Everything changed when I was referred to Hardwick House

Two years ago, I didn’t want to live. I’d go to bed and pray that I wouldn’t wake up. I was only 42 but I’d led a destructive, dysfunctional life. The things I’d done – drug dealing, violence, substance abuse and sleeping rough – were haunting me. But a chance meeting with a fellow veteran put me on the road to a better life. This is my story.

When I was 17 I joined the army. It was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. But less than a year later, I got an injury and was medically discharged. I had nowhere to live. I couldn’t go back to my home in South Shields because I didn’t get on with my mum. I ended up moving into shared accommodation, and living with complete strangers. They were into the rave scene, and they introduced me to the dance clubs and parties. It wasn’t long before I was selling drugs – speed and ecstasy – and taking them.

I started working for a criminal gang involved in money laundering, stealing cars and selling drugs. They taught me what to do, and how to use violence to get what you wanted. One day, I found out for myself just how brutal these people could be. It was the early 90s and car ringing was an easy way to make money. I took one of the cars out for a drive and crashed it. It had been ringed and was due to be sold the next day.

It didn’t take long for them to come after me. They bundled me into a car and drove me to a flat. Inside, there was a table with tools and bats on. For over an hour, the people I’d been ‘friends’ with took it in turns to beat me, and then dumped me in the street. I was a mess, but I couldn’t go to hospital because I couldn’t let the police find out. I couldn’t walk properly for months. My legs and knees were badly injured. I moved down to Nottingham to stay with family – to recover and get away from these people. I was just 19 at the time.

The next 10 years weren’t much easier. I met someone and we had two boys together (now aged 20 and 17) but it didn’t last. I was in and out of prison – first for stealing car stereos and not attending court, and later for GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm). I’d gone back to dealing drugs and with that came violence. I had to be tough and protect myself. But it was all an act. Underneath the hard shell was a person who was addicted to drugs and booze, who was having night terrors and was self harming. I was injecting amphetamine up to 10 times a day. I had drugs on tap so getting hold of it wasn’t a problem. What I didn’t notice, was the alcohol taking hold of me.

By the time I reached 29, and after another 5 months in prison and 15 months on probation, I stopped selling stuff and managed to get clean. But I was living in a shed and I had nothing. On Christmas Eve 2004, my two brothers came and took me back to the North East. For a couple of years, things were better. I went to college and got a City & Guilds in plastering. And from there I got a job as a plastering instructor. I enjoyed the work and I was good at teaching. But I was drinking heavily to get through the day. I’d have a quarter litre of vodka on my way to work, the same at lunch time, and more when I got home.

Around this time, I met a lovely girl and we had a son together. But the relationship didn’t last – because of my drinking. By then I was having about 250 units a week. I wasn’t able to see my son and I’d lost touch with my other two boys, who were later taken into care.

From 2009 I lived in a few hostels and supported schemes but I was often asked to leave because of my drinking, mental health problems and my attitude. At one place, I felt so lonely that I ‘built’ a friend out of my own clothes. I called him Dave. I was still deeply affected by the beating I got and, even now, a sudden noise can make me jump.

Everything changed in 2017 when I met Ger – an ex-serviceman who’d set up a charity to help veterans. He referred me to Hardwick House, a supported housing scheme for veterans run by Riverside. There was something different about this place. The staff focused on my strengths and what I had to offer. They asked me what my goals were, and I said I wanted to visit my mum on her birthday, clean and sober.

It took a few months, but with counselling, therapy and having people who believed in me, I’ve now been in recovery for 17 months. I live independently in my own flat and I’m taking it one day at a time. I felt proud recently to attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace, representing the Not Forgotten Association, a veterans charity. Imagine that – me in a suit on the palace lawn! Looking ahead, I’d love to try and have a relationship with my sons, and get back into work. I know I can achieve so much more, and I will.

Terry Ridley