Paul Alford’s latest contribution to Frontline is from his book ‘The First 52 years”, outlining one man’s journey from institution to independence...
- My story is not unusual – there are thousands just like me
- For the first time in 52 years I have my own front door
- I want to tell my story to encourage others to believe they can live independently
People have always told me, “Life’s not meant to be easy!” Well, I’ve learnt that to be true… absolutely true. Let me tell you, much of my life has been a very difficult struggle. From the days I can first remember right up to now. Everything I’ve ever had, I’ve had to fight for. And it never stops.
The trouble is, nobody really understands what life’s been like for me… only myself. And now I’m in my fifties I often think back to when I was young I am trying to make sense of how things played out in my life.
I don’t have that much in my life. But now I’ve just got a home of my own. It’s small, just one bedroom, a living room and kitchen. However, this last 6 months is the first time in my 52 years that I’ve had my own front door and been able to enjoy privacy. The only people who come into my flat are the ones I invite and that’s a big, big change for me. I used to live in institutions where there was lots of staff always coming in and out of my ‘home’ at all times of the day and night.
I don’t have a car or even a bicycle. I just have the few bits of furniture I need and a few things I’ve collected from my various holidays. I suppose there are lots of people in the world who have fewer possessions than me, but what I don’t have, is a huge part of my life. You see, I was put into care before I was even four and it took me nearly fifty bloody years to get out again.
I don’t have memories of being a child growing up in a family. I don’t have memories of discovering the world for myself. I don’t have memories of falling in love or being a husband and father.
I don’t have memories of making choices for myself – not even simple choices like where to live, who to spend time with, what to do for a job or how to spend my free time.
To those who hear my story, you might think that I’ve had a very unusual life but sadly, there are thousands of others who have had the same sort of life as me, it’s just you’ve never heard about them. It is certainly not unusual for a person living in care to have every part of their life planned out and run for them. For many years people with disabilities were kept very much out of sight and out of mind. We were never considered or given any opinion around making decisions about our own lives.
I escaped from a life living in institutions, but the majority haven’t and never will. I have my memories of living in a care system for almost all of my life so far. Recently, with the help of my friend Stephen Curtis I wrote my memories down to try to find out answers for myself, like why this happened to me. Why did I spend my life living in care? Sometimes people remember things differently but my memories are mine and are what matter to me.
I also wrote about my experience to give other people the confidence that they can also manage to claim back their lives and decide what they want to do. I hope even one person would take inspiration from my experience and move out of an institution into their own place. It’s their right, just like everybody else.
My move started by accident. I went to the meeting with Paddy Connolly the CEO of Inclusion Ireland. I heard people talking about independent living. During question and answer time, I told them that I was interested in moving out of an institution. My family wouldn’t let me do it nor would the institution. A person from a broker called Possibilities Plus said they might be able to help me. They did.
It took a long time but Possibilities Plus helped me to get money released from my service. This money supports me in my own apartment in Navan. In one of my reports it said “Mr Alford can live on independently with some support” and all this time I was living in an institution.
In Navan, I go to my local pub for trad music sessions, I go to a local church, I attend Special Olympics, bingo and hope to do some volunteering work when my Garda clearance comes through. No matter how difficult it was for me there are other people who have a tougher time and I would like to help out.
At times, I get very angry with people, the world and life itself. Reflecting on living in an institution has been a very painful experience when I compare it with living with control over my own life. But it is something I’ve wanted to do for many years. I hope my pain and anger will get less as I leave behind my institutionalised past and enjoy my role in a new, exciting, unbounded and unfettered future. To be sure, there are things I’ll never be able to do, but I feel sure that things can only get better.