Big Issue Vendor

Mark Dempster: Let me use my experiences to help you through addiction

Mark Dempster used to sell The Big Issue. Now he's a celebrated Harley Street therapist, using his history of addiction and homelessness to help others. This is the first of his exclusive advice columns

Big Issue vendor turned Harley Street therapist Mark Dempster lived through addiction and homelessness, and survived. This is his new advice column, exclusively for The Big Issue. If you’ve got a problem, let Mark use his experience to help you through it.

This column is about helping and giving back to The Big Issue sellers and readers. I used to be the former and now am the latter. My name is Mark Dempster and I have led two lives, one before recovery from addiction and one after.

I know first-hand what it is like to be a chronic dependent addict, a dealer and smuggler, homeless, a criminal and prisoner in a foreign jail. Now I am someone who has achieved over 20 years’ drug and alcohol sobriety, learned the rules of society, begun the training and got the qualifications, written the books and set up my own counselling practice to help others in the way I was helped.

Mark Dempster is now a successful Harley Street counsellor

The experience and support The Big Issue gave me during my early addiction recovery helped me regain control and become a successful Harley Street therapist and addiction expert. It is a great honour to work with The Big Issue again, giving my advice through this column.

James, 32

James struggles with cannabis addiction. He has tried stopping several times but couldn’t stay clean from cannabis use for any longer than four days. He felt restless, irritable and discontent when he stopped. James found it difficult to deal with the loneliness that he felt on previous occasions when trying to stop. He couldn’t hang out with same old friends as knew he would smoke when around them, he also didn’t know how to fill his time when not smoking cannabis and couldn’t stand the constant craving and obsession when detoxing from it.

MD: James, try stopping this time using a self-help group and/or addiction-specific therapy. Please get rid of all dealers’ numbers and avoid pals that you use drugs with in this early part of your recovery.

And buy a watch, it’s good for two reasons. Firstly to help prioritise activity times and a structure to your day where previously one hour melted in drug-fuelled procrastination and apathy into the other.

Secondly, if you collide with a dealer or old drug-using acquaintance you exclaim ‘Jesus – is that what time it is? I have to rush!’

James, a man of your calibre has to also acquire smart feet, keep your life moving in the right direction, avoid people, places and things that trigger you to crumble and use cannabis.

Hit the gym and/or yoga/meditation as well as try to build a network through self-help groups of recovery pals that will help and support you in recovery. You can do this James. Believe me, if I can do it so can you.

Mary, 36

Mary got in touch about sex and love addiction. Mary had cheated on every boyfriend she had ever been with. Mary had slept with several married men and had put herself at risk of STDs and HIV through unprotected sex with complete strangers during many one-night stands. She had reached rock bottom emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Her immense self-loathing was accompanied by insecure self-concept and painfully low self-esteem. Mary wanted to stop all this behaviour as she had fallen for a new partner and did not want to repeat the same promiscuous behaviour.

MD: Mary, you can change this behaviour if you fully commit to doing the work required. You can have freedom and find a new way to live your life free from the shame and guilt of this active addiction.

I suggest you attend self-help groups as well as, if financially possible, seeing a sex and love addiction therapist. Mary, please set bottom lines. Bottom-line behaviour is any sexually acting-out behaviour that compromises your integrity.

These bottom lines may be things like no pornography, no sex outside your committed relationship, no flirting, no fantasy acting out through social media (Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder, etc), no sexualising of feelings, no objectification. No setting yourself up to sabotage your recovery.

Mary, try to stay loyal in your relationship, this will build self-esteem through positive action and internal affirmation.


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Make a list of the internal and external triggers that make you want to act out. Internal triggers may be feelings like loneliness, boredom or anger and you will create strategies and internal resources to deal with all difficult emotions.

By abstaining one day at a time you will get more resilient. Please get rid of all lovers’ numbers and block and unfriend from all social media sites. Mary, don’t make arrangements to meet anyone new and do not play/entertain and therefore feed any fantasy relationships that your mind projects.

Remember the Mark Twain quote, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” You can do this.


If you have a question about life, love, addiction, achieving goals, mental health and more please get in touch confidentially.