‘What have you been up to?’ I bumped into an old friend. ‘Rehab.’ I laughed, thinking it was a joke.’: Childhood friends reunite and overcome addiction together

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Mark’s Story

“I loved every minute of my childhood.

I was brought up by my mum in my hometown of Bolton, England. I had a loving family and lots of friends, one of them being my friend Liam. I was always happy and laughing. But at the age of 16, things changed overnight for me. I became a father while still at school, which had a massive impact on my life.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

I had been dating my girlfriend for two years at the time. We were still children, so the pregnancy had a huge impact on us emotionally. I was very frightened of what everyone would think. Teachers, football managers, family, friends. I feared they all would judge me. This was the first time in my life I had a real worry, the kind that made me feel sick. I wanted to hide away from the world.

What better way to hide from the world than gambling?

I placed my first bet when I was with my dad. He had just recently come back into my life after a long time. He himself was a compulsive gambler. I used to see his pockets full of money. If I’m honest, it made me want to be like him. I looked up to him.

When I won $580 on my first bet, a huge rush came over me. A father-to-be, I believed gambling could be the way out of all my financial worries. I had only a part-time job after school that paid $12. How could I provide for a son with that wage? With gambling came a rush of adrenaline and I was instantly hooked.

It was here where I found a very dysfunctional way of dealing with stress. Gambling was a crutch that I thought was helping me. I felt I wouldn’t be judged there. I felt like it was the only place in the world where I could switch off all my worries. Little did I know that when I placed that first bet, I was laying down the foundation for years of HELL!

Something that originally gave me a rush, quickly became a problem. It didn’t take long before I started to lose control and the debts started to mount.

Bank loans, overdrafts, loans from family and friends who I didn’t pay back, often resulting in major falling outs. When they refused to give me any more money, I went to drug dealers, loan sharks, anyone who could give me the money. I kept on chasing the big win that would fix everything.

In the span of 3 years my life spiraled out of control. I was 19 and a gambling addict. I couldn’t stop and my life quickly became a mess. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t know how to. It was also at this age when I became a father for the second time. This time with another girl. Instead of it becoming more inspiration to stop, this only added more fuel to my addiction. I now gambled more than ever.

I did always hold down a job, but my real career was gambling. This is where my mind was always fixed.

At the age of 23 I was attacked with a hammer because of an unpaid gambling debt. I was walking out of a local gym and heard a car pull up behind me. I looked over my shoulder and remember hearing a loud noise and seeing a white flash. I had been hit over the head with a lump hammer. I was woken up later on by a taxi driver who was driving by and spotted me. Did that make me stop gambling? No.

By 24 I ran off to the Channel Islands, and later Ireland, as my life was being threatened. I owed $13,000 to a loan shark and I couldn’t pay them back. I honestly believed it couldn’t get any worse than this. It did get worse. Much worse.

By 26 I was sleeping in hospital bathrooms because I had nowhere else to go. I had upset many people and I was running out of options. I now owed so many people money from gambling debts that I was constantly looking over my shoulder, paranoid. I still couldn’t stop.

At the age of 27 I was kidnapped by a group of men for another unpaid debt. When I arrived there, I honestly believed I could try to talk my way out of it. What started off as just talking quickly turned into something ugly. I ended up in the back of a car with a sword held to my chest. The men called my family asking for the money or else my life would be ended. I was scared I was going to be stabbed and remember thinking this would be it for my life. My mum reported it to the police and a tracker was placed on my phone.

I remember seeing the police driving up the road and thinking I would finally be saved. But when I opened the door for them, I just ran. They arrested me and all the men who had threatened my life. I knew that being arrested meant I was safe, for now.

At this point in my life I felt as though my mind was shutting down. I didn’t want to wake up. I felt like I was living a nightmare. I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. That boy who had morals now had none. That boy who was close to his mum now didn’t speak to her. That boy who played football now gambled every day. That boy who was happy now cried himself to sleep at night. The boy who wanted to be a footballer now owed over $260,000 out to several different people. Gambling addiction did that to me.

At the age of 28, I had three choices. One: I take my own life (which I thought about daily). Two: I carry on gambling and chasing that big win (which I won several times, but it was never big enough), or three: I grit my teeth and do all I can to get well from my addiction. Thankfully I chose the latter.

I walked into rehab at the age of 28, a broken man. I remember lifting my arms as I walked through the door, begging them to help me.

For me it was a matter of life or death. If I’d carried on gambling, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I’d be in a box, six feet under.

From the moment I made that choice I took my recovery seriously. I wanted to get myself well more than anything in the world. I had to change as a person and work on damaged relationships. It was the first time in my life I felt as though I couldn’t run away to gamble. I was having my buttons pressed and had to deal with it, as a man.

Since walking into rehab 6 years ago, I’ve not gambled since. I worked hard on changing as a person and being honest. I will never go back to that life. It’s not an option for me.

I’ll always carry the scars around with me from those 13 years. I upset a lot of people and that still plays in my mind.

I always chased that ‘big win’. I always thought that was an amount of money. But the biggest win was staring me in the face all the time. It wasn’t money! It was stopping gambling and enjoying all the beauty I had in my life. Health, family, and friends.

I’m now a better father, better son, better friend, and better person. I like who I am.

The biggest reward since stopping is my relationship with my sons. Before, I thought I was a dad because I loved my children, even though I only saw them twice a week. It wasn’t. I now know being a dad means much more than that.

Since stopping gambling there was a certain person that came back into my life. He was an old school friend. I heard he had been struggling with a drug addiction and I got in touch. I wanted to offer him some advice based on my own recovery. I wanted him to have some hope that things would be ok. I believed I could help him.

That person was my old friend from school, Liam.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

Liam’s Story

My name is Liam. I am 34 and a few years ago I had to change my life and the person I was. I was in active addiction and felt hopeless…I couldn’t stop using.

I didn’t plan on becoming an addict. I wasn’t some tearaway and would have laughed if you had said I would end up in a rehab facility… but that is one of the places addiction took me.

I started using in the way most people do, experimenting and socializing with friends at school. I liked the image and association that came with it all.

Around this time I had what I often call a perfect storm. My father was sent to prison. It seemed to happen out of nowhere. I didn’t know that he had been fighting a charge for several years. He took me for breakfast one Friday morning and explained I might see him in the press. He was in court and facing a major fine. That night I was sent to stay with my sister and received a call that my father had been imprisoned and sentenced to 7 years.

In line with my dad’s wishes, my family tried to keep it quiet. We tried to maintain some normality, but there was no normal after this. The man I looked up to was no longer around and everything changed. I became aware of obvious financial difficulties that no one in my family wanted to talk about.

In a very short span of time I learned to pretend I was ok and keep a secret. While my mum worked hard to make ends meet, I was consciously numbing the pain. I was drinking and doing drugs. It stopped me from thinking about reality. I felt carefree when I was using with my friends.

I don’t blame this event for my addiction, far from it. I just think it accelerated things. But this way of dealing with life was a pattern that would be repeated and repeated. I started to lead a double life.

I was seen as successful, driven, and money orientated. I had a good job, a nice house, a smart car, and was a decent Thai boxer. I eventually married, had kids, and became the director of a national business. At the same time, I was using Class A drugs in total secrecy and had a group of ‘friends’ no one knew about.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

I hid my behavior from everybody. I had different groups of friends for different things, and I made it very clear to everyone that they could not discuss what I was doing with anyone else. No one could ever look at my phone. I had hiding places everywhere. I manufactured reasons to be out of the house and excuses as to why I couldn’t come home.

I used even when I took care of the kids. I drug drove, and used first thing before breakfast, right before I took the kids to school.

My wife had issues with anxiety and I would play on this if questioned. I’d say she was paranoid and laugh if others tried to address my behavior. I would tell them I had it under control. ‘Look what I’ve got. I can’t be that bad,’ I’d say.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

When I think of where my addiction took me, I think mostly of the using alone and the poor state of mind I lived in. When everyone else started to settle down, I didn’t. I couldn’t stop and using alone became a regular habit. Then it became every day, pretty much 24/7.

I always had drugs with me. I had moved further up the chain of supply and was buying in bigger amounts, walking around with amounts that would land me many years in prison. I would meet in aisles of supermarkets and in cars. Any location I could easily get to. It wasn’t long before I began getting it dropped off at my office with no regard for who saw me. I even cut it up in the staff toilets.

When I was on drugs I sometimes wouldn’t sleep for days. Then I would use drugs to keep me awake when I had meetings. I was tired all the time. It was a vicious circle.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

I hated who I had become and hated what I was doing. I lived in fear of getting caught and carried guilt like a weight on my back. I felt I couldn’t tell anyone I was struggling, as it would mean telling them about my double life and risking losing it all. I had everything I always wanted and I was destroying it all, and myself.

I honestly didn’t know I was an addict and I didn’t know I was losing the battle to addiction. All I knew was the fun was long gone and I had to get help.

I had one childhood friend, Mark, who had kept in touch. He was in recovery from gambling and seemed to be sticking his nose in more and more as I fell apart.

I remember bumping into him at a friend’s wedding and having the usual ‘what have you been up to’ conversation, to which he responded, ‘I am in rehab.’ I laughed, thinking it was only a joke or a funny story he was about to tell. But he told me he wasn’t joking and was really trying to turn his life around.

The knowledge of his stories and the memory of him being in rehab made me feel like I could reach out to him for help. Soon after, I asked him to meet me for a coffee.

I remember calling him in advance, warning him about my appearance. ‘Mate, I don’t look the same as when you last saw me. I’m not doing too well,’ I said. My face was a mess. I had cuts and blood in my nostrils, and I had lost a lot of weight. I was an emotional wreck. But he didn’t judge me. Instead, he told me not to worry and that he would be there to meet me.

In that coffee shop, I sat across from Mark and started crying. I told him I was in trouble and that I didn’t know if I could go on anymore. I was using more than anyone could imagine, and I was scared of telling anyone.

He decided it was best to help me discuss things with my family. From there on, it was decided that I needed to seek treatment at a rehab facility. I didn’t resist and was honestly looking forward to getting away from the cycle of using.

I gave it my all and I got some clean time in a safe place. But I wasn’t ready for what waited for me when I came out. I had left a trail of emotional destruction that rehab could not fix. The one-time success was now an addict. Unable to cope with this reality, I relapsed. Things got pretty dark and the belief I would be able to recover faded quickly thereafter. On my birthday, my wife asked me to write down my funeral arrangements along with my wishes for my children just in case.

Mark spoke to my wife and suggested I go stay with him.

The next morning, I got on a train and went to stay with Mark. I didn’t know what to expect. He was just my old friend from school who had a gambling issue, but he was now my only hope.

I slept on a blow-up bed in his apartment and started to establish my recovery.

Mark didn’t do my recovery for me, but he didn’t give up on me. He saw me relapse and supported me through it. He gave me a safe place and believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. The old school friend who stood over my shoulder in our year 11 picture had now helped save my life.

Without him, it could have all been so different. I eventually established my recovery, got some time under my belt, and went home. I remember listening to ‘Glorious’ by Macklemore that morning and breaking down. I was going home to the love of my life and three beautiful children, and I had another chance.

It felt like we had to get to know one another all over again, to work hard to understand the past. We had to understand to be okay with it and move on.

My wife has never used drugs, but addiction devastated her life. I thank God she let me come home and rebuild. Today we live in a happy family home and I am the dad and husband I always wanted to be!

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

It was during my stay at Mark’s we would talk about what we knew of addiction previously, the stereotypes we had at school, and the fact that our own stories challenged many of these ideas. We couldn’t remember anyone ever speaking to us about addiction. Of course we were told not to do drugs by a teacher or parent, but did anyone talk about addiction, types of addiction, the reason for it, and the fact  it can happen to anyone? NO!

Would it have made a difference? I’m not sure it would have stopped us, but I think we both believe it would have helped us know what we were going through at a much earlier stage. It would have shown that a way back is possible, and we may have known there was help available.

It was from these discussions in Mark’s apartment, on my blow-up bed, that we decided we had something to offer. We wanted to use our experience to benefit others and hopefully raise awareness around addiction. I was still in my early days of recovery, so I worked on the business setup behind the scenes while Mark took our idea to key contacts within the recovery community.

Our initial idea of ‘doing some talks to kids’ has now developed and grown into WHYSUP. We share our experiences, raise awareness on addiction, and encourage a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing. We offer public speaking, presentations, workshops, and mentoring and work within education, businesses, and sports clubs.

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP
Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

We have launched a range of merchandise and hats to create a brand that is known for awareness. Awareness of addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellbeing. We use our profits to offer free services to schools that need us most. Please take the time to check us out and buy a hat.”

Mark and Liam/WHYSUP

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mark and Liam, founders of Whysup. You can follow their journey on InstagramDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more inspiring stories from recovering addicts:

‘The day of my wedding, I thought I deserved a treat. I picked up a needle and got loaded before I got married. I thought I could do it once, and not again. I was wrong.’

‘I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed covered in my own vomit, dirt and mud caked in my ears and under my perfectly manicured acrylic nails.’

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