'I plan to speak to desperate people from the grave before they get there, to show them there's hope'
John Edwards, a former alcoholic and drug addict, is spending three days underground in a coffin for his charity which helps the suicidal and addicted
Climbing into a coffin to spend three days buried alive, John Edwards looked remarkably chipper yesterday afternoon. Because after the many days of his life he's spent in much darker places than that, the 62-year-old wasn't afraid of what lay ahead.
Grandfather John is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic. He spent more than two decades hooked on everything from booze and cigarettes to barbiturates, cannabis and heroin. At one point he was throwing back an astonishing 150 valium pills a day, hitting rock bottom when he was barred from his father's funeral, spending the day instead guzzling drink and drugs with a stranger hundreds of miles from home.
"Things have been very dark for me over the years," said John. "But after all the dreadful things that happened, I have been clean for more than 25 years and have made amends with the family my addiction once tore apart. There are a lot of broken and very damaged people here in Belfast and if I can help them at all, then I will."
John, the founder of charity Walking Free which helps suicidal and addicted people across the UK and Ireland, was 'buried' yesterday at Willowfield Church in east Belfast in an 8ft X 3.5ft X 4ft coffin. John will remain underground, communicating with the outside world and offering advice on Skype and social media until 2pm on Friday.
The stunt sounds extreme, but after the dramatic events of John's own life, he's desperate to help other people from ever falling to the depths he once did.
Growing up in the 1950s in a middle class and loving family in affluent Clontarf, Dublin, no one could have predicted his bleak fate.
Aged just 12 and struggling with a crippling speech impediment, John, the first boy in a family of seven children, turned to drugs.
"My father Eddie was a successful businessman, and our family was comfortably off," recalls John. "But I was a terribly shy boy with this awful stutter and one day I made a very stupid choice. I experimented with drugs. I didn't intend to get addicted. I had no idea what the outcome would be."
In the early years of his experimentation and addiction, John used alcohol, cannabis, barbiturates and opiates.
"It was a very bad time and there were quite a lot of us involved, even back then," recalls John. "Through my teens and early 20s I knew about 30 people in my own small area involved in drugs. Only seven of us are still alive. The rest are gone through drink, drugs, suicide and even AIDs."
John's addiction spiralled and by his early 20s he had been through more traumas than most people could handle in a lifetime.
He had been both physically and sexually abused while under the influence of drugs - and when his childhood friend died after a night out in Dublin, he fled to England.
"Lots of things had happened, and I'd already been to far too many funerals for a man that age," said John. "My best friend George died one night after we'd been to see Thin Lizzy. He fell into the Liffey, and I couldn't handle it so I ran away to London. Like every young Irish man at the time I thought the streets there would be paved with gold."
But from the moment he arrived things got even worse for John.
"Of course it didn't fix things," he said. "The first person I met when I got off the train was myself, there with all my problems and pain and insecurities. I ended up getting into heroin. Piccadilly tube station, subway four is where the drug dealing went on so there I was. I wasn't just taking drugs but I was dealing too, just enough to survive. Things got worse and I was so sick living on the streets I was barely well enough to beg."
Among the most awful episodes in John's history were the 10 times he was sent to psychiatric institutions in both Dublin and London, and the 20 times he overdosed.
"I never tried intentionally to commit suicide," he said. "The overdoses were accidental, but extreme nonetheless. I was in comas three or four times too, and in a very bad way."
Inevitably the impact of his addiction was hugely challenging for his family.
For the seven or eight years he spent in London, they shared very little contact. And when his father passed away in 1983, he was excluded from the funeral.
"They tracked me down to a doss house in North West London," recalls John.
"I was told my father had died aged 63, but that I was barred because of the state I was in. I was chronically addicted to drugs and alcohol and they didn't want me there. That was my absolute rock bottom. And on the day he was buried, I was down an alleyway in London, drinking with an old tramp. That day, at rock bottom, I knew I had to change."
But as he headed for 30, the road ahead wasn't an easy one. It took at least another year before he left London behind and moved back to Dublin.
"My mother Alice took me back in, probably against the advice of a lot of people," says John. "At the time I was taking 150 valium a day. It sounds horrendous, but there are people out there today taking that number of these tablets. And coming off valium in my opinion was even worse than heroin, with terrifying withdrawals, convulsions and fits. You feel like you're going mad.
"At that stage, my mother was broken with me. One day she sat in the hospital with me and listened as my stomach was pumped. She broke down and said she couldn't watch any more as I went through all this, and she prayed that God would take me home."
But finally, aged 36, life took a major turn for John. "I'd already joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous in Dublin," he says. "And through the 12 Steps programme I met some people who recommended I go to a rehab facility in Wales.
"I spent a year there, I became a Christian and I gave up alcohol, drugs and even cigarettes.
"Giving up everything you've relied on for such a long time is very frightening. The prospect is that you are going to become someone you have never been before, which of course is terrifying. But it's been a wonderful experience and I have never looked back. If I could do it, then anyone can."
In the long years since his recovery, John has become husband to Donegal native Tricia, a stepfather to four children and grandchildren, and devoted his life to helping other people with addiction problems. His aim by burying himself alive this week is to raise awareness for the needs of people in despair.
"I hear very often from people who are desperate, suicidal and have devastating addictions," he says. "Through my time in the coffin I plan to speak to them from the grave before they get there, to show them there is hope.
"I have worked with millionaires and millionaires' children. I've worked with homeless people doing everything they can to get drugs, and what that shows me is that addiction can hit anyone and can be equally devastating for whoever it touches. But there is hope, and if you can get control of it, then you can have a proper, fulfilling life."
John first performed his coffin stunt in July last year in Halifax, Yorks, where he now lives, but thinks Belfast is an ideal place to do it again.
"There are people here in a lot of need," says John. "And coming to Belfast means we can reach people in Northern Ireland, the Republic, as well as the rest of the UK.
"Last time we believe we reached 18 million people and that's so important in getting the message out there that there is always hope to be had, no matter how difficult things can seem at a moment in time."
And while being buried alive sounds like a pretty daunting prospect, his 'coffin' is high-tech and cosy enough to make sure he doesn't struggle too much between now and 2pm tomorrow.
Complete with fibre optic broadband, a phone and a laptop and plenty of wriggle room to roll over and even sit up, John should be comfortable enough. It's even been fitted with a mattress and he's got his woolly socks and a hot water bottle in there too.
John will be taking calls, emails, Skype and texts from the people of east Belfast and throughout the world as his three-day 'burial' is streamed live through the coffin.
There are two nine-inch tubes feeding from above ground to John's coffin, one to pass in food and toiletries.
And the other tube, in case anyone is wondering, is to pass any less pleasant materials back out.
"That's all I'd like to say about that," laughs John. "But needless to say, reaching as many people as I can in Belfast and giving them a bit of hope about their futures will make a bit of discomfort more than worth it."
Follow the live stream on social media: #GraveChat and find more information at www.walkingfree.org