12/28/2014 10:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Borstal to Boardroom via the Building Site

By: Dave Lee


My name is Dave Lee and I am author of The Hairy Arsed Builder's Guide to Stress Management and the co-founder of a company called Building Site to Boardroom Ltd. We specialize in introducing a culture of change, compassion and wellbeing into the construction industry.

Many moons ago, when I was say a five- or six-year-old, my stepmother would introduce me to others as "an angel - a hell's angel."

This pretty much sums up my behavior back then. My childhood was spent moving around from place to place, school to school. I think I must have attended 15 or 16 different schools all over the country. My father was a fireman, who had recently remarried after divorcing my mother. My mother, at the time of the breakup, was faced with the prospect of bringing up three small children alone, so decided to give my older brother and me to my father and new stepmother, whilst she kept the baby. That was pretty much the last contact I had with her, until I was sent back to her at the age of 12, when my father's second marriage broke down.

I was wild and uncontrollable and in constant trouble with everyone from my father and stepmother, to my teachers at school, and ultimately the police. I now struggle to remember any happy childhood moments. I was first arrested at 12 years of age. I feared nothing, not being hit nor screamed at, and had nothing to lose. I was sent to a child psychiatrist because of my behavior, but of course things were different in the 1970s and the conduct of my parents, and lack of any parental love or care, was not looked into. I was told I was the problem!

By the age of 15 my mother had placed me into care. I had been sent from Scotland aged 12, to live with this woman and her new husband down south, who no longer knew her son, nor wanted the responsibility of looking after this wild creature. Before long she told the courts to lock me up, as she clearly couldn't control me. This was the first time I would be sent to Borstal (now known as a Young Offenders institute). I would end up spending the next six years constantly in trouble with the police, in and out of different prisons, until I finally broke the cycle of offending and reoffending at the age of 21. I managed to stay out of trouble long enough to find work on a building site, find somewhere to live and I meet my now wife, Linzi.

Fast forward to 2007: I found myself on the cusp of losing everything. I had somehow managed to hold together a long suffering, but ultimately broken wife, two beautiful children, a decent job in the building game and a few drinking buddies... but my past caught up with me at last. I was an alcoholic. I was self-medicating daily, was powerless over my addiction and suffered crushingly low self-esteem (not that I even knew what that was back then!). I had enormous mood swings and sometimes displayed a terrifying temper. My black moods completely took over my life. I was taking anti-depressants and was a broken man, who couldn't show love to anyone, let alone himself.

The breaking point (and moment of surrender) was when I walked out on my family, just as my daughter was blowing out the candles on her sixth birthday cake. I walked out and my darling wife did the best thing possible. She locked the door and wouldn't let me come back. She needed to keep herself and my children safe and that meant me not being around. I had finally reached my rock bottom.

When a person reaches that point of utter misery and dejection, suicide begins to look like an attractive option... but the blessing is always that you can't go any lower -- the only way, from now on in, is up.

So, how did this broken and suicidal wreck of a man climb out of the massive black chasm he was in you may ask? Well, the first step was putting down the drink. I am now seven years sober and I thank the universe every day for giving me the gift of sobriety. I thought my life was over the moment I stopped drinking. It had been my friend and my foe for so many years. I couldn't imagine how I was going to survive without it... but I did and my life grew and grew into something I wouldn't have dared to even dream about.

Getting sober was the first step. Dealing with the pain of my past was the second. I embarked on an epic journey of self-discovery that lead me down many paths and introduced me to so many great teachers, who were willing help me learn to love and forgive my parents and ultimately, myself.

My life had turned a corner. I began to be able to have genuine relationships with others for the first time in my life. Linzi and I pulled back from the brink of destruction and mended our marriage and my children had a real father for the first time. My cup did truly runneth over.

I also now strongly felt the need to help others, who were in similar situations and were suffering, as I had been. The seed of an idea was planted. I started getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning before work on site to write. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now, I must confess I am dyslexic and my writing isn't what you would classically call easy to understand. The only person who can read and translate it is Linzi (who is helping me write this blog right now) and it's Linzi who managed to turn 12,000 words into a legible format. The result was that The Hairy Arsed Builder character was born. Before long I was getting emails, letters and calls from people who had read the book and were telling me that this stuff was resonating so strongly with them. All they were doing was changing their thoughts and learning to be mindful.

Ultimately I wanted to get this 'stuff', I had learned on my journey, out to a wider audience. I wanted to condense everything I had learned into an easy to digest format. I started by chatting to the men whom I worked with on site and they loved it. They kept coming into work the next day saying, "Dave, I tried what you suggested and such and such worked like a miracle!" The feedback was incredible. Wives of the men contacted me to ask what was I doing with their husbands. They were suddenly more present, less grumpy with the kids, less likely to have road rage... The shift was taking place and it was unbelievable!

So, where am I now? Well my team and I are now bringing this magic to the construction Industry as a whole. Construction is a tough environment and the men who work within it are known for not taking to anything 'namby-pamby' or 'new-agey'. However, by being authentic and introducing our core values to them, in an easily digestible format, they can receive the messages in an effective way. Our core values include self-esteem, personal responsibility, authenticity, personal integrity and mindfulness. These principles are all delivered with live on-site presentations, workbooks, visual cues and animations. We are reaching out and providing people with easy to use tools for them to relieve their stress, increase their wellbeing and learn mindfulness.

The feedback so far has blown us out the water. We look forward to growing and eventually taking this approach out to other sectors. Change is happening and life is exciting for this former jailbird. Change is always possible and I am living proof of that!

These themes will be addressed in more detail through the Pioneers for Change Fellowship kicking off on March 23 and 24, 2015 in London. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.