Room at the table?

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Creating recovery‘I will never make apologies for being emotive about something that affects us all,’ said Noreen Oliver MBE, opening Creating Recovery, The Recovery Group UK’s conference in London last month.

The conference’s strapline was ‘funding opportunities for building abstinence recovery communities’ and the politicians were there to tell us why ‘recovery’ now meant ‘drug free’.

‘It’s about getting people as far from drugs as we possibly can,’ said work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. ‘It’s all about giving people a chance, but with the discipline and determination to move people into recovery.’

Rosanna O’Connor of Public Health England stressed that there continued to be ‘high ministerial interest’ in this agenda, but warned that drug treatment money was likely to be squeezed even further now its ‘quasi ringfence’ had been removed, with community care funding ‘a particular challenge’. A rehab survey had confirmed a solid basis for local authorities to continue investing in them, but holding LAs to account would be ‘slightly more difficult’.

‘These are challenging times with funding constraints and potential disinvestments. We all need to up our game,’ she said.

Lord Benjamin Mancroft, chair of the Addiction Recovery Foundation and a peer in the House of Lords for 27 years, who had beaten his own addiction, was unequivocal that recovery meant abstinence, and that those who disagreed did so because they did not understand.

‘The healthcare profession can’t cure addiction,’ he said. ‘Doctors do not understand addiction – it’s not in their radar.’ The problem, he said, was that 95 per cent of healthcare was provided by one organisation, the NHS, controlled by doctors. That organisation was ‘the most dangerous dealer in the world’, for prescription drugs.

‘After 30 years of very careful observation, I understand abstinence and substitute prescribing. But I have never met anyone who’s benefited from substitute prescribing for any but a very short length of time,’ he said.

Christian Guy, of the Centre for Social Justice, brought the discussion back to equality and giving ‘every person in the country the choices we would want for our families.’ We should all agree that people should be given the choice to get drug free and stay drug free, he said.

The climate was becoming tougher without money, with more than half of local authorities cutting money for rehab.

‘As much as we hate to believe it, politics does matter,’ he said. ‘But it’s not just about money, it’s about lack of ambition for too many people in the system.’

We also needed to know what recovery looked like in later life, he said, as this group were in danger of being forgotten and written off, with the attitude ‘keep them quiet’ and ‘put them in shooting galleries where the rest of us can’t see them.’

With ‘more people in rehab for alcohol than drugs’, we were also not good enough at treating the root causes of the 1.6m people trapped in alcohol addiction.

‘Rehab is a chance to live again and surely that’s what recovery is about,’ he added. ‘Let’s go out with renewed determination to finish the job and give people that chance.’

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, warned of the need to ‘stop simplistic narratives of blame’ that were affecting children and young people. Of the 36,000 young people, children and vulnerable adults KidsCo supported every year, 81 per cent arrived addicted to drugs and 90 per cent of them had been introduced to drugs by their immediate carers.

‘Potentially, this country it sitting on an emotional and public health timebomb in the way that it’s not paying attention to the urgency of care for the most vulnerable,’ she said. ‘We should be thinking about the emotional health and practical living circumstances of our children.

‘We tend to think about recovery across the whole spectrum in “siloed” ways, but often people’s difficulties are complex and multiple and they have continuous challenges as they go through their recovery programme.’


Creating recoveryAgainst this backdrop of political, strategic and economic anxiety, there was a strong message of optimism and a proactive climate in the audience, many of whom had come to demonstrate their active recovery. ‘There’s a hell of a lot of power in the room – share what you’ve got,’ urged Noreen Oliver.

‘Whenever someone in the public eye talks of their recovery, it inspires others to do the same,’ said Chip Somers, chief executive of Focus 12, as he introduced former client Russell Brand (whose large white German Shepherd dog leapt onto the speakers’ desk, much to Rosanna O’Connor’s surprise).

‘I want this message of abstinence-based recovery to reach everybody,’ said Brand. ‘Addiction seems like such a hopeless condition when you’re using. Because of support from other addicts I’ve got a chance.’

The only way to get people to ‘stay clean’ was through support and a sense of purposefulness and togetherness. There was still demonisation of a section of society, but ‘till we have a compassionate approach we won’t solve the problem,’ he said.

Stuart Honor of The Basement Recovery Project (TBRP) demonstrated the power of ‘social contagion’ in creating recovery communities. ‘We are stronger in shoals,’ he said. ‘The number of people in your network correlates with personal and social recovery capital.’

TBRP’s recovery community centres gave opportunities to create long-term pathways, and the graduates – ‘community builders’ – thrived on giving peer support. ‘Visible change happens when we harness strength in the community,’ he said. Abstinence was just a necessary part of this process: ‘You have to turn off the water to mend the plumbing.’

Kevin Kennedy – Curly Watts from Coronation Street – echoed this view of recovery in sharing his story. As his acting career had begun to rise, so did his drinking – ‘I drank because I liked it. I enjoyed the pub, the camaraderie – until it all went wrong.

‘In 1997 I thought I’d discovered the secret of the universe – the morning drink,’ he said. After being sent by Granada to rehab, he began attending AA meetings ‘because I thought I was being watched by the press’. But he learned to love the ‘humble scout hut’ because it was keeping him well.

‘This is a shame-based illness – the only way out of it is abstinence,’ he said. While on holiday he visited a dry bar and came home determined to set one up in his home town of Brighton. ‘What better way to show off we’re in recovery,’ he said. ‘It’s important we change people’s view of what recovery’s about.’

Having an acceptance of the recovery culture was ‘crucial’ in prisons, said RAPt’s chief executive, Mike Trace. RAPt’s answer to building recovery communities was to have large peer networks, he said, supporting people to make the emotional changes that helped them to make progress. ‘The “what happens next?” is our biggest headache,’ he said – making sure they had recovery capital in good quality accommodation, friendship networks and employment prospects.

Russell Brand, RAPt’s newest patron, underlined the need for mutual support.

‘There’s a currency of kindness,’ he said. ‘We only stay well by helping other people to stay well.

‘Abstinence-based recovery is bloody hard,’ he added. ‘We’re all in this together.’

Russel BrandThe other important element of the conference was to look at funding opportunities, including the Give It Up Fund, launched by Russell Brand and managed by Comic Relief.

Gilly Green of Comic Relief explained that with £500,000 raised to date, the fund aimed ‘to promote abstinence-based recovery, increase access to treatment, help sustain long-term recovery and reduce stigma towards those with addictions.’

Applicants could present a clear vision for a recovery community, using effective local partnerships, for a grant of up to £70,000, or could apply for the small grants programme, which would fund smaller activities with up to £5,000.

Further opportunities were offered by Dominic Ruffy of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, who said their organisation – already involved in a schools programme in partnership with Addaction – could offer grants for projects on recovery.

‘Be creative,’ said Noreen Oliver. ‘Think of all the things out there built by service users. Work with agencies in partnership, tap into community assets.’

Carl Cundall of Sheffield Alcohol Support Services (SASS) had an encouraging message for those who thought a drug-using or dealing past might blight their opportunities. You have a CV of transferable skills, he said, such as excellent networking and problem-solving, being highly motivated and being able to manage people effectively.

That was one of the many benefits of recovery, he said – ‘it gives you the opportunity to watch people transform their lives.’ 

Photos by Simon Brandon, courtesy of RAPt.