Addiction drove me to crime and then prison, but thanks to the right support I’ve found a purpose: helping others to voice their experiences
I’m Darren, I’m 42 and I’m from Stoke-on-Trent. I’ve been living in the mixed up world of multiple and complex needs for almost 30 years. When I was six, because I was visually impaired, I was sent to a special needs school in Coventry for a “short time”. That “short time” lasted 11 years. It was a lonely experience.
After leaving school, I found myself caught in the world of alcohol and drug use which, over time, turned into addiction. From there, things got more out of hand and I spent 20 years forging a career in organised crime. This was how I funded my addiction, but I now recognise that it affected the lives of many others too. Finally, I went to prison for conspiracy to supply class A drugs in 2010.
In my life leading up to this point I have attracted a lot of labels from professionals and others. Problem child, four eyes, blind idiot, nutter, manic depressive, mentally ill, drunk, junkie, and criminal are just a few. These are things that people who were supposed to be helping me have called me. For some people with my background, these labels are like millstones weighing them down and stopping them from making changes in their lives. Millstones can become an identity and remove any desire for change.
Fortunately, there are people who take a different approach. People that have recognised me as a person with skills and interests rather than a stereotype. People who believed that I could make changes even when I doubted it myself.
When I was in prison, a member of staff recognised my interest in cooking and helped me to work in the kitchens. I’m a good cook, even if I say so myself. It was nice that someone recognised my skills and put them to good use. This helped me to want to develop wider skills and to move on.
I was released from prison in December 2012. I was fortunate to find the help I needed, including supported accommodation, and I was willing to take opportunities that came along. Two local organisations, Saltbox and Brighter Futures, helped me to get back on my feet after prison life. Then in 2013, Brighter Futures invited me to a focus group to talk about what I thought needed to change in services for people with complex needs, given my experiences.
Over the next few months, with other people with lived experience (we like to be known as expert citizens) and local agencies, we designed what was to become the Voices project in Stoke-on-Trent. I’m really proud that I am part of a team that helped to make that happen for my city. Something that’s already helping people with multiple needs to recover.
As part of that development, the Big Lottery Fund and Brighter Futures offered training in storytelling from the digital media company sounddelivery. This training gave me the confidence to tell my story in public. I realised that discussing my life experience could help others. It could also help agencies – those prepared to listen – to design better services.
The last 12 months have been amazing. I’ve been on the radio, I’m now helping to lead Voices as vice chair of the expert citizens group, I’ve been helping others to tell their stories through short films, and I feel that I’m making a positive contribution. People are listening and I hope that can change attitudes.
Now, thanks to the Voices project, I’m helping to put together 1,001 life stories so others can tell agencies about their experiences. I’m also working in a team to design a set of clear service standards for agencies that work with people that have complex needs and I’ve taken part in the local council’s My City My Say consultation with the expert citizens group.
Working to help other people who have experience of addiction, mental health difficulties, homelessness or offending behaviour to tell their stories has shown me what my real purpose is.
This month I’m going on another storytelling day but this time, I will be returning to the Social Media Exchange as Darren Murinas, an expert citizen, public speaker, blogger, filmmaker, storyteller, and agent of systems change.