Lucy Seymour-Smith recently attended Aquarius’s service user conference as a new recruit to the alcohol charity’s team. Here she shares her first impressions of the event.

 This year is my first service user conference. Being based in head office means that I don’t get to see many service users, and so I’m really looking forward to this as an opportunity to see the people that Aquarius is all about. 

Everyone’s looking really friendly as they start to arrive. A few people seem to have come not knowing anyone else but next time I’ve looked up they’re chatting away happily. One of the things I read about last year’s SU conference was that it was good for people to meet up with other people in the same situation as them, and I can certainly see that ‘common ground’ factor. 

I’m surprised to not see that many older people here – the vast majority are young or middle aged. Alcohol misuse in older people is so under-reported. As we get ready to start, Aquarius staff are chatting away to service users – I can see a lot of good and obviously developed relationships. Chief executive Annette Fleming makes a very thoughtful and down to earth speech about the importance of events such as this to celebrate what service users have achieved so far, as well as bringing hope by seeing what others have done. 

Three service users give their stories on struggles with alcohol, gambling and drugs. I knew this stuff happens, but to see people bravely struggling through the pain of reliving their past is something else. Tears held back by deep, controlled breaths; an obviously painful experience that is visibly a great milestone for each speaker. 

Powerful poetry and strong statements are used by the speakers to express themselves and their feelings – it’s remarkable to see creativity crafted so eloquently to put into words years of despair. 

Some of their quotes stuck with me:

‘Alcohol can lead to dark places, but we can overcome this for a better life.’

‘My doctor saved my life several times, and never gave up on me – even though 

he probably should have several times.’

‘After the first year, not drinking gets easier and easier – I can assure everyone here.’ 

‘Before, when I was drinking, at times I didn’t know who I was or where I was.’ 

‘There are doors in the mind that are just too painful to open.’ 

‘Stopping drinking is hard, but not as hard as keeping on drinking.’ 

Later Shaheen Choudry gives a great talk on BME communities that weren’t accessing alcohol services and Nita, a community champion, helps to identify what events are going on so people can see Aquarius there. 

During question time someone asks about the biggest changes at Aquarius over the past few years. David Millard, chair of trustees, talks about the new environment of tendering, which is very competitive – we’ve gained and lost projects. Service user meetings have become an important part of forming partnerships – clients can teach us. He says that there’s always another step to the journey and that’s what we’re here for.

Annette Fleming says the organisation has grown because we’ve got a more diverse range of skills and experience.  She says it’s important that people know that if they feel they need to come back to Aquarius, they can. We want to always be welcoming – it’s as simple as that.  

Lucy Seymour-Smith is communications officer at Aquarius,