Having a ball

Sheffield service users had a chance to celebrate their sobriety in fine style this Christmas, ending the year on a genuine high. Olivia Adams reports

It began as an ambitious idea from local charity Sheffield Alcohol Support Service (SASS) just seven weeks earlier, but on 17 December 250 sober people walked down the red carpet for Sheffield’s first Celebrate Recovery Ball. The evening was held in honour of those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and was planned for the potentially difficult festive period with the temptation of alcohol everywhere. There were high expectations of this first inclusive entertainment event of its kind – a sell-out event thanks to united effort from all the alcohol and drug services in the city.

As everyone in the drug and alcohol field knows, Christmas is a particularly difficult time for people using these services. As the rest of the country is out drinking and enjoying themselves, those in recovery can find it difficult to join in the celebrations when so many of them revolve around alcohol or offer the temptation of drugs. The celebration provided an ideal opportunity to include those who normally feel left out at this time of year as well as to support them to reduce their risk of relapse during the festive period.

Josie Soutar, CEO of SASS, explained the values they wanted to get across through the recovery celebration: ‘As an alcohol charity or an addiction charity, you can often be seen as killjoys, telling people not to have a good time at Christmas because of the worry of temptation. It is a difficult time of year for our clients, but the ball is a way of saying you can still have fun even if you are sober.’

The organising committee was a citywide partnership, as alongside local charity SASS, workers from Phoenix Futures, CRI, Addaction, Turning Point, Primary Care Addiction Service Sheffield (PCASS) and Sheffield Health and Social Care Trust came together to give their support and time to organise an inclusive event for all their service users. Jane Steele, service manager for the community team at Phoenix Futures, spoke of the importance of celebrating life outside of recovery: ‘People in treatment can be so focused on therapy and help that you forget there is a life outside of it; you need to remember you can enjoy yourself.’

Daniel, 25, is in recovery from an alcohol and crack cocaine addiction that began in 2007. He knew his attachment to crack came at a price, but it wasn’t until four years had passed and Daniel had lost his relationship, daughter, home, car and self-esteem that he began to question his values.

‘I couldn’t hold that lifestyle down; it got too much for me,’ he said before the event. ‘I was addicted but needed to find another way to enjoy myself. I’ve never been to a ball before, so I’m looking forward to it because a lot of us haven’t got much to do over the Christmas period.’

Linda, 47, in recovery and now a volunteer at SASS, also had high expectations: ‘You feel fragile when you have been dependent on alcohol and come off it, especially around Christmas, and the ball is giving people something to look forward to.’

Although there was no champagne reception, there was a festive dinner, entertainment from two comedians, music from live bands and a DJ that played into the night, and partygoers were encouraged to bring a loved one as a guest. The celebration had all the glitz of a real ball with dinner jackets, evening gowns and tables decorated with sparkly ornaments and balloons. For people in recovery, tickets were at a subsidised rate of £10, and a limited number of donated tickets from the services were available at no cost. Generous funding from a number of key sponsors was crucial for the night to be a success, with Sheffield DAAT being a significant supporter of the evening.

The ball idea stemmed from the creative minds of Matt McMullen, activities coordinator, and Mike Ng, project worker from SASS, who began brainstorming a recovery night for their clients.

‘Our recovery project has over 100 clients and we wanted to do something different this year and hold a really big event,’ said McMullen. ‘That’s when we asked all the other agencies including drug services and the fellowships, if they would like to be involved as we wanted to acknowledge all types of recovery.’

During the evening he added: ‘It has been great to come together as a sector and put something fun on for our service users. I think the comedian is nervous because everyone is sober.’ But comedian Sam Harland, with experience of recovery himself, didn’t seem too fazed by the large crowd and opened the evening with humorous drug jokes.

Music from Not Dead Yet 2 followed. The band’s singer, who has been sober for four years, sang a selection of covers including Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, and Pink’s Just Like a Pill. Local band The Gentlemen finished the evening in true party style. The Sheffield-based band, whose recent Chas and Dave cover featured on Dermot O’Leary’s BBC Radio Two programme, got everyone moving to the dance floor with their own songs and classic covers.

Lead singer Nicholas was full of praise for the evening: ‘Celebrating recovery is a positive thing, and a lot of our songs are about redemption and hope. It was special to see people uniting under the banner of recovery.’

Stephen, 36, is a volunteer at CRI and Turning Point after being a client with CRI. ‘With harder drugs, you don’t realise how fast it gets you,’ he said. ‘But you just have to choose, you don’t have to hit rock bottom. Last year was my first proper Christmas without anything, which was weird, but good.’

CRI recovery worker John McNeil, who played a crucial part in the organisation of the evening, also gave his thoughts: ‘It is wonderful to see so many people in recovery without any substances involved – everyone is getting high on recovery itself.’

The night gave people the chance to celebrate their recovery from drugs or alcohol addiction, while also helping to repair damaged relationships with families and friends. Every organisation had representatives at the ball, and as the first event of its kind it was a success in itself. Ending on the most natural high, everyone spoke of its achievements and how they hoped another evening like this would be held in 2013.

Olivia Adams is a student at the University of Sheffield