WITH drugs seemingly everywhere, a former addict from Blackburn who says he has been to hell and back is trying to help stop people following his sorry example.

David Higgerson talked to Paul Cullen, who has now won a young person of the community award for his selfless work against the odds...

WAKING up in a dark corner, somewhere most people wouldn't let their dog lie, and embarking on a frantic search for money had become a daily routine for Paul Cullen.

Sweating, nervous, agitated, he admits he would have done anything to get his hands on cash. Not for food, not for drink -- but for drugs.

At 29, his life revolved around injecting heroin as often as possible, no matter what cost.

With remarkable ease, he recounts his story as though it was the most normal thing in the world. For him, it was.

That was two years ago. Now Paul has not only come clean, but is runs a drop-in centre for the THOMAS charity -- Those On The Margins Of A Society -- helping other people along the long, painful road away from drug addiction and towards a more normal life.

News that more drugs are available on the streets of Lancashire doesn't surprise Paul, now 31 and living in Darwen.

But his message isn't a simple 'Don't Do It'. That message didn't work for him, he says. He just wants people to hear what he has gone through and make up their own minds.

It was a tack tried by Prince Charles when he found his youngest son, Prince Harry, was dabbling with drink and soft drugs.

For Paul, it was alcohol and cannabis which started him on the long road from normal society to a drug-fuelled hell.

He said: "I was about 12 when I first started taking drugs, cannabis mainly and also alcohol.

"It was just the natural step to go onto harder drugs, and I did suffer from low self-esteem and confidence.

"Amphetamines gave that confidence and I spent eight years injecting myself everyday with amphetamines. I was psychologically addicted to them.

"I then spent two years injecting heroin, I had dropped so far.

"I would sleep in places where you would not let a dog sleep. I have lived in Blackburn all my life and all my life was then was looking for the next place to get my next hit.

"I would wake up in the morning and everything would revolve around that. I would inject in every vein I could find."

By 2000, Paul's life was effectively over. Then, several things occurred which made him think twice about his future -- and whether or not he had one.

First of all, he realised he had actually stolen from his sick mother -- who lives in a nursing home -- to fund his habit.

Then he bumped into a former drug-user he knew, who had gone clean.

"Compared to the other people I knew, who had either died or gone to prison, I knew it was the best option."

But taking the decision was just the first step.

On September 11, 2000, Paul enrolled on a detox and rehabilitation course which was to last the next 12 weeks. It had been organised for him by THOMAS.

He said: "I used to go to the soup kitchen and everyone I knew either went to prison or died. But then one day I saw a lad I had used with who had got clean and that made me decide to do something.

"My mother didn't know what was going on, my father was dead and I had made sure my brother in Scotland didn't know either.

"THOMAS was my only option and I turned to them for help. They put me on the course.

"The course ended just before Christmas 2000 and it was the hardest time of my life but I was determined I had to come through it.

"Eventually, I did, and and the following year, last year, I began doing voluntary work for them. I felt I owed them something."

Paul has received two awards for his achievement.

The first came from THOMAS last year, followed by a young person of the community award from the Blackburn Soroptimists last week.

The Blackburn charity organisation honoured Paul after hearing his story.

Using Government New Deal funding, THOMAS created a post as manager of the drop-in centre for Paul, who is also studying counselling so he can continue to help others.

He said: "It makes me feel good about myself that I am finally achieving something. It is the first time I can feel like that."

He added: "I hope people will respond to seeing someone who has managed to come clean.

"We still see people here who were taking drugs with me. They have seen I can do it so I hope they believe me when I say they can do it to. It is all to easy to say 'you don't know what it is like'.

"I have slept all over Blackburn and been in states you just wouldn't imagine so I do know what it is like.

"What I do say is listen to the people this charity has helped and the stories they tell. That should be enough for people to make up their own minds."