Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The training officer

After giving up drugs, boredom made Cheryl Powell turn to learning.

I can clearly remember the turning point. Three deaths in the space of a month: my boyfriend, cousin and then my dad. My boyfriend died of a heroin overdose, a couple of days before Christmas. My cousin died on Boxing Day; another heroin overdose. In January, my dad died of a terminal illness. I was 23.

Up until then, I'd been doing OK. I'd ended up in foster care during my final year of school, which had disrupted my education. I'd left school with no qualifications, but I'd managed to get a job as a dental technician, a job I'd held down for over two years. I enjoyed the work and it was good money. What happened that Christmas sent me to a dark place; I just couldn't cope anymore.

I started cutting myself. I tried to commit suicide so many times I lost count. Sometimes I'd take an overdose, sometimes I'd cut myself. I was constantly in and out of hospital. Everything was so black. I couldn't see any happiness in life. On the rare occasions I did feel happy, I was guilty about it.

I developed anorexia. By that time, I had a new boyfriend, but he was abusive and controlling. Starving myself was the only way to feel in control. And then there were the drugs. Before I lost my boyfriend and cousin, I only did cannabis, speed and "street" Diazepam. After they died, I started taking heroin.

Heroin affects different people differently. Some people commit horrendous crimes to get money for drugs. I didn't. I worked at a lap-dancing club practically every night and earned up to £500 a week. I didn't think about what I was doing. When you're an addict, you spend all day running around to get your drugs. Some days you haven't got enough money to buy any. Other days you can't buy enough. Sometimes you can't find a dealer to supply you. When you come off drugs, one of the most difficult things to deal with is boredom. What else do you do with your time?

My family and friends knew I was a heroin addict. They also knew I was working as a lap dancer. I've got five siblings and they were all disappointed in me. My younger brother disowned me for a while. I lost a lot of friends, and gained a lot of acquaintances.

I remember the day I decided to stop. I found my boyfriend was in bed with my best friend. I knew I had had enough. I called my mum, took my things and moved out. I started taking the prescription drugs I'd been given to help me stop. A friend from the lap-dancing club took me to Tenerife for a holiday to sweat it out. I've been clean ever since.

A few months later, my little sister brought home a leaflet about the Prince's Trust - a charity that helps young people get into work, education or training. It was just what I was looking for. At 30, I was five years over the age limit of 25, but because I was so enthusiastic, they made an exception for me. I did a 12-week personal development course, which included work experience and community projects. When I finished the programme, the college offered me a job. I now work on a number of programmes aimed at getting young people into work, education or training.

I work with many vulnerable people: ex-offenders, asylum seekers and recovering addicts. Because of my experiences, I can see where they are coming from.

I'm 36 now, and I'd never go back to my old life. The college gave me a second chance and I am so grateful for that. Now I have a reason to get up in the morning and I love it.

· Cheryl Powell is a training officer in the work-based learning department at City College, Plymouth

source: The Guardian

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