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Opinion

I’ve spent Christmas in prison and on the street – finding recovery saved my life

Peter da Silva says spending Christmas behind bars reminds you of what you’re missing. Now he has a degree and a good job and will be spending it at home with his family. He says it’s time we stopped shrouding addiction in shame

If you’d tried to tell me a few years ago that I’d be spending Christmas 2022 at home with my family, as a university graduate with a good job, I’d have laughed. I didn’t even think I’d make it to 2022 alive never mind anything else.

But today, I’m four and a half years clean. And my life is unrecognisable from the one I was living before I found recovery.

I’ve spent more than one Christmas in prison, and I also spent Christmas sleeping rough one year. When you’re in these situations, Christmas just reminds you of what you’re missing and where you’ve gone wrong. 

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In prison, people would try and find lots of drugs and save them up for the big day, to try and get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. You might get a bag of sweets and a festive sort of dinner, but spending Christmas locked up and away from your family is really tough.

Living on the streets during the Beast from the East in 2018 was also brutal. Sleeping rough is dehumanising. You can’t wash, you don’t eat. I ended up with this big bushy beard and people would walk past me and stare.

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During that time I was ready to end it all. I’d never felt like that before. So I bought a big piece of heroin and injected it.

Fortunately, I woke up.

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My drug use began after my mam passed away when I was 11.

It was the week after she died that I found alcohol and cannabis. My home was broken but, being with my mates, drinking and smoking weed helped me feel like I was part of something. 

When I wasn’t taking drugs, I was a real angry kid and I got chucked out of every school I was sent to. Eventually, I started going to work with my dad, but in the background my addiction was getting worse.

When I was 17 my mate stole some crack cocaine and I ended up trying it. Not long after I was trying heroin. 

At first, heroin was like a warm blanket, but after about two weeks of taking it I woke up feeling really ill. I called my mate and he said it was cold turkey – my body now needed heroin to feel normal.

I was stealing from my dad to pay for my growing drug addiction. I remember taking about £10,000 from him and I woke up in a crack house about three months later, realising I needed to face the music. When he opened the door to me he cried – and that hurt me more than any other punishment. So I decided I couldn’t steal from him again.

But I still needed to feed my addiction – the grip it has on you is so strong.

So in 2003, at the age of 21, I ended up in prison for the first time – for robbery. I remember thinking prison might be the answer, it might sort my life out. I went into jail really scared but when I landed on the wing all my mates were there. It was like home from home. But then everyone in there was just giving me drugs for free, so the addiction got worse.

I was in and out of prison after that and my health was really bad. I was injecting into my groin, getting blood clots. The doctors told me at one point that I could lose my leg. So I started injecting into the other side because stopping just wasn’t an option.

My girlfriend kicked me out, my family disowned me, I ended up homeless. They took me back every so often but I’d just mess up again.

Fast forward to 2018 and after waking up from the heroin overdose, lying in the snow, I ended up walking into this rehab place in Middlesbrough, and I saw this girl I used to smoke crack with. She looked amazing, really well, and she told me she knew a solution to help get me well.

After being barred from all the hostels I couldn’t believe it when she referred me to the charity, Recovery Connections, and they took a chance on me. They helped me get off all the drugs and into a 12-step programme to help me understand addiction and why I was an addict. I learnt that it was a fear-based illness and it all started to make sense.

The programme really talked to me and all these people in rehab had been where I had. They looked well, presentable and they were laughing and happy. So I worked the programme, got a sponsor, attended regular meetings, and I got clean. 

Before I knew it, aged 36, I was two months clean. I hadn’t been clean that long since the age of 11.

And that’s when everything changed. 

My coach suggested I go to college. I was like, I can’t, I’m thick as fuck! I got chucked out of school! But he told me I was underestimating myself and that everything else he’d suggested so far had worked so perhaps I should give it a go.

I had to sit my maths and English tests. The results weren’t great but I sat them again, and I got great results the second time around. I started a college course and then, before I knew it, I was studying at uni.

Everything I’d learned in rehab – living by the principles of self discipline, hope, self love, authenticity, integrity – I started practicing it at uni. I stayed connected to the recovery community, and I started engaging with Recovery Connections’ on-campus recovery team, meeting up with them once a week. Those meetings made a big difference and it’s something I genuinely think every university would benefit from.

Graduating with a 2:1 was something I could never have dreamed of before. There’s so much stigma and shame around addiction, but when you meet people in recovery, they are all so authentic and self-disciplined and approach life in such a positive way. In fact, far from being something to be ashamed of, recovery is a huge asset to society.

After graduating, I was offered a job as a harm reduction lead with Recovery Connections and I’ve done some work with the police and the Royal College of Psychiatry too. 

It’s been a difficult four and a half years since I got clean. My dad passed away but I’m glad he got to see me make it to uni and I’m glad I made amends with him.

I still see far too many people die from addiction. As a society we need to break down the stigma and make sure that recovery is visible and something we are all proud of. Because believe me, if an addict can beat addiction, there’s no limit to what they can contribute to society. It’s time we openly celebrated the recovery community and stopped shrouding addiction in shame.

To find out more about Recovery Connections’ #RecoveryFriendlyUni pledge click here

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