Employment

‘I beat addiction. Big Issue Recruit showed me I can help others fight their demons, too'

Farley Conway started abusing drugs and alcohol after the death of his mother, leading to a period of worklessness, homelessness and mental health problems. When a Big Issue Recruit job coach suggested he use his painful experiences to help others, things started looking brighter

Farley Conway hadn't had a job interview in 20 years before meeting Shak Dean at Big Issue Recruit. Image: Supplied / The Big Issue

“I’m an archaic old guy who thought asking for help was not really heard of in my day,” says Farley Conway, a 55-year-old former personal trainer and events coordinator.

“There’s a saying that it takes a stronger person to ask for help than it does a weak person. I always knew that was the case, but I never valued myself as a strong enough person to ask for help.”

For 20 years Conway was a highly motivated self-employed personal trainer. A successful professional, he worked with some high-profile clients, sometimes travelling abroad to collaborate with prestigious fitness clubs. 

After his mother had a stroke when he was 14 years old, Conway spent much of his life caring for her. The flexible nature of working as a self-employed personal trainer meant that he was able to juggle these caring responsibilities alongside his career, because “you can pick your moments when you want to work”. 

But when his mother sadly died, things started to fall apart. “I’d been doing cocaine recreationally on and off for quite a few years. But when my mum passed away, that was probably when I just lost the plot,” he says. 

Conway stopped working and cut himself off from his friends. He began withdrawing from a private pension fund to pay his rent and to buy drugs and alcohol, while becoming more isolated and depressed. “I was self-destructing,” he recalls. 

On one occasion, he ended up at a hospital for a “possible overdose attempt”. But the support he was offered failed to help.

“I got put under a crisis team. There were two people there, I’m sure with their doctorates and their PhDs – this was my first time ever asking for help from a professional – and I walked into a room and I’d never felt so crap. They made me feel like a piece of shit. I went on a two-week drinking binge after. I felt like if that’s all they had to offer me, then I wasn’t worth much.”

After two years of struggling with addiction, periods of homelessness and depression, it was a single text message that finally made the difference. 

“I just sent one person a text and the ball started rolling from there. So many people got in contact… People would find out where I lived and would turn up at my flat to make sure I was ok,” he says. “It’s been my friends more than mental health teams that have helped.”

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As he started feeling better, he wanted to reintegrate with the world. Plus his savings were running out, so he went to the jobcentre to apply for universal credit. 

It was at Acton Jobcentre Plus that Conway met Shak Dean, a job coach at Big Issue Recruit. “As soon as I met Shak we hit it off straight away,” he says. “It was his motivation and his passion that’s helped me greatly.”

Dean listened to Conway’s story, and rather than put him forward for the quickest or easiest job, he considered what made Conway’s experiences and skills valuable. 

Hearing about Conway’s own struggles with addiction and mental health problems, followed by his disappointment in official mental health services, Dean identified that Conway had real motivation to help those who were going through what he went through. He recommended Conway pursue a completely new career path.

“It went from ‘that sounds like a good idea’ to ‘that’s the only thing I wanted to do’,” said Conway. “I desperately wanted the job once I started thinking about it.”

Dean helped Conway prepare for his first job interview in 20 years. “[Conway] was really nervous as he had not attended an interview in almost two decades,” said Dean. “I spent a number of sessions getting Farley ready for the interviews (there were three in total) doing interview preparation techniques and mock interviews.

The interview was with Change Grow Live, one of the foremost organisations providing substance misuse services to local authorities in the UK. Change Grow Live had recently approached Big Issue Recruit to help them with their recruitment by finding candidates with lived experience of addiction to become support workers.

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“[The interviewers] were blown away by his passion and loved his suggestions of using his personal trainer background to help with the wellbeing of clients and colleagues. I am happy to say that Farley has secured the role,” says Dean. 

As a recovery coordinator, Conway will be supporting people with addiction to get the help they need. “Sympathy is great, but empathy is something you cannot beat,” says Conway. “I’ve been homeless, had depression, possible suicide, drink, drugs… there isn’t something I haven’t been through and that I can’t relate to.”

He hopes that this will make sessions with his clients a judgement-free zone, where they can build trust with him to turn their lives around. 

Thinking about the future he says: “I want to help as many people as possible. My aspirations for work are just to get really good at this job. That’s my main goal.”

Big Issue Recruit is a specialist recruitment service, dedicated to supporting people who face barriers to joining the workforce into sustainable employment. It is a person-centred service and free to candidates, supporting individuals pre-, during and post-employment.

On signing up, candidates are partnered with a personal job coach to understand their needs and goals, build confidence, skills and resilience and coach them through the selection process, to secure the roles that are suitable for them – meaning that employers can find the right candidate who is more likely to stay in the position for longer.

Job coaches work with candidates post placement, to establish a good relationship with their new employer and support them to thrive in their new role.

Nearing its one-year anniversary, Big Issue Recruit is well on course in its mission to bring people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into the job market. Big Issue Recruit has supported 109 candidates in their job search, put 80 jobseekers forward for interviews, and enabled 43 people to secure positive employment.

To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here. Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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