Homeless And Addicted To Heroin, How One Man Turned His Life Around

“All I want to do now is support people that have gone through what I’ve gone through,” says Chris Panikkou, 48.

HuffPost UK is the media partner for the St John Ambulance Everyday Heroes awards on 7 October, celebrating the nation’s life savers, health heroes and community stars. In this interview series we speak to people whose lives were saved, alongside those who saved them.

By the age of 10, Chris Panikkou had seen it all. “I’d experienced a lot of violence,” he tells me. “I’d seen sex, money, drugs, guns.”

Chris grew up in Camden, London, in what he describes as a very dysfunctional and violent setting. He worked in his dad’s café, before and after school, from the age of seven years old.

He recalls how at school he always felt like the “odd one out” because of his home life: “I didn’t sit down and educate myself. It was somewhere I could escape. I had a lot of laughs at school and I tried to buy kids as well. I’d dip money out of the till in dad’s café.

“At breaktime I’d go to the tuck shop and buy a box of crisps, not a packet, and throw them into the playground so all the kids would surround me and like me for five minutes. I was craving affection.”

By the age of 12, he had dabbled with cannabis and at 15 he was taking prescription drugs. The spiral had begun.

Chris Panikkou
Chris Panikkou

The 48-year-old describes a tumultuous relationship with his father. In his formative years, his dad would abuse him mentally and physically, he says.

But later down the line, and following the demise of his dad’s business, their relationship turned a corner. “He became a lot more laid back, a lot calmer, his violence had stopped and we got quite close,” Chris says.

In the mid-nineties, his father fell very ill and died while waiting for a triple heart bypass. During this time, Chris turned to heroin to take the pain away and moved to Hastings, with his daughter. “I carried on using, smoking and injecting for about 16 years,” he says.

Throughout this period he went to prison, became homeless for a short period of time, his daughter went into foster care (and came back out again).

Chris saved up his benefits to rent a basement flat in Hastings but would always turn back to drugs. He’s surprised he’s still alive now, in fact. “Along my journey so many people have died,” he says, looking at the table. “It’s sad.”

Chris is sitting, sharing his story with me, in a small room off the main hall of the Seaview Project, which he visited many times at the height of his addiction. The centre provides a safe space for people struggling with addiction or mental health issues to access not just food and medical support but company and entertainment – as well as drop-in clinics run by St John Ambulance.

You walk through the big blue front door, up a slight ramp and you’re in a large open space like a canteen, with various people (and their dogs) sat around tables. There’s a foosball table, walls littered with posters and various rooms leading off the main area, including a gym.

It’s bustling: people say hi to each other, eat together, there are nods of recognition when Chris walks through. It’s a real community.

Chris Panikkou
Chris Panikkou

On the day I meet Chris, who has been off drugs for seven years now, I also meet Roger Nuttall, the man who helped save his life. In the year before his recovery journey began, Chris overdosed five times. He explains how on one occasion he collapsed at a nearby soup kitchen called Hope Kitchen, where Roger, a nurse coordinator for St John Ambulance, was working at the time.

“Roger had got me into recovery position, called emergency services and saved my life,” says Chris. “That was twice that happened. I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking to you if it wasn’t for St John.”

When I catch up with Roger, he’s just finished treating a woman with an abscess on her leg and notes there have been a few of those lately. “We’re here four days a week,” he says. “A day being about a three-hour clinic. With Hope Kitchen, we’re there on a Saturday evening.”

He has worked with the Seaview Project for 15 years now and recalls helping Chris after he collapsed, back in 2012, by putting him in the recovery position and calling an ambulance. “I remember Chris stopped breathing and the paramedics were so laid back about it,” he says – still visibly shocked by it.

“They calmly waited for him to start breathing again.”

The 53-year-old and his colleagues provide crucial first aid support to homeless people and those in the throes of addiction day in, day out.

Roger Nuttall (second from left) and Sandy Collver (third from right).
Roger Nuttall (second from left) and Sandy Collver (third from right).

St John’s Hastings Homeless Service team work hard, and devote a lot of their time to helping others – so much so the service has been nominated for an Everyday Heroes award, with special mention to one of Roger’s colleagues Sandy Collver, a long-standing nurse volunteer in the clinic, for her dedication.

Explaining why their work is important, Roger – who was once homeless himself – says: “When you’re homeless you very easily lose a sense of identity, you lose that sense of who you are.

“We’re providing a service to people who are disengaged from mainstream healthcare. We’re very much about listening, being holistic and being empathic, giving people time, giving them a sense of hope, trying to make people feel that they’re worth something that we’re really interested in as a human being.

“We’re not just hearing about their problems, but also about their background and their aspirations, to see them as a whole person and try and help them to feel like they’re a valuable human being; trying to restore that sense of identity.”

As for Chris, 2012 marked a turning point for him. After overdosing and ending up in hospital, he was told by a straight-talking nurse that he needed to change his behaviour before it was too late.

He’s one of the lucky ones. There were 3,756 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2017, two-thirds of which were related to drug misuse.

“She said: ‘You’ve got to fucking stop this or next time you’re not going to make it’,” Chris recalls. “It was that last year that made me realise I’ve got to stop. I had one grandchild, one daughter at the time – I’ve now got two grandkids – and I thought ‘I can’t keep doing this, I’ve had enough’.”

He went into inpatient detox in Hove and started the 12-step recovery program. Now he supports others going through the same, while working as a Housing Scheme manager and, with help, hopes to open a café offering support for people struggling with mental health issues and addiction. He says: “As a collective, the drug and alcohol service, St John, the soup kitchens – they all kind of saved my life to be honest and got me on the road to recovery.”

Chris acknowledges he’s fortunate to have come out the other side and is now focusing on what he can do to help others. “I’ve done a lot of taking through my drinking and using,” he says. “All I want to do now is give back and support people that have gone through what I’ve gone through.”

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