"If someone is struggling, pat them on the back and pick them up"

Joe’s struggles began at a young age. He had difficulty focusing and constantly found himself getting in trouble with teachers for misbehaving. He soon began to see himself as different to everyone else, saying “I knew I was a problem, but I didn’t really understand why.” It wasn’t until he entered adulthood until Joe received an ADHD diagnosis, which gave some explanation of why he felt this way.

Despite Joe’s apparent misbehaving, his parents always supported him as best they could and provided loving homes. Unfortunately, his grandparents’ home was less safe. Between the ages of four and eight Joe has been abused by his grandfather. Joe kept this abuse secret. Throughout his adolescence he regularly experienced traumatic flashbacks, but he suffered in silence – Joe felt it was one more thing that was “wrong” with him.

“I used to have flashbacks of my grandfather, the same one all the time. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was paralysed” 

As he progressed through his early childhood, Joe found it increasingly difficult to manage his emotions and by the age of 15, Joe was using heroin.

As Joe’s drug use increased, he started committing crimes to fund his habit, and before his sixteenth birthday he was in prison. The cycle of crime and drug use continued for 11 years, amounting to 27 prison sentences totalling 108 offences. In prison for the 27th time, Joe wanted to make a change. He started to take steps to not only detox, but to equip himself with the necessary skills, strategies and support to maintain abstinence on the outside world. Upon his release, he discovered a tool that would help change his life – sport.

Joe signed up to School of Hard Knocks’ Adult Course through a volunteering programme; he was both excited and anxious on his first day. Having become accustomed to a fairly isolated lifestyle, he found being in groups uncomfortable. Despite these initial concerns he felt welcome, valued and understood by the people around him. He found that he shared experiences with many other participants and could be himself without judgement. For the first time he had a sense of belonging that was not centred around drugs. He was part of a team.

“I was institutionalised so I used to isolate myself but when I went to SOHK that went out the window. Everyone else was in the same situation as me and that helped massively. If someone was struggling you’d pat them on the back and pick them up… it was just lovely to be part of a team.”

Joe threw himself into the programme and invested a huge amount of effort in improving his physical fitness, mental health and professional development. He spent every morning doing rugby training and after getting some exercise he was able to focus and learn in the afternoon workshops, unlike when he was at school. His work ethic and eagerness to learn was noticed by course facilitators. Joe felt appreciated, valued and rewarded, particularly upon being awarded captaincy of the course rugby team. He had transformed his perception of himself and now he had proof that others also saw positive qualities in him – responsibility, leadership and commitment. 

I knew someone had given me an opportunity. Someone was trusting me and testing me and I grabbed it with both hands.”

With the support of his team; his family, friends, SOHK course-mates and SOHK facilitators, Joe was able to re-story his life experiences from one characterised by failure and isolation, to one of growth, development and accomplishment and belonging. Joe is currently in full-time, sustained employment, working as a Warehouse Operative Manager. He has been sober since 2016.