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Alan is 40 years-old and has been using alcohol and drugs since he was 12. He's homeless and sits in a sleeping bag waiting for handouts to feed a deep-rooted drug habit. For many who walk by he is insignificant, and they will treat him with contempt; spoken or implied. Others will care for him and acknowledge his plight. But to many he is an embarrassment, and some days he is a target for physical abuse.

Alan’s hands are swollen and his feet can barely carry him. Looking into his eyes I see a dark hole in his soul. His body has endured every possible attempt at self-destruction, yet he's still alive.

But Alan Dainton is just a man like me and many others who could have ended up in his hopeless state had it not been for the support of friends, family, permanent employment, hope and the legacy of a relatively stable childhood. We are all confronted with addictions in one form or another.

MEETING ALAN

I first met Alan six years ago. I spoke to him from time to time. Initially, I just wanted to take a good photo of him and push my camera to the limit. But the more I got to know Alan, the more I started to understand some of his inner pain and hopelessness. I just didn’t know how to fix him.

He’s been in and out of rehab for years and has been prescribed methadone, but to no avail. The process of government-funded rehabilitation usually only allows for initial detox or a methadone (heroin replacement) prescription with an indefinite term; simply replacing one drug with another.

But without extensive residential rehab and total abstinence, the chances of him staying off drugs are slim. The mind requires much longer to rebuild a life that never was, and to find new friends who aren’t addicts or dealers.

Alan calls his closest friend the day he leaves the detox unit and within a week he is back on the street in a worse state than before. With every relapse his guilt becomes more unbearable and his shame more intense, sending him further into darkness, seemingly with no hope of return. Alan told me in no uncertain terms that coming off the drugs was not the hard part; the hard part was staying off them.

AN IDEA IS BIRTHED

So, with Alan’s approval, I decided to take a series of portraits and spend time talking to him to see if I could discover the real Alan behind this endless cycle of destruction that grips him and won’t let go.

I didn’t want to take just another portrait of a homeless person looking homeless in a homeless context. That’s too easy. I wanted to capture Alan’s soul, isolate his surroundings and behaviours, move closer, crop in tight and discover something new. I wanted to find his hidden strengths: beauty, charm, unspoken dreams, untold pain and suppressed hope.

I wanted to see if I could portray the significance of the man he could be or could have been. I wanted to see if I could inspire him to change, but I also wanted to warn others of the dangers of dabbling with mood-altering substances, be it alcohol, drugs or smoking. I was also speaking to myself.

I knew I would have to be patient. I started taking portraits of Alan where he sat in the street, where he scored drugs around town and where he often hid away. I thought it would be a short project, but two years later I was still taking portraits and interviewing him and his friends for my video documentary.

UNCOVERING BEAUTY

To find Alan’s beauty, I had to strip away the bad behaviour and the sense of hopelessness. I had to crop away the smell and the dirt and focus only on the human spirit – the man himself. As he stared through my lens I was able to see truth and beauty more clearly. I was able to see choices, values, gifts and strengths. I saw the possibility of a fresh start; a well of barely visible self-belief. I discovered stories and depth of emotion.

When he finally relaxed and let go of his expectations, I began to discover the real Alan. I saw endless opportunities; dreams and aspirations; disappointments and regrets. I saw the litter of broken promises, abandonment and neglect. But I also saw confidence, charisma, intellect, humour and streetwise wisdom; a kind, loving, enduring being, noble in suffering.

The more time I spent with Alan, the more I was smitten by his wry and cheeky spirit, despite his plight. I also ended up learning a lot about my own values and prejudices, and the contradictions of what I really believed about giving and receiving, about helping and caring.

WHAT CAN I GIVE?

I have realised that when I’ve passed Alan in the street and made the snap decision to part with money, I’m driven to give by a sense of overwhelming empathy and the memory of addictions I’ve fought, battles I’ve lost, victories I’ve won and temptations I’ll conquer tomorrow.

But am I giving conditionally or unconditionally? When I hand over money or food, or give some time, I’m also handing over the responsibility for him to make a choice. I see it as an act of respect. Do I mind that he’ll probably exchange them for bags of heroin and as much crack as his budget will allow that day? If so, why am I giving it to a man who has already given up on himself? I want him to change. I want him to be free.

But I feel helpless. Am I just sustaining his current status quo or will it make a difference?

You can’t force an addict out of addiction, but when we give unconditionally we give the gift of freedom and choice. Transformation might not happen that day, but it may in the future. The act of giving shows that we care. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be a thermos of warm tea, sharing stories, listening and catching up; helping to build bridges and creating a way back. If there is hope, there is the possibility of change. And when we genuinely connect with those in need, we give hope. I want Alan to see my hope, however dim and distant it is.

WATCHING THE PAIN UNFOLD

Alan has had had five recent seizures, where he has collapsed in the street, face first, resulting in head injuries. I am overwhelmed with sadness as I stand and watch a paramedic attend to him. 

I feel a sense of urgency rush through my body. I want young people to feel the pain of this evil condition before it’s too late. I want to tell the whole world how destructive this disease of addiction becomes.

The paramedic asks Alan for details, but he is barely conscious and lies lifeless on the pavement in a pool of blood where he fell. I volunteer everything I know about him. ‘He’s 40. His full name is Alan Dainton. He’s a homeless beggar with no fixed abode and no next of kin. He’s a friend.’

The ambulance finally arrives. I realise that time is running out for Alan, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s up to Alan now. He needs to choose life. Only he can.

THE GRIP OF ADDICTION

6,258 Number of drug users with no fixed abode

10,078 Number of drug users reported to have housing difficulties

29% of drug users entering treatment have been referred through the criminal justice system

Source: National Drug Treatment Monitoring System 2011-12

A few days later I glimpse Alan’s adumbrated figure disappearing in the distance. He is on his way to score and I go to catch up with him. He’s back on the street begging, all banged up and bruised.

I realise now that I can give in three ways: I can carry on sustaining him by giving him money in the street and hope that one day he finally surrenders and changes his life; I can exercise intervention and help pay for residential rehabilitation; or I can focus my time on prevention by spreading the message to young people who are on the cusp of alcohol and substance abuse. I decide that all three are important, at the right time and in the right way.

There is no silver bullet to this problem, so I ask Alan what he thinks the solution to addiction is. His face draws an expression of confident self-belief when he replies without hesitation: ‘If you don’t want to get addicted, don’t start using drugs. All drugs, including cannabis, eventually lead to the harder stuff.’

Alan also expresses his willingness to be part of a project that would help others avoid the traps he has fallen into. ‘If my story helps just one kid, it will be worth it,’ he says.

Alan knows the truth. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, but his wisdom is trapped in a body that won’t give up its drive for self-destruction. I hope that one day soon Alan decides to surrender his own will and finds a way home, no matter how hard that might be, and before it’s too late. Until then, all I can do is wait, pray and continue my friendship with him, because for me Alan is worth every penny.

Marksteen Adamson is a creative consultant and the founder of The Big Cold Turkey Foundation, which helps individuals break free from addiction and supports organisations that are actively concerned with youth at risk from drugs and alcohol.

The images featured in this piece can be seen in the Behold the Man book (BUY) and photographic installation currently touring UK art galleries. All proceeds from the installation will be donated to The Big Cold Turkey Foundation.