A violent, alcoholic father, an invalid mother and a miserable time at school didn’t bode well for this young teenager’s future. But almost 40 years later, a long struggle with his own alcohol and drug addiction finally ended when Eddie Roche arrived at Birmingham’s residential Fircroft College of Adult Education and started out on a road he could never have imagined.
Eddie (54) didn’t trouble the teachers at school - he just sat at the back, minded his own business, gained a few low CSE grades and got badly bullied. He hated it. At home, his life was wrecked by an abusive, alcoholic father, while his stressed-out mother became an invalid after suffering a stroke.
“I vowed I’d never be like my dad, I’d never drink - but I got to age 13-14 and started. My grandma was also an addict and you just learnt negative behaviours in that sort of atmosphere.
‘I paid the bills, looked ok, but internally couldn’t handle it'
“I managed to some extent. I thought as long as I functioned and paid the bills it looked ok - but internally I couldn’t handle it. This carried on into my mid-30s. My dad, meanwhile, had become a worn-out park bench drinker.
“Nowadays, of course, my school would have identified my situation as a teenager but then there wasn’t the awareness or support. I attended college for a year after school but dropped out, only to land a freelance cargo department job locally at Heathrow airport through my mother’s contacts. I was there for the next 25 years and made my way into middle management, often working 16- to 20-hour double shifts and playing hard. I was making good money but that was feeding my drinking. I never grew up. I’d married, had a daughter and been divorced by the time I was 40 - and I was still partying.”
Things then got so bad that in 2003 Eddie spent time at a Priory alcoholic rehabilitation centre. He did manage to stay off alcohol for several years, but in 2008 he started using crack cocaine and heroin. He went on to experience a series of dramatic relapses, mental illness and self-harming.
Going for detox in Birmingham was like a leap in faith
Somehow, after time spent unemployed, he landed a charity admin job and stayed ‘clean’ for a few years without drinking, only to lapse again until one day in June 2017 he was hospitalised and then sent to a treatment centre in Birmingham, run by the charity Changes UK, the first organisation to really take his case in hand.
“It was like a leap in faith. I felt like a child moving to a new city knowing no one,” says Eddie (originally from London). “I was dropped off at the station and arrived at the centre with all the belongings I had!”
It took around five months for Eddie to fully detox at the centre and to go through semi-independent and independent living support courses. Part of the process was introducing residents to personal and social development courses and volunteering and it was only then that life really changed. He was directed to what would be his saving grace: Fircroft College, a residential adult education institution, set in beautiful grounds, and specialising in supporting students with difficult backgrounds.
'I found a safe haven at Fircroft'
“When I found this place I thought: Wow, this is unbelievable! I didn’t do the greatest at school although I’m not daft - but attending my first short three-day residential course at Fircroft meant I got a chance to improve my existing skills and gain new ones.”
His first course was about understanding mental health. He'd suffered from mental ill-health and, like many in recovery from addiction now wanted to go out to help others and “save the world”. He initially focused on counselling and personal development courses. “It was all about understanding human behaviour and relationships and I began to get involved in Fircroft’s learning community. I realised I’d found a safe haven at Fircroft.
“The residential environment really helps learning - you can focus on your course with no distractions like kids, TV or a dog! You can go to the library any time you want - even at night if you can’t sleep.”
‘There is nothing you can’t do - it may just take a bit longer'
At the end of each course, students are given information and guidance sessions to check where they are on their learning journey and if their course is relevant.
It was during his early days at Fircroft that Eddie opted to become a tutor rather than counsellor. “I'd been a training officer at Heathrow and the more residential courses I took the more I thought, yes, I could empathise and teach people with similar traumatic backgrounds to my own to develop their careers. So many people in recovery have been told as young people that they were no good, just useless. But I could tell them there is nothing they can’t do - it might just take a bit longer than normal to train to do things they’d only ever dreamt of.”
Eddie has now moved on, lives in a flat, owns a dog, attends a church, and works as an outreach support worker, promoting the college and supporting learners with specific learning needs at various centres across Birmingham including job centres and women’s refuges But he can’t get enough of studying at Fircroft and has been rapidly adding to his current GCSE/level 2 qualifications (current total 11 plus one level 3) to be eligible to train as a tutor.
‘Becoming an FE tutor? - I would never have believed it'
“I have an award in educational training (AET) and am halfway through an intensive numeracy fast-track course of 12 weeks to gain my level 2 GCSE equivalent in maths; I got English GCSE earlier this year. Once I have both, I can start training to be a tutor.” He’s currently taking a level 2 course for support practitioners in the classroom.
Eddie finds studying at Fircroft has dispelled the myth that he had to have A-levels to follow his dreams - the college has shown him there are other ways to meet his goals.
“Fircroft helps you achieve those aspirations you never thought you’d match . . . if I’d been told a year ago I had a chance of becoming a tutor at an FE college, I’d never have believed it!”
Lecturer who went the extra mile
Among a host of lecturers who have all helped him achieve, Eddie singles out Fircroft’s head of access and pre-access - Angela Bate.
“She kept coming to mind. She always finds time for people and is very encouraging and supportive. She’s suggested all sorts of courses for me to go on, and when I’ve been struggling she’s shown a genuine belief in me and constantly told me I can do this.”
Now as an outreach worker, Eddie aims to do the same on his regular visits to Birmingham’s recovery centres, job centres and (thanks to his understanding of his own mother’s experiences) women’s organisations where women have been through trauma.
“I tell them that like me they can turn their lives around. They have another chance and there’s nothing to stop them becoming a nurse or whatever they thought was impossible 30 years ago. I and others at the college will help you get there!”