When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, I turned to alcohol to try and cope. She passed away six months later; she was only 39 and we had three children. It was too much to bear. My drinking got worse and soon I was relying on it to get through each day.
I stopped working and we eventually lost our rented house. We moved into a family hostel at first, then my daughters moved in with their boyfriends and my son Duncan and I found a small flat. I carried on spiralling, drinking more and more.
I felt like such a bad father, and one day it all just got too much. I decided Duncan would be better off without me, so I packed a bag and walked out. It felt simpler to slip away than to stay and face up to the truth of what my life had become.
I was homeless, living on the streets or in night shelters. I slept at a bus stop for a while and was known locally as “Bus Stop John.” Each day I would beg for money so I could carry on drinking. Living in the same town soon became too difficult. It was good to glimpse my children and see they were ok, but I didn’t want them to see me begging. I moved on and ended up sleeping rough in London.
Life there was very hard. I slept on benches or under a bridge, but it never felt safe and I drank myself into oblivion each day. In retrospect, I think I believed it would be better for everyone if I died. I never stopped feeling guilty about my children. No matter how much I drank, I always woke up thinking about them.
One night I drank so much that I woke up on the other side of London, with no memory of how I got there. I realised the danger I was in, and finally made the choice to seek help at a shelter, where I heard about a charity in Cambridge called Emmaus. It offered accommodation to people who had been homeless, plus the chance to work. I applied and moved in soon after. If I hadn’t done so, I don’t think I’d be alive today.
Having a safe place to sleep and a regular work routine gave me a purpose and I gradually stopped drinking, feeling much more positive. Two years after arriving, I married my second wife – another Emmaus companion. Our wedding was the start of a new life and I summoned up the courage to invite my children. It was so good to be in touch with them again.
I was a companion at Emmaus Cambridge for five years before I got the job of Deputy Community Leader and then Community Manager. I worked there for eight years and then moved to help establish Emmaus Leicestershire & Rutland. After a while I became the go-to guy to send if a new Emmaus community was going through a bit of a rough patch. I would travel over to lend my expertise and help until they got back on their feet. I retired a couple of years ago.
When my my wife passed away and I needed some support, I moved up to live with Duncan and his wife Hayley. I’m so proud that Duncan then worked for Emmaus UK, and Hayley is now Head of Companion Support at Emmaus Leicestershire & Rutland – Emmaus really is part of the family.
I started volunteering at Emmaus Leicestershire & Rutland, running the community’s eBay shop. I’ve got 20 years of experience working in Emmaus shops, so I’ve developed a pretty good eye for knowing what will sell. I love working with the companions and passing on that knowledge.
When I started volunteering, I was on medication for my mental health but after a while I no longer needed it. Volunteering was better than any medication. We all support each other. If you’ve got a problem, there’s always somebody ready with a listening ear.
After months of volunteering, I then stepped up to join the staff team as Interim Shop Manager at Emmaus Leicestershire & Rutland.
I’ve worked with some amazing people in my time at Emmaus, and there’s always something new to learn every day, especially because you’re working with people from such different backgrounds.
I’ve been an Emmaus companion, volunteer, and a staff member. I’ve seen it grow from six communities to 30 across the UK. Emmaus saved my life and it feels so good knowing that I’ve been able to give back and help others turn their lives around, too.
In June 2023, John very sadly passed away. As someone with Emmaus so close to his heart, John’s family has requested that his story remains on our website.