It’s fair to say Michael Maisey had a tough upbringing. The son of addict parents, he spent the first year of his life on the run from his Father, moved from place to place by his Mother. Not many years later he was subject to abuse by his uncle Tommy, and his low self-esteem led to him being badly bullied at school.
But at the tender age of twelve, everything changed for Michael when he found the safety he craved in the ranks of a local gang of lads in West London. He became one of London’s most prolific young lawbreakers, after speights of shoplifting before going on to get arrested for armed robbery.
Aged sixteen he found himself in the notorious Feltham Young Offenders Institute for attempted murder (a charge he wasn’t guilty of). Inside prison, he put his life on the line facing up to the most dangerous young men in the country.
His life continued to spiral out of control in the following years with drink and drug dependencies taking control over him. But his story didn’t end the way many of these troubling tales tend to. Michael’s thankfully is a story of redemption. He proved people can chance despite being stuck in the worst of situations.
Today, eleven years sober, Michael is a man reborn. Father to two daughters and owner of an estate agency business, he dedicates his spare time to mentoring young offenders and addicts and was recently honoured by the London Borough of Hounslow for his services to the community.
With his first book Young Offender having just been released, we sat down and spoke to Michael Maisey about his inspiring and powerful story of how he beat the odds and turned a horrific situation around to create a new life for himself.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about your early years?
Michael Maisey: My Dad left my Mum before I was one. Their relationship was turbulent, they both didn’t know how to have a relationship, everything was resolved with a slap or a fight, so it was difficult. Me and my Mum were on the run before I was one-year-old we’d moved from two bail hostels to two different council flats.
So four times on the run from him. I can’t remember any of that of course, but I know it would have really affected a one-year-old kid. So that sort of played out later on in my life. I got used to this certain level of anxiety and adrenaline and recreated scenarios later on in my life to almost replicate that same feeling.
So yeah, man, I mean, that alone was hard. And then the arrival of my Uncle Tommy was when I really sort of gave up. When my Dad left and I was left with my Mum who was an alcoholic, it’s hard for a kid because there’s not much hope. And when my Uncle turned up and I realised I wasn’t even safe in my own home, I remember making this sort of cut off.
I decided that this universe was not a friendly place and you can’t trust the ones that live with you. And the ones who you’re meant to be able to love let you down. And then from that point, it’s like, okay, so how are you gonna survive in this environment?
So, I created an adapted version of myself. I say all this looking back with lots of knowledge and self-development. But as a kid, I just created this other version of myself basically.
Which was a kid who would go from one to ten very quickly. Normally, the trigger point could be either you’re saying something wrong, and I felt fear, which meant I would go to a level 10 really quickly because I didn’t want to be hurt.
But also, if you showed me love, I could also have the same response, because that’s how my uncle Tommy wangled his way in with me, sort of with love, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. So if you were coming to me with love, you might have been met with aggression as well. Because I didn’t trust anyone. So that’s how it was, it was really sad.
TM: From the book, it was around age eight when you started drinking. A lot of people might think that’s crazy, but for you, it was a way of coping with what was going on around you…
MM: You have to think also, what I’d witnessed growing up, that’s what you do. When things get hard you just check out. For my Dad checking out was with drugs and for my Mum it was alcohol.
So, it wasn’t even like a weird thing to do at eight-years-old. This is just what f**king everyone does, isn’t it? Everyday? So, I know, when I say that to people about this stuff and taking heroin when I was 12, they’re shocked. But it’s funny because back then that wasn’t strange to me. That was just what everyone did.
TM: Well, when you grow up around that stuff, it’s normal, isn’t it?
MM: Yeah. It was just like, that was it. Which is sad. I look back now… I mean I’ve got an eight-year-old now and it’s like, oh my God! I couldn’t imagine her drinking at that age. Shit man, I was really f**king lost.
TM: There was one section in the book where it felt you were sort of genuinely happy. And that was the little bits of acting you did in those early years?
MM: Yeah. That was my escape. That was my escape that didn’t involve alcohol or drugs. I got to be a character that had a different set of feelings, a different set of problems that were lighter than what I had myself. So I was playing characters who had a pretty normal life.
Like Wordsworth who was quite a chirpy, funny character. And being him was my escape. Similar to alcohol and drugs were later down the line. I’d use them to escape, but acting at that point, that’s what it was used for. I can be this guy while I’m on stage for an hour and it just feels like all of my shit at home isn’t going on anymore.
TM: I suppose the other sort of persona you created was after you got bullied at school and you made a whole new you in a way didn’t you?
MM: That was it yeah. He’s still part of me today. I had to make friends with this part of myself that I call the ‘security guard’. And essentially it was like an adapted part of myself that basically said, ok, this scared little boy who’s getting bullied is not going to f**king survive. So sit back down and let me take control from there.
Now, anyone who wants to talk to the little boy has to f**king get through me first. And that’s basically what happened. So, everyone I met, met the security guard. They never met the scared little boy. And it was years and years later, of being sober and unpeeling it. Can we encourage this scared little boy in the corner to come out? Just let him know it’s safe to
be a vulnerable man in the world. You’re not going to get hurt now.
TM: The fact you defeated the bullies, a lot of people reading the book will be cheering you on, but that persona took over and went too far and got out of hand…
MM: Well, you know, I’m an addict. I became addicted to power. Because it went beyond just the bullies. When I conquered the bullies, it was like, what about f**king Tommy? F**king Sid. What about your f**king Father? And then it became a problem with the world.
We grew up on Ivybridge Estate right next to Twickenham rugby stadium. So every now and then there would be rugby games on, and rugby fans are primarily from wealthy backgrounds. And it was like a big rub in our face about how shit our life was.
You had these people who are all wealthy with fancy cars parked up everywhere and then it became a hatred of society. It was like f**K everyone that’s hurt me, but also f**k the people who’ve never had to experience this shit.
And so in terms of power, it became this thing where I put myself in a position where no one could ever hurt me like that again. But I’m also going to level the playing field a bit here.
So, like the armed robbery and going into Richmond and robbing Marks & Spencer and burgling houses. That was me saying, you mother f**kers need to know what it’s like in my world. And I’m not proud of that, but when you put a kid in a council flat and beat him and abuse him, he’s not going to pop out a friendly child and do good things in the world.
TM: What was it that led to that armed robbery?
MM: I was like a nutcase. When I got arrested the police were fully expecting a hardened criminal gang. And it was a 15-year-old white kid. So when they nicked me with their assault rifles, that puts it in perspective.
What they expected and what they got when they arrived at my house. A scared little boy with my lighter gun. Essentially what led up to it was that hatred of the world and that addiction to power. All I’d had in my life was pain and misery and now I’m f**king standing up and I’m taking back.
TM: Did you ever expect the worst? Expect you could actually die going into these situations? And did you have a moral compass in terms of what you were doing?
MM: Oh yeah. I mean that was the hard thing for me. Because I’d got bullied and I’d experienced stuff like that, I couldn’t do it to others and not feel any guilt.
So when I went into the shop, and I saw the woman behind the counter I felt terrible, I felt like the perpetrator, I felt like my Uncle Tommy, I’d turned into him. And that didn’t sit right with me at all, because I knew what that felt like, to feel helpless. So yeah, that was a hard bit.
But then there was another battle. Because they’ve got things that you could never have. And they’ve never experienced the things you’ve been through. So it was like somehow justifying my actions by using all the pain and shit I’d been through. Which isn’t right I know.
TM: It’s not like you necessarily learned from your scrapes with the law. You kept ramping things up almost…
MM: I did yeah. I was so invested in the aim of being the toughest, most respected, craziest kid in the neighbourhood. Which then put me in a position where I would be safe, and people would admire me, which is something I wanted. Primarily to feel safe. Because if I was the toughest kid no one would mess with me, equalling I would never get hurt again.
And that’s where the addiction with the power came. Like, okay you’re the toughest kid of your age on this council state. How about you become the toughest kid on the fucking estate full stop? Yeah. Okay, how do I get there? I need a gun. If I put a gun in someone’s face even if I’m 15 and their 21 no one will mess with me. Then that was it.
I wanted to be the toughest kid in Isleworth, then the toughest kid in the borough. I want to be the toughest kid on Quail, the murderers win in Feltham.
And it was just mental. It was a mad obsession similar to how like a heroin addict would sell the last thing valuable to them just to get a hit. I was willing to go into one of the hardest wings in jail for young offenders as one of the youngest white boys and put my life on the line for that power.
TM: It was for that incident deemed attempted murder you were involved with alongside a friend which led to your first sentence. Going into Feltham didn’t seem to faze you, though of course things changed once you got inside…
MM: I was excited. When the judge told us we were both remanded in custody I was celebrating in the dock. Because I knew when I got out my street cred would go through the roof. Everyone would be like, ‘shit, he’s fifteen and he’s already been to prison’.
So yeah, that was it. I was excited. Then it was funny because you get there, you check in, you go through the whole process, and then they get to your cell, then they literally open the door and shut the door.
Then that’s it. And you’re like, ‘when are we getting out then?’ And you find out probably for an hour tomorrow providing no one fights. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is it!’ 23 hours a day in the cell with my cellmate.
TM: You got into that early fight over some stolen shower gel. It gave you much-needed respect, but it seemed pretty brutal?
MM: I mean, I just went there with the wrong mentality. My mentality was that I might not win the fight, but I am going to fight you. And I don’t care if you’re the toughest guy on the wing I’m still going to fight you.
When really what I should have done was gone, keep the shower gel. F**k it. And then if someone tried doing something to my face… because when this happened I had soap in my eyes in the shower. It wasn’t the best move.
TM: And we won’t go into too much detail, but the brutality got worse in an attack on you by the guy you had a fight with and his friends…
MM: Obviously it’s well documented how much of a mess that prison was in that period when I was in there. And yeah, when I was back in the cell with his other three mates in the dorm it was horrific.
I had nightmares about that for years. That was one of the hardest things to write about. You sort of bury shit like that. I don’t like talking about it, but it is important that it’s spoken about because I know that went on a lot.
So not separating people that they knew needed to be separated. People might have had a fight together and beaten each other half to death, then they’d end up in a cell together.
TM: The reform side of things didn’t seem to help for most including you?
MM: No. And it’s still not working now. That was one of the main reasons for writing the book. Re-offending rates are at an all-time high.
New offenders are going down, but the guys who stay in the system are stuck in the system. That’s why the prisons are so overcrowded. They’re not getting out because we’re not reforming them. We’re just locking them up for 23 hours a day.
TM: You went back inside another couple of times for other offences, so you certainly know the ins and outs of the place?
MM: There’s an interesting point which we didn’t touch on in the book. The first time I went in there, it was like going to university and getting an academic qualification in crime. Because if you think about it 23 hours a day in a cell, all we talk about is why you’re in prison and how you got caught.
And if your case goes to trial, the police have to document how they caught you, every little shred of evidence. Which we then pass around with each other, so basically how not to get caught.
And that’s like 23 hours a day you’re doing that, even if you go to university, you’re not learning for 23 hours a day. We literally would speak about that stuff 23 hours a day, seven days a week. So you leave prison with a full education on all the crimes, new stuff that you can do to earn money and how not to get caught.
TM: What was that lowest moment before you knew you needed to find help for the situation you found yourself in?
MM: It was detoxing from heroin in the cell as I go through in the book. It was f**king hell. If you can imagine hell how it’s described in biblical terms, that’s what it was like. In my mind, I was in hell. I just needed to die, I wanted to die. Just by the grace of God… I mean I’m not religious, but I believe something saved my life that day.
That prison guard, if he was a few minutes earlier or later I just wouldn’t have been here. He checked my cell just at the moment I was unconscious. He brought me back to life and thankfully I didn’t have brain damage or anything.
So from that moment, combined with them notifying my Mum and her coming to visit me and her telling me she was sober. So, mentally and emotionally I’m broken from detoxing and my suicide attempt and then the thing that I’ve wanted all my life.
All I wanted all my life was one person I could count on. I never had it, I never had it from anyone. Imagine that, growing up for 18 years of your life and you didn’t have one person in your life you could count on.
Just somebody to go to and get a bit of useful feedback from. Suddenly, my mom was saying, ‘I’m sober’. And normally the visiting room was a place where you go out and flex your muscles, let your family know you’re running it. And I went out with bruises around my neck and I looked ruined.
After my Mum said she was sober, in front of the whole visiting room, I burst into tears. And it was like, God, maybe this isn’t me? Maybe I’m not this guy that I’m projecting out to the world. Maybe there’s more here. It was almost like the little boy who just wanted his Mum’s love and protection had just made an appearance in that visiting room.
TM: Of course there were little blips after that, but that definitely put you on the road to recovery didn’t it?
MM: It did yeah. Cause I left prison and then I went to my first AA meeting and I didn’t think I had a problem, I wasn’t convinced I had a drink problem. It put me on the path and it planted seeds in my mind.
Okay, maybe you’re drinking and using drugs to change the way you feel. But it really took from the age of 18 to 25 to really go, okay, enough is enough. Why am I doing this? I’m ready to stop now, I’m f**king my life up.
TM: Another big step in your recovery was that you took responsibility for your own actions, as much as your childhood was extremely difficult, you said I’m going to take responsibility and not blame your past essentially?
MM: A big part of the 12-step programme is clearing up your side of the street. So, don’t worry about what’s happening on the other people side of the street. Don’t worry about what your Mum did or your Dad did. What did you do? Well, you’ve done this and this and they weren’t great. So, you need to go and find and people need to say sorry for that and make amends with them.
Which is a humbling experience. Because I went around my neighbourhood and there was a lot of people who I had to go in and say sorry to. There was a whole list of about 45 people. So I went and made amends to them all, some were welcoming, some were frosty, one guy who I mention in the book said, ‘If you come near me I’m going to f**king kill you!’ I’ve never seen him to this day.
TM: That might be a good thing.
MM: (Laughs) Definitely. But it’s stuff like that, that makes me think I’ve definitely got something looking out for me. All this way along I should have been dead so many times I must have someone looking over me.
TM: There’s a bit in the book where you make amends with a mother who gives you a hug. It must have been a good feeling to try and atone for your mistakes?
MM: That was the moment when I made the decision I was never going to hurt anyone ever again. I went into this feeling of beating myself up, but I thought don’t beat yourself up, just never f**king hurt anyone again.
I’d been in the darkness so long I didn’t even know I was in the darkness. Because that’s all I thought there was. I was born in the darkness. I didn’t even know there was any other way of living. And suddenly, I was in the light. Oh, my God, I’ve been in the darkness for years and I didn’t even know. And I never wanted to go back to that, to hurting people again.
TM: Do you think there’s a plan for us all? Because you’ve now found your purpose in life, to help others…
MM: I think so. But this is the big thing that I worked on and I try and work on with other men. You could wander around aimlessly for a long time. And I think part of the transition of going from a boy to becoming a man, like a rite of passage, which was an integral part of life and society for years, until we all got very civilised, has gone.
But part of that transition in many of the native cultures was, what do you stand for? What’s your mission in the world? You know, because you’ve had this life, and you’ve made amends and you’ve turned it around, but what’s your mission?
I wrote my mission out, it’s on a piece of paper in my office. I inspire men to become better versions of themselves by using all of the tools I have to hand. So how can I use that experience I’ve had? I’ve tried to change my life, how can you then go and change other people’s lives? So writing the book is one of those things that I’ve done.
How can I reach them kids in Feltham young offenders who are going through what I went through and get into their head? Which then prevents a crime which could save peoples lives, which then prevents more pain in the world.
TM: And you’re an advocate of talking openly about Men’s mental health issues…
MM: Growing up in my world, it just wasn’t ok to be vulnerable. It just wasn’t okay to say I’m f**king sad. It wasn’t okay to cry.
Especially in prison. You just became a victim. You had to present an image to the world that I got this, I got this under control. Even if inside your dying.
You hear these subliminal messages growing up, ‘come on don’t cry, be a big boy’ and ‘stiffen up, you can handle it mate’. The more we do that the further away we get from ourselves and our feelings and our emotions.
It gets like a kettle on the boil. If you don’t let it out eventually it explodes and for me, it exploded in crime and alcohol and drugs. And for other people, it just explodes with a rope around their neck.
A lot of people on social media are always saying, ‘it’s ok to not be ok’. Well just show us! If it’s good to be f**king vulnerable just show us on your Instagram. What does it look like? And that’s what I try and do. I think the way out of a lot of mental health situations, especially for men is vulnerability.
TM: And what message would you like people to take away from your book?
MM: Essentially my message is this. Change is possible. You can go through all of the shit I went through and you can still turn it around.
Whenever I’ve done talks in prisons and we’ve opened it up to the room, to begin with, before I let them hear my story, they say, ‘you don’t get it man, what I’ve had that’s happened to me’, and then they hear my life story and suddenly they’re going, ‘fuck man, you had it well worse than me, I’ve got no excuses now’.
So that’s what I hope this book will do, make people will think if this guy can turn it around, what excuses have I got? It’s possible, I’ve done it.
TM: We always like to ask for a closing piece of wisdom you’ve learned…
MM: What happened in my past wasn’t ok and it wasn’t my fault. But it’s my responsibility to figure out how I’m going to live with it and process it so it doesn’t affect me for the rest of my life. So that’s a key message of mine.
It’s about being responsible for your own life and your own happiness because we live in a culture where no one else cares. And the good thing is if you take responsibility for it you have power over it.
Young Offender by Michael Maisey is available to buy now (Pan Macmillan)
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