Matty’s journey from drug addiction to MA student volunteer

Student Volunteering Week might sound like the preserve of the young – but Matty is 52, an MA student at Northumbria University and completed his first social work placement with Children North East in February 2021. He also admits to a past that involved substance misuse. However, Matty has completely turned his life around and some of that is thanks to volunteering, as he tells us here:

I’ve just completed my first placement with Children North East’s Families and Parenting Service – and what a fantastic service it is.

My placement allowed me to grow as a person and gain an understanding of working with families and children in a Third Sector setting.

I worked with ten families and their children, ranging from family support through to looked after children and children on Child in Need plans. The majority of my role consisted of providing support to a range of families across the area.

This would include emotional support, working with the family to understand challenges they may be facing, and assistance and signposting during the pandemic. I also supported two looked after children who had experienced trauma in their lives and had been removed from their family home.

Children North East was a very warm, very professional environment and whoever I spoke to, from the cleaner to the service manager, was passionate about supporting children. It’s been an absolutely fantastic placement for a student to mature and develop.

I’m really proud to be on my way to achieving an MA in Social Work – it hasn’t been the easiest of journeys.

My earliest dream was to be a soldier and so I joined up at 16 and was in the army for eight years. When I came out of it in my early twenties I felt quite lost and struggled with relationships. I had a series of jobs – bin man, gardener, working in factories.

I used to get a job, work really hard, save loads of money and then go on a binge. And that binge consisted of alcohol and recreational drug misuse. But in my early thirties, I started injecting drugs and that’s when it crossed the line.

I was a broken human being

I was a heroin addict between six and seven years. My physical and mental health really deteriorated and I was a broken human being. I chose drugs over my family and it’s not something I’m proud of.

But one day I realised that my parents were getting a lot older and I thought if I don’t sort myself out I could end up dying.

In December 2009, I attended a six-month drug rehabilitation programme to work towards recovery and accepting responsibility for my past actions whilst also building a life for the future. I began volunteering with a drug and alcohol harm reduction service supporting vulnerable adults then joined the charity Changing Lives, first as an outreach worker and progressing to be a deputy manager. I also spent time in Australia on a Churchill Fellowship working on homelessness, addictions and sexual exploitation projects.

Four years ago, I completed a BA (Hons) in Counselling at Sunderland University with a 2:1 and became a sessional counsellor, but one day my partner asked me if I’d ever thought about social work.

I want to make a difference

One of the main reasons I applied to do the MA was because I want to help people, help communities and to advocate on behalf of families and try and make a little difference in someone’s life if I can.

Does my past experience make me more empathetic? I certainly think lived experience can be an advantage. I can communicate with people on an emotional level and understand it’s not all about reading books!

I’ve been clean now over 11 years. I believe in total abstinence and I don’t use drugs or alcohol. I’m a member of the 12 Step Fellowship and that’s absolutely changed my life.

My proudest moment wasn’t getting my degree though, or receiving my Winston Churchill medal, it was getting my family back into my life. My mam passed in 2015 and she’d seen me five years clean. That meant a lot because when it comes down to it, family is the most important thing.

Matty in the Lake District