Keighley's Nick Smith on leaving his past behind to set up Missing Peace Wellbeing and Support

Nick Smith set up his own wellbeing service after being put on a long therapy waiting list. He tells John Blow about moving on from his traumatic childhood to start Missing Peace.

Emma Gibson and Nick Smith of Missing Peace. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Toucans are all over the place in the Keighley office of Nick Smith.

On the walls, on his mugs, on his T-shirt and, under his bright yellow suede desert boots, even on his socks.

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The toucan has taken on a symbolic meaning for Smith, a reference to a motto of his: “If I Can, You Too Can”

It’s the kind of greeting card slogan that would have been totally out of place in his formative years when he faced abuse, chaos and a long struggle to stay alive.

But now he runs Missing Peace Wellbeing and Support, created out of frustration with a lifetime of unsuccessful formal therapy and his discovery that he was on a long waiting list for treatment to help with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Missing Peace offers one-to-one support led by people who have been through their own struggles. Crucially, there is no particular criteria that people must meet to ask for its help.

“We don’t have ‘service users’. We don’t have ‘clients’. We have people that we see,” says Nick, 43. “Just people.”

Nick’s own need for support stems from his childhood. He says that his late mother – Susan Stokoe, nee Beckett, who went on to be convicted of manslaughter in 1998 after stabbing a man in the chest at her flat in Church Street, Keighley, the year before – was violent towards her children and spent all the her money on alcohol, leaving the children without proper food or new clothes.

“It got to the point where when she was due home from the pub me and my brother would be absolutely terrified,” says Nick.

“She’s either going to come in drunk and go to bed; she’s going to come in drunk and kick off; or she’s going to come in drunk with a bloke. Two out of the three are safe for us because she’ll go straight up and she’ll leave us alone. But more often than not, it was the ‘She’ll come home and kick off’.

He adds: “When my mum kicked off we used to run over to get my mum’s cousin. It got to where my mum would come in, bolt the door, lock the back door and take the keys with her so we couldn’t get out. When I think about the sound of the back door and then the bolt and then the key, and then feeling trapped...it’s terrifying.”

He recalls one incident after his mother’s partner left. “One weekend after I’d come home from my dad’s, I said ‘Where is he?’. ‘Oh no he’s gone, not coming back’. ‘Why?’. She bent over.

She had a crater in the back of her head – he’d stoved her head in with a crystal ash tray.

“But that was normal life to me, that’s all I ever knew,” he says. “Anger, violence, drinking, cheating.”

Nick has tried to take his own life more than once but says the first attempt was when he was just nine.

For a brief period, he went to live with his father in Scotland but had to come back around the age of 12.

He remembers an attack that happened after his return. “I was just laying in my top bunk and she was just laying into me – bang, bang, bang. And it got to the point where I just didn’t hurt anymore. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t smell anything...” All he remembers seeing was his poster of the wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow.

“I had to go to school the next day and I had to wear a sweatshirt to cover all the bruises. And she had like this pointed ring, it had punctured all my arm. Oh God, it was a mess.”

Shortly after, Nick revealed to a teacher what had been happening at home and was fostered by another member of the family.

They clashed, he says, and during his teenage years he began drinking heavily. When he was 17 he decided to go live on his own, turning to self-harm and spending his money on alcohol.

He took some time out to get psychotherapy, but it wasn’t successful.

Then his girlfriend became pregnant and they had a daughter. “When I held her I had this warm feeling come over me. I didn’t know where it came from, it was so automatic, I had no control over it, but it was this overwhelming loyalty and love and this compassion for this tiny little human being. My mind was blown.”

He adds: “I thought: this is it. This is what’s going to turn me around. But unfortunately, I didn’t know at the time, I was hearing voices. Now I didn’t know they were voices, I thought they were my inner-monologue and our monologue, because I could hear separate voices. What’s now called Jeremy, one of my aggressive voices, he went: ‘Ha. Your mum and dad didn’t feel like that did they? So what’s wrong with you?’ And that was it then, I was just focused on that. I was like, what is wrong with me?’ I tried my best, I did, but my best wasn’t nowhere near good enough.”

Nick lost contact with his two-year-old daughter when he was 23 due to his behaviour, drink addiction and self-harm, he says. However, he became a father for the second time, to his daughter Lilly, who is now 16.

He split from her mother but is very close to his daughter and is settled with his fiancée Emma Gibson, his partner of 14 years.

But back in 2010, during a “downhill” period of very heavy all-day drinking, he says that he became involved in fights and was charged with offences including battery and assault on two police officers, for which he was electronically tagged and fined.

Then after a breakdown, he stayed at Lynfield Mount Hospital, in Bradford, in early 2011. He soon began occupational therapy and was told about Wellness Recovery Action Planning (WRAP), a form of support that finally helped him. During a 12-week course, the facilitators told him their own stories of mental illness (known as peer support) and he essentially wrote his own instruction manual to live by – a basic tool that has become “life-saving” for Nick.

“I knew that was a way forward for like me, who feel inferior to the NHS, that the NHS use big words and I’m not a clever guy,” he says. “I want to connect to real people.”

He volunteered for the charity Mind and in 2014 became a WRAP facilitator himself, following up with an advanced course in 2019. He is also an advocate and certified practitioner of intentional peer support (IPS), whereby partnerships are developed as a mutual way for participants to grow instead of one person ‘helping’ another.

Nick then set up a Wellbeing and Recovery Support Group in Keighley, the town’s first such peer-to-peer network.

Meanwhile, he was getting vivid flashbacks of memories that didn’t seem to be real. After an assessment he was referred for eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy for PTSD – but the waiting list was 18 months.

“I thought, no...there’s something missing. Hence Missing Peace,” says Nick. The organisation, which is also run by Emma, became a legal entity in 2017. Ironically, there may be a waiting list soon but Nick is hoping to bring in volunteers to ease the pressure.

“I just don’t want people to think that they’re broken, because they’re not,” he says. “And what IPS kind of says is it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s happened to you. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken.”