Former drug addict is helping others after turning his life around

The latest NHS figures show that more people in Wigan are ending up in hospital after overdosing on cocaine, with admissions across Greater Manchester more than doubling over five years.

Friday, 31st January 2020, 7:42 pm
Updated Friday, 31st January 2020, 7:44 pm
Ollie Foster

There were 340 cases of cocaine poisoning in the region’s hospitals last year, with the highest number of cases seen in this borough.

The number of people hospitalised for mental and behavioural disorders linked to the drug have also risen locally.

One such addict was Ollie Foster.

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Deep in the throes of drug addiction Ollie was sleeping rough after his marriage broke down.

Just over a year later, his life is almost unrecognisable and, having battled his demons, Ollie now helps men and women like him to tackle theirs.

The 34-year-old spends his days working for homelessness charity The Brick, mentoring and "restoring" those who end up at the night shelter in Leigh

In August 2018 he was staying in the same shelter, having been told he had to leave the family home five months before.

Ollie started taking cocaine recreationally at parties from the age of 17, but addiction truly took hold when he started his own company 10 years ago.

“It just got worse and worse and at first it had just been cocaine, but then in the last four and five years I moved onto crack cocaine,” said the father-of-two.

“When I got onto crack cocaine, it was a different level. It was soul destroying.

“I was asked to leave the family home of 10 years because my lifestyle was so chaotic.

“My wife wouldn’t know if I would wake up angry, sad or happy. She tried her utmost best but there’s only so much one person can do themselves.

“I was simply going off the rails and what came next was a complete breakdown.”

Using all of the money he had left over from his business, Ollie rented a hotel room in Leigh. When that ran out, he started sofa surfing.

And then he was living in a tent, sleeping rough in Wigan and sometimes crossing over into Warrington.

Ollie said: “I was still in the chaos of addiction and was spending every day surrounded by people who were still using drugs.”

It was during this time that The Brick came into Ollie’s life and he was given a place to stay in the night shelter.

The former magistrates’ court building on Chapel Street gave him stability, but it also gave him a stark reminder of his own vulnerability.

“You have to accept the reality that you’ve got nothing except the clothes on your back,” he said.

Ollie admits that his engagement was "limited" at the beginning but soon he was opening up, and he was put in touch with Addaction.

Addaction is a community substance misuse service offering a "warm, non-judgemental space" for adults and young people.

“There’s a lot of people who look at support services and think they’re just trying to relieve the situation,” said Ollie.

“But mentors from Addaction have life experience, they’ve been where you’ve been.

“What The Brick, Addaction and Wigan Council do is they work to restore an individual, and that takes a lot of time and investment.”

After two months Ollie was moved into supported accommodation and entered into community rehabilitation at Greenslate Farm, Orrell.

And it was "life-changing" for him, with the farm providing the "relaxing" backdrop to boost the recovery which he says will "last a lifetime".

“Addiction is a lonely place. You think you’re on your own and you don’t like yourself,” he said.

“You think ‘I don’t really care if I wake up the next day or not’.

“When you’re surrounded by people in the same situation as you get further into rehab they talk more openly about what’s possible.”

Ollie has been taught how to manage his cravings and even how to pre-empt traumatic situations – like the death of a family member – to avoid "going into a spiral".

By living in supported accommodation, Ollie was also able to take what he had learned everyday and start incorporating it into his day-to-day life.

Soon he was given the chance to support rough sleepers as an outreach worker for The Brick, the organisation which had picked him up and put him back on his feet.

Then four months ago, Ollie was offered to become an independent living mentor, which provides bespoke support to vulnerable individuals looking to secure permanent accommodation.

He said: “It was an eye opener going back to the night shelter where I had stayed but I don’t see it as me giving something back.

“Recovery is a passion of mine. It’s achievable but it’s not easy.”

The Brick, along with Addaction, also runs crisis support for those concerned about others like family members.

Ollie’s wife still goes to some group meetings and while they remain separated, they are on good terms.

He said: “It’s an individual’s choice to start using substances, they’ll use it as a coping mechanism.

“People don’t realise that there are services out there and they can learn to cope in a different way.

“Recovery works as long as someone wants it and engages with us. We’re here to support them.”

Ollie was one of the lucky ones. The latest NHS figures show that more people in Greater Manchester are ending up in hospital after overdosing on cocaine, with admissions more than doubling over five years.

There were 340 cases of cocaine poisoning in city-region hospitals last year, with the highest number of cases seen in Wigan.

The number of people hospitalised for mental and behavioural disorders linked to the drug have also risen locally, while nationally more people admitted to using cocaine in 2018/19.

But patients presenting themselves with mental health issues after using the drug have risen by 52 per cent in Wigan since 2014/15..

Dr Prun Bijral, medical director at substance misuse charity Change Grow Live, said: ”The rise in cocaine poisonings is consistent with year-on-year increases in the purity and availability of cocaine in the UK.

“At the same time, we are witnessing an increased awareness of the harms of cocaine use, including its mental and behavioural side-effects.

“In this context, it is more important than ever for individuals concerned about their or someone else’s cocaine use to seek help from local professionals.

“This can be as simple as talking to your GP or dropping into your local drug and alcohol treatment service.”

Addaction service manager Sarah Humphreys said that increasing hospital admissions shows "we need much better education around the potential harms of cocaine and how to use the drug safely".

“Long term cocaine use can lead to problems with the heart as well as mental health issues like anxiety, paranoia and aggressive behaviour,” she said.

“If you do take cocaine, avoid mixing it with alcohol as this increases the risk of heart problems and take small amounts, leaving at least an hour between doses.”

Addaction’s two offices can be found in Coops Building off King Street West, Wigan, or Kennedy House near Chapel Street, Leigh. Anonymous support can also be provided through Addaction’s webchat.

Alternatively people in the borough can also access the Wigan and Leigh Recovery Partnership by calling 01942 487578.