The day’s final session saw an uplifting presentation from Richard McCann on the challenge of achieving things he’d never thought possible, and turning trauma and tragedy into triumph
‘Like probably a lot of you in this room, I was brought up on a council estate,’ Richard McCann told delegates. He lived with his sisters, mother and father, the latter labelled a ‘feckless ogre’ by social services, who had placed the family on the ‘at risk’ register. When his father eventually left home his mother found a new boyfriend, who ‘became a little bit more friendly than he should have been’ with Richard’s sister Sonia. Then, a week before his sixth birthday, his mother went out one evening and never came back. She’d become the first victim of ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ Peter Sutcliffe.
‘I’m not the only person in this room who’s been through challenges,’ McCann told a rapt audience. ‘Attitude is everything – an “I can” attitude. You take small steps, add them together, and it makes a massive difference.’
Although his grandparents had wanted to take the children in – something he only discovered years later – social services thought it would be in their best interests to place them with their father. ‘He was a big drinker, very violent. When he drank whisky he became a monster. You wouldn’t want to cross him.’ On one occasion he drowned the family dog in the bathtub.
Inevitably, Richard went ‘off the rails’, he told the conference, frequently running away from home. ‘You’ve got to do that scary stuff. You’ve got to face your demons. If you don’t like where you are, do something about it. You can always do something about it, even if you think the odds are stacked against you. You’ve got to grasp those opportunities that sometimes only come around once.’
After leaving school and a couple of short-term jobs he took ‘a leap of faith’ and joined the army. Doing his basic training at Woolwich barracks he told people his mother had died in a car accident. ‘They had no reason to disbelieve me. It was the first time nobody knew the truth about my past.’ After being posted to Germany, however, a crime magazine printed the full details of his mother’s murder. ‘My secret was out,’ he said.
He went on ‘a drunken rampage’ around a German village and was placed in a psychiatric ward as a result. ‘For the first time I was going to get some professional help. Or so I thought. They said I had a personality disorder. Sometimes we’re given labels, and that’s one of the easiest ones to give. You can’t turn back the clock, but you can always decide how you react to stuff – whatever that stuff is for you – and what you do next.’
Deciding to ‘dust myself down and start again’ he returned to the UK and got a job in a warehouse. ‘I was determined to make a go of it. Eventually I was told I was management material. Me?’ Thriving in the job, he stayed in and saved for a deposit on a house while his friends were out drinking and taking drugs. ‘I had a house, with a CID officer living next door, I got a bank loan for a car. I was bordering on middle class.’ Eventually, however, a colleague persuaded him to take speed in a nightclub, ‘one of the nicest feelings I’ve ever had’. He started taking drugs regularly, and moved on to dealing. Before long he’d lost his job and his partner, been arrested and sent to prison.
‘It was horrible, it was hell. But the quality of your thoughts affects the quality of your life. I vowed to turn my life around.’ On release he desperately tried to get a job, as his house was close to being repossessed, but his criminal record meant rejection after rejection. He contemplated suicide, but at his last interview before the repossession deadline, he got the job.
‘I was determined to go the extra mile and be the best at it that I possibly could be.’ He changed his circle of friends and – as ‘one of the final things I did as part of my recovery’ – he asked for some help. ‘Some people think asking for help is a sign of weakness, but it’s not. No one ever achieved anything without some help from somebody on the way.’
After writing a well-received book about his experiences, he decided to set up a support group for people who’d lost loved ones to murder or manslaughter. ‘Sometimes when you go through something you can help other people in years to come.’
Now a very successful motivational speaker, things were ‘going well’, he told the conference. ‘But the important thing is we’ve got to celebrate who we are – we’re all walking miracles. We should never be ashamed of our past. Yeah, we’ve had some stuff happen to us but we can still turn it around. It took me years to find out that it’s OK to be me. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through in life, what setbacks you’ve had, how dark those clouds have been. With the right attitude, and the right support along the way, you can achieve anything.’