About this time one year ago, Paul Squires died.
By cutting the main artery on his right wrist, he intended to end his life in the park where he had been sleeping rough for almost seven months.
But God wanted it otherwise. As if by a miracle, the paramedics who found him managed to bring him back to life, although they first pronounced him clinically dead.
Soon after he was released from hospital, where he had been on suicide watch for a week, Paul was back on the streets. There, he went ahead and cut his other wrist.
This, however, is the story about how Paul was brought back to life. Not just medically, but spiritually.
Because Paul lived, today, with the help of the YMCA, he is in a situation so far removed from last year’s nightmare that it almost feels like just that: a dream, a blur, unreal.
The council has also provided Paul with a flat, he regularly sees his daughter, and as if that wasn’t enough, he is now thinking about doing a degree and becoming a mentor for people with mental health issues.
Some weeks ago, Paul even got married.
“For me, moving in to the YMCA meant I finally got a roof over my head,” Paul says. “But it’s not just that. I soon started going to the Wellbeing groups set up for the residents by the Chaplaincy Team, and to the Monday prayer meetings with Jacky. In May, I also went on the Life Journey trip.”
Life Journey is a week-long retreat where the residents who live in the YMCA can come to explore and discuss issues of faith and spirituality.
“It was life-changing,” Paul says. “I found my faith at the retreat. Just being there brought me closer to God. There was just something spiritual and magical about the whole place. I remember being out jogging, thinking about how peaceful it was.”
But the Life Journeys course didn’t just have a spiritual impact on Paul’s life.
“Everyone that went on the retreat became such good friends,” Paul says.
“After we came back to the YMCA, we all started meeting for meals and hanging together. Also what’s great to see is that everyone has done really well. I think most of us are now working, or studying or volunteering. Going on the Life Journey trip really changed us all. Everyone gained something; we all came back more determined”.
Paul describes the Life Journey retreat as a “fresh start” where he got the support to deal with some of the issues leading up to him becoming homeless and moving in to the YMCA.
“One day, me and one of the girls who was there went down to the beach where we decided to throw pebbles, symbolising our problems, out in the sea. That felt really good.”
When thinking back, Paul’s long-term period sleeping rough is almost like a haze, a distant memory. For seven months, a bench in a park was his bed and a thin hospital blanket his only cover.
“The only way to cope was to be constantly drunk,” Paul explains. “I just gave up on everything, let it all fall apart.
“I was so ashamed of sleeping rough. I wouldn’t have eye contact with anyone.
“The worst thing however, was the feeling that no one cared whether I was dead or alive. All I could think, was ‘why hasn’t anyone tried to find me?’
“But one day, I sat on a bench and two constables came over to me and said ‘you’re the guy we’re looking for!’ I thought they were going to bring me in for something and got a bit defensive, but it turned out my ex-wife, the mother of my daughter, had filed a missing person’s report. So someone at least had noticed that I hadn’t been around.
“Still to this day I don’t know how I got through those months sleeping rough. I know now, that I would not have made it alive through Christmas on the street.”
Seen from the outside it is easy to judge and say it was the drink and drugs that led Paul to lose his job and his home.
However, things are rarely as simple as they seem. What led Paul into despair was a mixture of his mum passing away, and mental health issues from a young age.
“Because I had an abusive childhood, I always had to mask who I really was,” Paul explains. “Showing feelings and emotions was not allowed. Even after I had tried to commit suicide, when my dad came to see me in the hospital, he was like ‘get up – big boys don’t cry’.
“I think men’s issues with talking about their feelings is a massive problem related to mental health in this country. Borderline personality disorder is really on the rise among men, who tend to keep things bottled up inside rather than talk about their emotions.”
It is only six months since Paul was diagnosed as bipolar, with borderline personality disorder. Today, he regularly attends the support group Steps at Tolworth Hospital, which he says “has been really beneficial to me.”
Over the last year, things have been moving in the right direction for Paul. Not least thanks to the Support Workers and Chaplaincy Team at YMCA St Paul’s Group, including Jacky, Jonathan and Jon, his mentor.
“I have learnt to value the good days more, they are really important,” Paul says.
In January, he will be doing a 5km run in Richmond Park in order to raise funds to support more people to go to the Life Journey retreat.
“From having it all, to literally having nothing, I now value life so much more than material things,” he explains. “I’m not just better with my money, but I’ve also changed in terms of how I am with other people. If I see someone who is homeless, or who struggles, I will stop a chat, instead of hurrying on. It’s just good to be giving back you know.”