Addicted to Extremes
Beaten unconscious by three men and left for dead in a West End shop doorway, it seemed as though Mark Johnson’s life had reached its brutal conclusion. The violence and abuse he suffered as a child, his drug addiction, his criminal behaviour and his time in prison… all seemed to have been leading inevitably to this point. But, against all the odds, this was not the end. Because a life that had been characterised by extremes was about to take a new and unexpected twist.
The next stage of Mark’s extraordinary journey would see him rubbing shoulders with royalty, advising government at the highest level, becoming a best-selling author and journalist and, most significantly of all, helping thousands of people just like him. A man who had been invisible to society for decades would suddenly find himself at the very heart of the establishment… and, in the process, demonstrate that, no matter how many challenges and setbacks one faces, life is never without hope.
Mark Johnson’s childhood was punctuated by chaos, violence and abuse. One of four children growing up in 1970s Kidderminster in the West Midlands, he was frequently beaten by his alcoholic father, who had no time for a young boy with artistic aspirations. This violence reached a peak when Mark was 16. His father, returning from the pub drunk and furious that Mark had stolen some of his tobacco, carried out a sustained and vicious attack on his son, finally pushing his head into the open fire. Mark survived but from this point onwards, he was unable to live under the same roof as his father.
Wrath of God
In his autobiography, Wasted, published in 2007 by Sphere, Mark describes a loveless, shambolic childhood home, where anger and violence simmered just below the surface, threatening to erupt at any moment. His mother, a fervent Jehovah’s Witness, believed in teaching her young family about the wrath of God, rather than love or compassion. His father was feared and admired in equal measure by the impressionable young boy.
Mark was eight when he first discovered that alcohol offered a way to escape his pain.
“It was the first time I realised I could change the way I felt chemically. All of the despair, anguish, guilt, shame seemed to melt away. It was a fantastic feeling”
Three years later, aged 11, Mark was offered heroin and, once again, the relief it brought was immediate and addictive. It was to be the start of decades of addiction that would take him to the brink of death many times.
Mark’s young life changed forever when he was just 17. Out with a gang of mates one night, he got into a fight with a group of out-of-towners who had shoved a pregnant woman. The fight was a bad one and two of the men were left in a coma. Along with his brother, cousin and friend, Mark was sentenced to nineteen and a half months in a young offenders’ institution.
Life behind bars
Life behind bars brought a new kind of horror into Mark Johnson’s life…. the harsh discipline, the prisoner initiations and the humiliation at the hands of sadistic prison officers. When he was released, he was determined to change but he found, instead, that prison life had “beaten the artist out of him”, teaching him, in its place, how to manipulate people and use violence as a means of survival.
“Jail was a great training ground for a life of crime, making me an expert in brutality.”
Less than two months after his release, Mark was back on remand. This time, he was offered the chance to complete his sentence in a drug rehabilitation centre in Birmingham called Turning Point. It was a chance that he took. However, Mark’s refusal to face up to the fact that he had a drugs problem meant that the attempt was destined for failure. He began to slide even deeper into addiction.
It wasn’t until April 1996, when Mark’s son Jack was born to a fellow heroin-addict called Rosie, that he first began to question his chaotic life of heroin and crack-addiction. Determined to provide a stable upbringing for his son, Mark got his first proper job as a trainee tree surgeon for a company in the Lake District. But, even though he loved the work, the extent of his drug problem made it impossible for him to hold down a job. Within a few months, Mark moved from the Lake District to Ireland and, then, to London, each time determined to make a fresh start in his chosen career as a tree surgeon.
When, inevitably, he was sacked from his job in the East End of London, as well as losing his job, Mark also lost his home. This was the beginning of his worst nightmare yet. Homeless on the streets of London with a £350-a-day drug habit to feed and no job, the prospects looked bleak.
But, Mark Johnson was a survivor. At this point, everything he had learned in prison and on the streets of the West Midlands – the resilience, the resourcefulness, the ruthlessness – now came into its own. Mark became a prolific shoplifter of DVDs from major high street retailers. Within weeks, he was managing to generate £400 a day from his crimes and congratulated himself on his “success”.
It was in early 2000, prompted by the news that he was to be a father once more, that Mark made his first serious attempt to get off drugs. Rosie was pregnant again with his second child and living in a women’s rehabilitation unit in Devon. Full of good intentions, Mark worked hard to be admitted to the men’s unit so that he would be able to see his new son. But his attempt failed and within weeks, he found himself back on the streets of London, refused permission to see his baby, and consumed with an overwhelming sense of failure.
Crawling with lice
Mark began to lose the daily battle for survival. His body was crawling with lice, the scabs on his feet had grown over his socks and his craving for drugs was growing more acute. He recalls waking up, blue with cold, one morning after nearly overdosing on a particularly pure bath of heroin. He was disappointed to find that he was still alive.
“I used to wish death on myself every day. I needed the drugs, they were the only solution to the despair.”
Beaten and left for dead
Mark’s drug addiction was now completely out of control. When he found himself on the wrong side of a Soho drugs gang for whom he worked as a dealer, Mark was beaten by a group of men and left for dead in a shop doorway. The police who were called to the scene assumed they were dealing with a murder. Mark’s blood was sprayed six feet up the walls and pooled on the floor. Amazingly, he survived, sustaining head injuries, a badly dislocated arm, a broken nose and chipped bone above one eye. He had lost a lot of blood.
Although he was petrified of what the gangsters would do to him if they caught him, the insatiable craving for drugs drove Mark to discharge himself from his hospital bed and back out onto the streets of London. He had seen where the drug runners who supplied the gangsters hid their daily supply of drugs. Mark visited the secret stash in a London park and stole £4,500 of crack and heroin.
Within hours he had consumed the lot. Despite the fact that he had taken enough drugs to kill most people, the effect they had on him was barely noticeable. Mark was becoming resistant to the numbing effect of the drugs and this terrified him more than any of the thugs and gangsters who now hunted him throughout the West End.
The choice was a stark one.
“It was death or detox.”
Weighing less than a dog, crawling with lice and with his dislocated arm withered through lack of proper care, Mark was admitted to the London branch of the rehab charity, Turning Point, which had attempted to help him all those years before back in Birmingham.
A strict regime
From a life of utter chaos on the streets of London, he suddenly found himself living under a strict regime with rigid rules. Everyone in the rehab unit rose at 7am daily. They were required to write about significant events in their lives and disclose their innermost secrets in compulsory Group Therapy. There was no methadone to ease the pain of their withdrawal and, like so many addicts and alcoholics around the world, they were taught to follow a 12-step programme.
Rehab was physically and emotionally painful.
“I was vomiting up my entire life in Group Therapy, sharing my most poisonous secrets. Every deluded belief I had about myself was analysed. It was terrible, and yet, I had never felt such warmth.”
After many years of living in an emotional desert, Mark’s tears began to flow.
He spent 12 weeks in the rehab unit before moving to secondary recovery, where he spent the next four months. “After intensive group and individual therapy, I came to believe that I was born an addict. My stealing and other antisocial behaviour was an indication of the illness long before I ever had a drink or a drug.”
A new life
As Mark turned 30, he left rehab to begin a new life, alone and free from drugs. To get himself back on his feet, he was given a part-time job by another former addict and The Prince’s Trust granted him a loan of £3,000 to buy tree-climbing equipment so he could set himself up as an tree surgeon. To fill the void left by the drugs, Mark meditated, wrote a diary and followed a strict daily structure.
Had this been the end of the story, most people would agree that Mark had achieved the near impossible, firstly in surviving the extremes of violence and abuse that he had been subjected to throughout his life and, secondly, by getting himself off the drugs that, otherwise, would most certainly have killed him. But the story does not end there and what Mark has achieved since his rehabilitation is even more amazing.
“When I first left rehab, I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t been taking drugs. But now I was clean and I wanted to make a go of it as an arborist.”
Mark created a business plan for a tree surgery business that would employ youngsters in trouble, ex-offenders and people who were going through drug treatment. His goal was to create a “normal” life for himself with a job, a house, a car…
Creative criminal, creative entrepreneur
In reality, he went way beyond this. Mark’s time on the streets had proved a surprisingly good training ground for becoming an entrepreneur. “When I was homeless, I needed £350 a day to fund my habit. This made me a highly creative criminal, which meant that I was equally creative in business. Living in constant chaos also made me good at dealing with change, so I was able to manage a group of dysfunctional employees, all struggling with their own problems.”
Mark was astute with money, too. Within a few years of leaving rehab, he owned two houses, a luxury car and a fleet of five lorries. His business employed 200 of society’s most vulnerable people and had pioneered a therapeutic approach to work. Four years after starting his business, he won The Princes Trust Young Achiever of the Year. A year later, he received the Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Award.
“If somebody had a problem, we all downed tools and discussed it. We taught people to understand the delayed gratification that comes with earning a regular wage.”
In 2005, Mark wrote a piece for The Big Issue about how you can recover from homelessness. It was spotted by literary agent, Mark Lucas of Lucas Alexander Whitley, who contacted Mark to ask if he was interested in writing his autobiography. Mark received the highest ever advance for an unknown author and his autobiography, Wasted, published in 2007, became a best-seller.
Yet, despite his overwhelming success, there was a niggling doubt in the back of Mark’s mind. “When you don’t know how to live your life, you think it is all about making money. But, I had a knot in my gut which was telling me that everything was not OK. I woke up one morning, about five years after I left rehab, and realised that, inside, I felt as empty as I had done when I was sleeping in shop doorways. Then I had been addicted to drugs, now I was addicted to work. It was a desperate moment.”
Mark began to examine what really made him feel good. “I wanted to help people like me and to be a witness to their change. I wasn’t interested in making a profit, which is why the business felt like it was dragging me along. This was a light bulb moment.”
[Mark – what happened to your tree surgery business – did it fold or did it continue in some form?]
Mark was convinced that only offenders themselves could prevent re-offending and, in 2009, he established the charity, User Voice. Run by and for ex-offenders, the charity creates a dialogue between the people who use the criminal justice service and the people who provide it. It gives a voice to people whose opinions, would, otherwise, go unheard and encourages the people in power to listen.
Mark explains: “We promote personal responsibility among offenders and enable them to be heard and involved in the decisions that are made about them. It is a complex issue. The public tends to fall into one of two groups – the Daily Mail readers, who have a venom towards all offenders and advocate harsh punishment, and the lefties, who have more of an understanding, emotive response. In actual fact, you need a mix of both. You can’t learn how to prevent re-offending at a university. You can only understand it when you come from that world.”
Bringing together the powered and the unpowered
Amongst the flagship programmes developed by the charity is the User Voice Prison Council, which gives prisoners an opportunity to get involved in improving services and working constructively with prison staff. On Her Majesty’s Prison Isle of Wight, the council helped to bring about a 37% reduction in complaints and cut the amount of time prisoners spent in segregation units from 160 days to 47 days.
“It works because it brings the powered and the unpowered together to make things better.”
In other projects, prisoners redesigned a visiting hall to make it more child-friendly. User Voice also developed a reading programme in prisons, called Toe by Toe, which is now being taken out into the community.
A world leader in innovation
Mark Johnson has been named an Ashoka Fellow, which means he is part of a select band of 3,000 entrepreneurs worldwide who are recognised as leaders in social innovation. He has met with the Home Secretary and Prince Charles, addressed cabinet ministers and policy makers, and writes a regular slot for The Guardian.
His latest venture, CanDo Coffee is a social enterprise that enables disadvantaged and socially excluded people to become independent street traders, selling high quality coffee from mobile vans. Employees eventually have the opportunity to buy and run their own CanDo van franchise, or the organisation supports them in setting up their own independent venture.
Mark now lives on an historic canal boat in London and is overseeing its restoration, along with two others. He spends several months a year at a Buddhist retreat.
“When your life has been obliterated, you never fully recover. There are so many times that I should have died but I didn’t. I believe that something greater than me kept me here. My aim is to learn to live before I die and I experience daily enlightenment. Success has nothing to do with turnover and everything to do with the way you live.”