meet a guest Ben



I’m 60 years old and I was born in Mullingar, outside of Dublin, Southern Ireland. It was a typical Irish Catholic family, there were originally 4 boys and 4 girls, but a brother died before I was born. I was sent to a diocesan seminary to study for the priesthood – I lasted 3 years. I hated every minute of it, it was hell, so abusive and as you can see I didn’t become a priest – their loss! At 15 they threw me out. I had a 22 year old brother who was a barman in Ballard’s Lane, Finchley. It went from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’d hardly had a single drink at home and I was suddenly drinking as much as I liked for free in London. It was the start of my long and dysfunctional relationship with alcohol – the seeds were sown. I was ‘living it large’, a kid alone in London, going to all the concerts, drinking and smoking hash – I had a great time.

I went home for a bit to resit my O’levels and at 18 I returned to London and started work in construction as a pipe fitter and railway worker, mostly in Camden and Islington. We weren’t given any training and the work was really dangerous – I worked alongside a guy who was decapitated on the job, we had to haul his body out of the trench we were digging. It was job to pub – pub to job; that’s the heavy drinking cycle we were all in. Sometimes I worked on “the Lump” and sometimes I’d have a contract. I didn’t see the inside of a dole queue for 15 years.
In 1981 I returned to Ireland. I was labouring during the day and Roadying for bands at night. That’s when I first came in to contact with class A drugs. We did speedballs, which are a mix of Cocaine and Amphetamine Sulphate. This was during my late 20’s till I was 36.
On 3 March 1993 I stopped using everything, drink and drugs. I had returned to London and was living in a bedsit in Forest Hill, by this time I had developed a considerable habit but I just went cold turkey. It was a matter of maths, I’d spent nearly half my life completely sober the next half totally smashed – the sums didn’t add up – if I hadn’t stopped then, I’d have died. My life had become pretty chaotic, I was getting into fights, appearing in court (only minor charges, never jaile). I asked my GP for help but he refused, so I just did it on my own. I was in a really frightening place, it was days before I could even leave my room, I could hardly walk and my thoughts were like a skipping CD.

I spent a lot of time with my friends squatting in Islington. They were all still using. Most of them died in their 30’s. The one line I never crossed was to use drugs intravenously. The people I know who did are all dead now.

I met a woman who had also stopped using and to begin with it was great. She had teenage kids who I got on well with. We lasted 7 years but it was a co-dependant relationship so there were problems. In 1998 we went on holiday to Ireland and the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was in full swing. There was loads of work and I wanted to stay but she didn’t, so we split. I got a great job as a Council gardener.

My brother died in 2000 and I started drinking again. I’m a binge drinker and the trigger always seems to be either my own depression (which I’ve suffered all my life) or a funeral. I started using cocaine again as well as the drink and mdma – my sessions would last as long as my money did.

In 2004 I came back to London and was mostly sober apart from the odd binge. They’d usually last about 10 days. I first came to Shelter from the Storm in 2007 when they were at St James’s Church Hall. I was living on the streets but I used to come for a bit of dinner and a shower. I stayed with SFTS when they moved to Elmore Street.

People don’t realise that it’s ten times easier to be drunk and homeless than sober and homeless. There’s a camaraderie with the drink and it seems to keep out the cold – it makes the day move along easier. It is difficult to stay straight when you don’t have a home. You have to stay away from your old haunts or you WILL relapse, no two ways about it. I was told twice that my liver was shot, the second time I believed them! Miraculously I don’t have Cirrhosis but it did kill my brother and my aunt.

When I was sleeping rough, a couple of us used to sneak in to Highbury Swimming Pool at night. We tried to get out before the staff arrived but if we didn’t manage, the attendants would often bring us a cup of tea. We did that for quite a while but the woman I did it with is dead now. You could find empty buildings to squat in then, we squatted the Tramshed at Highbury Corner for 18 months, we even had a couple of ‘Raves’ which made us quite a bit of money.

From September 2012 until a month ago I had a flat in Islington. The landlord evicted me because he wanted to re-develop the place. He was refused planning but the order had already gone through and I found myself, at the age of 60, on the streets again and back at SFTS!

I’m pretty easy to read, if you see me with a can in my hand things are bad – if you don’t, I’m probably doing fine. At the moment I’m feeling OK but that can change. I’m hopeful that I’ll be housed soon; people are trying to help me. I’m working part time as a cleaner in Islington and I’ve started writing my book. It’s part novel, part autobiography about the abuse of my catholic childhood. It’s depressing but also quite cathartic – saves me forking out for a therapist!