This week's interview is with my friend Wayne. He's being candid about his past substance abuse and how life has been for him staying sober for the past 15 years. He's also opening up about living with schizophrenia and Asperger syndrome, as well as letting us hear just how desperate he got before he started to rebuild.
Please note: there is a very real content warning of self-harm and suicide with the following interview, and well as drug use, schizophrenia, Asperger syndrome and depression, be mindful of what you do and do not need to read today.
In his own words:
My name is Wayne, I am a recovered heroin and crack addict but that doesn’t define me. I am also a responsible person in my community and in society in general, whereas before, I wasn’t accountable to anyone. I am a poet, a friend, a brother, an uncle, a work colleague, a schizophrenic and an Asperger's sufferer. My mental health is an extension of me. I wouldn’t have the life I live today if I didn’t go through all that I have been through. Yes I suffer, but I embrace the pain and feel the fear and get on with living any way. Some days I am crippled with paranoia and fear, but I am a survivor. 15 years this July 26th 2021 of continuous sobriety. I belong to a 12-step fellowship with which I recover from my addiction. I am an optimist and believe in positivity. I'm also a Christian. I work with adults with learning disabilities as a volunteer for a couple of hours per week. I love life, but this wasn’t the case as a suffering addict before my sobriety. I hope my story of hope encourages someone to seek help.
1) Hi Wayne, how are you?
I am well today. I've been to my voluntary work, I work as a support worker for adults with disabilities. That ranges from learning disabilities, mental health issues and autism to physical disabilities. When I work, I find I am giving to others rather than focusing on myself and my problems. I am being of service to others and therefore I am in a position of gratitude and humility. When I think of how I can serve others I am in good spirits.
So, today I am well but that wasn’t the case yesterday and the day before as I was going through an autistic shut down and a paranoia and fearful episode which is very difficult to navigate through. It can last several hours.
2) How are you really?
Really well today but over the period of a week I can go through various emotions. Mainly my symptoms are paranoia and fear. In general, I manage my mental health, I am medicated for the schizophrenia, but the Asperger’s I have to deal with on my own and I am coming to terms with that slowly.
3) What are your mental health diagnoses and issues?
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in roughly the year 2000.
I entered into a psychiatric ward after trying to commit suicide. I was suffering with drug induced psychosis at first because of an ongoing addiction to heroin and crack, methadone, sleeping tablets and tranquillisers, and opiate based painkillers. I could name the pills I was taking but to save space I won’t, just know I was a habitual heroin addict.
I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (ASD) in February 2019. I went to the local hospital for an assessment which lasted 4 and half hours.
In my younger years, I suffered with depression and was suicidal from the age of 7 years old. So, mental health has run a vein through my whole life.
4) How do you feel about discussing these mental health experiences with me in this interview today?
I feel very comfortable disclosing my mental health issues as I have had a lot of time to think about how it affects me and spoken to various key workers, support workers, C.P.N and doctors. I am an open book so to say. I hope that my story of mental health and recovery from addiction can help someone. I am a survivor.
5) Did your diagnosis of schizophrenia come as a shock to you or were you expecting it?
I was some what relieved to discover that I was schizophrenic as I thought I was in hell. The diagnosis explained a lot to me and made sense. I finally had an explanation for why I was feeling so weird and persecuted.
6) For anyone who doesn’t understand what schizophrenia is, how would you describe it?
Schizophrenia is a nightmare, a living hell. If untreated it can be a weird and wonderful hallucination every moment of the day. My perception is distorted, rearranged and exaggerated. Without medication I wanted to die. Living untreated was too much for me to deal with. It’s a world full of anxiety and paralysed with fear. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
7) How does living with schizophrenia affect your life?
Some days I am really affected and it limits me in what I am able to do. Some days I can’t leave the flat or do the simplest of things like cook or have a bath or clean myself, as I feel too exposed and vulnerable. I think the whole street can hear my thoughts and feel like they are all in on something. I feel paralysed with fear. Also, when in psychosis, I hallucinate, like the days I was on LSD. It's very off putting and feels like a bad trip. I trip out most of the time. It can feel like everything is connected yet broken up, and everything dances. I see vivid colours in front of me and in the shadows, and the patterns on the carpet and curtains stand out. It’s a visual thing that leads to a feeling of dread and panic. On average, 3 days out of the week I am paranoid and fearful. I go through bad times with my mental health. Some things other people take for granted, I appreciate. Schizophrenia is like being asleep while awake in a dream like state where nothing is real, it’s all an illusion.
8) What is the biggest challenge for you with regards to living with schizophrenia?
Remembering to take my medication on time.
The hardest thing to deal with is timing. I can’t tell you when I will suffer an attack of paranoia, it just comes on in the most opportune moments, when I am with friends, at the cinema, at home, in the bath, while cooking. When I need to do a chore I find it very difficult to combat the paranoia and I tend to neglect things. I find it troublesome to communicate when I'm affected. I can relate to what you're trying to ask of me but (and this is my Asperger’s as well kicking in) I can’t understand the simplest of commands and I get confused very quickly and need to retreat to a place of safety, usually my bed. One minute I am fine and then in a twist I can suffer very intensely. When I am not affected I can articulate how I am feeling but when I am affected I cannot make sense of things, it baffles me. I have no understanding or insight into why or what is happening to me. I am confused, under scrutiny, under the spot light, everything is intensified and I pick up on small details. In what may seem like 5 minutes, 30 minutes can pass. It feels like I am under attack, getting it from all angles.
9) Can you remember what it felt like for you experiencing drug induced psychosis?
I knew something was wrong with me as I was stoned all the time on heroin and other pills and drugs from the age of 11. I was drinking and smoking dope, only recreationally then, but I used every drug from LSD to MDMA to speed and went to rave parties at the age of 17. There wasn’t a day that passed that I wasn’t on a drug. I hated the way I felt so I altered the way I felt with mind-altering substances. I was very frightened to say the least, and very confused. I was tripping and hearing voices telling me to do things. Persecuting, nasty voices telling me I was evil. I was broadcasting my thoughts and I believed I could read other people’s minds and that they could hear what I was thinking, dark tortured thoughts. I wanted it to end so I tried cutting my wrist to begin with, then an overdose of heroin, then a prescription overdose, and finally a hanging experience that I nearly succeeded in. I was hallucinating all the time and hearing wicked voices. I was experiencing paranoia times 100.
10) You are a recovering heroin and crack cocaine addict, with 15 years of sobriety. How has this journey of sobriety been for you?
My journey of recovery has been very up and down. In recovery I have had relationships break up, the death and suicide of my older brother, many trials and tribulations of life on life’s terms, but I haven’t been alone during these times. I have had my higher power with me. I belong to a 12-step fellowship which has given me purpose to my life, and a level of existence which I can’t do on my own. Therefore, I need a higher power.
Drink and drugs were my power, injecting heroin and crack on a daily basis for 10 years. I am powerless towards any mind-altering substance. Life is hard.
I get by with a simple reliance on the spirit, God, in me and around me. Without God I am no one. With God, I can do a great many things. A lot of heroin addicts die of overdose, go to jail, end up in psychiatric wards, or commit suicide. A lot are still using, at it every day come what may, they are loyal to their addiction. Instead of using heroin, I pray, meditate, and try to carry the 12-step message to newcomers; that you too can recover if you want it above all else and you are willing to change and adopt a way of life.
I have failed many times. It's not about how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you dust yourself off and get back up. I have a fellowship of men and women to fall back on as well, I am not alone. If I have a problem, I can usually find an answer when I share it with another fellow. I have a sponsor who I ring weekly who is there for me through difficulties and strife, when life turns up, and it will. Life on life’s terms.
15 years sober this July 26 2021.
All I have had to do is to be present every day, walking in the spirit. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. I am lonely but not alone. Most of the time I am at ease with myself. I have built a relationship with the person I am. I am ok with me. I know myself well, the fundamentals that make me me, what I am willing to put up with and what I am not, what I will say yes to what I say no to. I am not a people pleaser, I am me, take it or leave it.
11) What is the biggest challenge you face with regards to staying sober?
The biggest challenge in staying sober is my connection to a higher power. When I feel God's presence I am at peace with myself. It’s when I feel disconnected from God, that’s when I get disturbed. I have been restored to sanity around the first drink or drug which means when I drink or use heroin or crack I am insane. I used like the substance was going out of fashion, I couldn’t get enough, I was insane. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results (Albert Einstein). If I used, nothing was going to change. The insane thing is, to use and expect different results. If nothing changes, nothing changes. I no longer obsess over heroin or crack, so when that connection to a higher power is cut, I feel low and the need to fix me is on. When I'm disconnected, I have no power to stop me picking up a drug, I am powerless, I have lost the choice, I don’t choose, it chooses me. I think 'life doesn’t treat me right and next time I use it will be different' so I press the 'fuck it' button and I relapse and life is crap again and I want to die. So, the hardest thing about staying sober is my connection to God.
12) Can you remember the turning point that made you start out on your road to sobriety?
The turning point that got me sober was my complete surrender to the power of any mind altering substance.
I tried to hang myself. I climbed a tree in a local country park, tied a noose around my neck and a knot around a branch, then I jumped out of the tree, hanging there for 15 seconds thinking this is it. I was dying. The knot on the branch came undone and I fell to the earth with a bang. I thought, 'man there is a God.' I so nearly succeeded in committing suicide, I realised I didn’t want to die, I wanted to live. I just didn’t know how to live without the drugs.
One time, I was in the hospital getting stitches out of my arm from where I attempted to self-harm to commit suicide and as I was having the stitches out the song ”Bridge Over Troubled Water“ came on the radio and I burst into tears. I broke down and I was an emotional wreck.
There were several surrenders, I remember actually asking for help. At the time I didn’t know who I was asking. I was in a psychiatric ward, I stood up and put my arm in the air and said "I need someone to help me." Before then I didn’t need anyone. I could score gear, shoplift and earn money on a daily basis through crime. As long as I had those things I didn’t need anyone. My mental health was at breaking point, I was fearing for my mental capacity, I was either going to die after many overdoses ending up in A&E or from suicide attempts, or kill someone else. I have had many low points in my life.
When I finally surrendered to the 12-step program, in step 1 I had to admit I was powerless and life was unmanageable. It took me a whole year to surrender to that step. I could intellectualise the first step but I needed to feel it. It wasn’t until about a year after that I felt it. I was walking every day with sobriety, one day at a time. I had given up with the life of a heroin addict, I wanted to live. I stuck with the winners, I wanted a way out, I wanted to live. I knew exactly what was waiting for me, a needle and pipe. I saw many overdose and die. But I wanted to live, so I grasped onto the fellowship and I haven’t let go since.
13) You were diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2019, did that diagnosis come as a shock to you or were you expecting it?
When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s it was a shock, I didn’t know how to feel and it’s taken me 2 years to come to terms with my A.S.D diagnosis. What with schizophrenia and addiction, now Asperger’s. I have learned a lot on YouTube about others who suffer and how I can relate to it. So, yes, I was in shock.
14) For anyone who doesn’t know what Asperger’s is, how would you describe it and how does it affect you personally?
Asperger’s is like a bucket being filled throughout the day. I go through different types of scenarios and situations and the bucket is being filled until it over flows and I reach an autistic shut down. I have an overload of information and stimulus and I cant take on any more, as I am in a shut down. I can’t respond or deal with any situation in a productive manner, it comes out sideways. I pick up on small miniature bits of information and analyse everything. I cant communicate or interact with normal life whilst the bucket is overflowing and too much is going on, I need to retreat to a place of safety, usually my bed watching my iPad.
15) What is the biggest challenge you face personally living with Asperger’s?
Trying to manage my Asperger’s is difficult. What I suffer with is invisible so people can't appreciate what I go through, the daily suffering. And it isn’t going away anytime soon, it’s a life-long condition. Dealing with other's understanding of mental health is shocking. I try to educate people, hence why I'm doing this interview, hoping it will reach a few people who want to know more or who may have just been diagnosed, or maybe a friend is suffering or family member.
16) When you tell someone about any of your diagnoses, how do you hope they will react?
I hope people will react positively but it’s usually met with ignorance.
Why should people understand if they don’t deal with the condition? Why would anyone understand?
There may be a few in the services that do understand.
17) Do you have any particular ways of coping which help you to get through a difficult mental health day?
Usually I retreat to my bed and watch my iPad, watch some Netflix or BBC iPlayer or a show on Apple TV +. It may take several hours to recover. I can’t eat or make a meal or even a cup of coffee, everything is so huge and impossible to overcome. I can’t talk on the phone. I have to just ride it out and it can be very intense to say the least. It’s like a dark cloud over my head and there’s a storm brewing inside of me.
18) If someone reading this today has just been diagnosed with schizophrenia, what would you like to say to them?
I would say HOLD ON, things will get bad but don’t try to commit suicide, you can live through this and things will get better with help. The right medication, maybe a hospital stay, the journey is different for everyone. But this is not the end.
I have managed to get through my worst days with the help of a 12-step program, medication, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, key workers, hostels, soup kitchens for the homeless, there is help out there if you know how to access it.
Speak to your GP.
Schizophrenia can be bad but given time you can get your life back. I live a relatively normal life although I am far from normal. It’s not a death sentence, you can live through it.
19) If someone reading this today is in need of help with addiction but has not yet reached out, what would you say to them?
If you are dealing with addiction, maybe gambling, over-eating, sex, shopping, drink, drugs or smoking, there are many support groups in your local community. The most common form of addiction is alcohol, with AA (alcoholics anonymous), then there’s C.A. (cocaine anonymous), N.A (narcotics anonymous), G.A. (gamblers anonymous) and so on, there is help for those who feel most helpless.
I was lost but now I am free, you too can recover if you want it above all else.
Look on the computer, iPad, or mobile phone and reach out to the 12-step community, there are many 12 step meetings in your local area.
20) How do you feel after answering all of these personal questions today?
I am a survivor, I should be dead 10 times over, overdose, suicide attempts. I have the scars to prove it emotionally and mentally and physically. I have found this interview very therapeutic.
Thank you so much Wayne for being so raw and honest throughout this interview, and giving us all an insight into your life, your diagnoses, and your road to sobriety. Keep being you, you're amazing and your journey is inspirational. I look forward to meeting you at a future poetry event and hearing your poems. Until then, look after yourself, you're important.
If you are reading Wayne's story today and you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this interview, please reach out for help. Speak to your GP, speak to someone you trust, or you can go to the 'support' page on this website where you'll find a list of crisis resources. You are not alone.