the -Field Church in Trafalgar Square and there would be blood down my face, all over my body, a needle in my arm and I'd be wanting a can of beer, and then the first thing I'd do was go to a shop to steal something. That was my life." He stole so much – speakers, CDs, perfume, leather jackets – that he was banned from Oxford Street. "It became a kind of lifestyle and I was good at it. I had to raise the money because my focus was always on my next hit. It was dangerous; everyone we knew were shoplifters, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, criminals. But living amongst them was easy because I'd done eight and a half years in prison."
After four years (and two further arrests) he decided to seek help along with his brother. They were taken in at Crisis' Shelter, which he credits for bringing stability to his life. There he had access to clean clothing, doctors and showers. "It helped me put the brakes on and slow down a bit; reduce my drug use. They put me on methadone there as well."
The brothers also got back in touch with their family, with whom they had lost contact. "They were so kind and forgiving. They were just glad that we were back in their lives. I found that incredible, that people can forgive you like that after everything that had happened." He entered a rehab facility in Weston-super-Mare in February 2003 and hasn't touched drugs or alcohol since. Brian had gone into rehab a little while earlier and was the catalyst for his brother's own recovery. He finds it difficult to talk about Brian now. After living a clean lifestyle for a number of years and flourishing as an artist, Brian moved to France and has struggled to stay clean. "He was doing so well. He'd made amends to his children who he hadn't seen for so many years. He's in contact sometimes but I don't really speak to him. He may be in France, I'm not sure. I've learnt to let go. You can't do someone's wanting for them. Everyone has their own experience of life. It's terribly sad."
Having studied social science at college, Kevin now works with people who have problems with addiction and offending and provides a bespoke programme to clients. He focuses on building clients' self-esteem and their belief that they can change.
"Even from a child I had feelings of inadequacy. I couldn't connect with people so I always carried those feelings with me," he says. "They bothered me so much that it was easy for me to opt out, to take drugs and alcohol and not function. I always thought that I couldn't possibly be like other people and achieve a normal sort of lifestyle, that the die was cast. That I was always going to be this guy who would be prone to violence or prone to a criminal lifestyle and that was the default personality and that couldn't possibly change. But it could and I did."
He now lives in Weston-super-Mare and is in a serious relationship. She keeps him in the present, he says. He shares his life experiences with prisons, colleges, universities and other community agencies. He has delivered lectures and workshops in residential rehabs, been a consultant to Avon & Somerset Constabulary's Restorative Justice Programme. He even went to the Houses of Parliament to talk to MPs about restorative justice, which he found incredible, seeing as he used to sleep rough outside the building. He is also writing a book about his experiences, which he hopes to publish in the future.
"I've made a lot of mistakes but for the first time in my life I can appreciate things, I'm grateful. Nothing used to mean anything to me," he says. "I've even been on holiday for the first time. I went to the Sahara desert, which was wild because I've spent years in prison and on streets, and so to find that freedom in the size of the Sahara desert, it was humbling. It blew me away. Sometimes I go for a walk in the evening along the beach next to where I live and I can see the stars in the sky. I cherish my freedom; I cherish being at peace."
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