When I look back on my own life and the lives of others who have been in addictions, I start to see patterns and similarities that we have all felt and experienced. I see the trauma we experienced both in childhood and the lifestyle – we can then begin to understand where the negative beliefs we have about ourselves began.
Our view of the world starts to change from it being safe to a scary and dangerous place to live. We start to distrust people around us – in some cases, our own family, as these family members who were meant to care for us were the very people that were hurting, neglecting and abusing us. From an early age, our mental health starts to deteriorate. We start to feel we are worthless, that we are unlovable, unliked or unwanted. In order to stay connected to our caregivers, we turn those feelings into self-hatred and assume there must be something wrong with us.
At this point, our mental health can become unmanageable and it’s not uncommon for us to adopt negative patterns of behaviour in order to cope with the internal reality we created. At the tender age of 12 I was offered drugs. Without hesitation, I took them and for the first time in as long as I could remember I got a reprieve from the all-consuming negative thoughts and feelings of low self-worth. At this point, the drugs worked. They took my pain and feelings away and I began to care less about anyone or anything, apart from drugs or drink.
Unfortunately, and unbeknown to me at that time, my life was destined for a level of destruction that I never thought possible. Quickly, I began doing things that went against my values and beliefs, which led me to a place where death felt like the only option. In fact, I welcomed death as a relief from the mental torture I was living through on a daily basis.
When we use lived experience, learning and insight symbiotically, we end up with a system that is much greater than the sum of its parts. I have never struggled to recognise the value that having lived experience can bring to the development and creation of new ways of working. It’s a movement I’ve championed for nearly two decades. This concept became apparent to me during my last prison sentence more than 19 years ago. I strongly believe that lived experience perspectives, where respected and utilised, enable the development of new services that really meet the needs of the people we’re aiming to help.
Initially, I became an expert of my own experience through ongoing recovery programmes – all methods of counselling, psychotherapy, endless reading, listening and studying. Alongside this, I began my career as a frontline worker in services, working my way up to regional manager. After seven years, I departed statutory services to form my own lived experience recovery organisation (LERO) called The Well.
Propelled by what I had learned, seen and experienced, I came to believe that the majority of those who come into services are suffering from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and that treatment and wellbeing services need a rethink about how to support people in a way that brings real change. I strongly believe that we have to look at the environments and conditions we are creating in our own places of support, and that the right conditions need to be realised for a genuinely recovery-orientated system of care. I say system because it’s the responsibility of all services to get on board. When the right conditions are not in place, mental health can be further compounded by re-traumatisation, feelings of disconnection, hopelessness, and despair. This can lead to further relapse and a life devoid of opportunity and aspiration.
My book, Rat Hell to Rat Park: The Core Conditions for Recovery represents my life’s work to date from childhood trauma, to using addict, to prison, to personal recovery, and my subsequent investment as a professional in the field of addiction and recovery. Of most importance is that this book finds anyone who is looking for a way out and inspires hope. It’s also my intention that the hope, coupled with the reality of what can happen when we create the right conditions for people – as outlined in this book – provides a blueprint for services and professionals who are looking to be part of the change.
Dave Higham is founder and CEO of The Well Communities, author of Rat Hell to Rat Park, The Core Conditions For Recovery and co-author of The Bigger Book of ACEs
An extract from Rat Hell to Rat Park, The Core Conditions For Recovery
At The Well we have housing, recovery support, and psychosocial interventions. At the heart of these interventions are the core conditions for recovery, which provide a wrap-around nurturing environment for healing to take place. It is our version of Rat Park – a place where people feel comforted and loved, where they are part of a community and feel a sense of belonging. The rats in Rat Park are basically in their form of heaven; they had lots of wheels to play on, lots to eat, lots of other rats to play with or breed with.
When those rats were exposed to water laced with heroin or cocaine, as per Bruce Alexander’s experiment in the 1970s, they almost never used it, compared to the experiment using a single rat left alone, with no rat friends or activities, which drank the drugged water until it died. The lesson here was that rats living happy and connected lives just didn’t use drugs. They didn’t overdose. They didn’t take it compulsively. Journalist Johann Hari (2015) gave a TED talk about this, and he summarised this experiment saying, what if addiction was about your cage? What if it is an adaption to an environment? When we bond and connect with each other, we become free of addiction, but if we’re traumatised or alone in our cage, then this is the breeding ground for obtaining some sense of relief. That’s human nature. That’s what we want as human beings.
I have created the six core conditions based on my years of experience, both working in the addiction and psychology field and as a recovering addict and survivor of multiple adverse childhood traumas (ACTs). I believe these conditions are the pathway to supporting sustainable, life-long recovery from any addiction, trauma or mental illness because they create an environment where human beings can connect, share their experiences and create bonds that lead to a drug-free life. Together, these six conditions create a culture for people to heal themselves, to face whatever they need to face within a safe environment, and pave the way to stay better, and even go on to thrive.
The six core conditions, which are building blocks for healing and recovery, are outlined here:
1. Lived experience
This is the key ingredient for creating the core conditions for recovery. People of lived experience (POLE), who work supporting our clients, enable people to identify with those who have walked the same path.
I felt disconnected throughout my whole life. The saddest part was I did not even know I was disconnected from myself, my family and from my community. I did not feel I belonged. We need to rebuild these broken connections. It makes perfect sense if people take drink or drugs to escape the feelings of being alone, to then find the solution in positive connections with like-minded people in recovery.
3. Meaning and purpose
Through this new sense of connection and belonging, a pathway is created for our clients to find meaning and purpose in their lives. The impact on self-confidence and self-belief means they can finally go out into the world and live their best lives and reach their true potential.
Creating a community is important when building the right environment for people to recover. We support this by developing the conditions for people to connect to each other. We openly encourage people to engage with their peers, and to connect with other people with lived experience.
5. Trauma-safe environment (TSE)
We consciously create a safe, trusting and non-judgmental environment, promoting a culture of mutual respect and unity. This is not just for the people we support. This also has to include the staff and the organisation as a whole.
Sometimes I wonder if this is the most important condition of all. Without hope that people can rebuild their lives and live a better, kinder, more meaningful life, then change cannot happen.