Vital connections

Screen shot 2014-12-01 at 14.26.26Communities and conversation are key to making recovery a reality, delegates heard at Addaction’s annual recovery conference. Jill Stevenson reports

Communities working together was a central theme of Addaction’s fourth National Recovery Conference last month. The annual get-together looked at how peer support and combined neighbourhood/group action could provide the catalyst to further recovery from addiction for thousands of individuals. It also helped launch the charity’s new campaign, the Big Ambition, which seeks to empower communities to fight substance misuse from within.

Set in Glasgow, the two-day conference pulled in more than 500 delegates from throughout the UK and beyond. Key speaker on the first day was Globalisation of Addiction author, Professor Bruce Alexander.

Vancouver-based drugs and addiction researcher Alexander – who shot to fame through his celebrated ‘rat pack’ experiments – began by announcing that it would be the last time he travelled abroad.

He looked back on how much had been achieved in terms of drug treatment and recovery since his start in the field in the early 1970s, but warned against complacency, saying that there was much still to be done.

‘I’m not saying the idea of the Big Ambition is wrong – far from it,’ he commented. ‘But rather it doesn’t go far enough. More battles have to be won. We need to turn communities around and get people all thinking along the same lines.’

One of the battles to which Alexander referred was the ongoing tension between those who wholeheartedly believed in abstinence and those dedicated to harm reduction. He warned that it was important not to become embroiled in such tensions and urged both sides to work together as part of the same movement.

Screen shot 2014-12-01 at 14.27.44‘There are many paths across the swamp,’ he said. ‘Some drug users will take the same path, others will advocate for another. The main thing to remember is that it’s all about the individual, and it’s whatever works for them that is important.’

He added that ‘some people believe that if they fail at one path and find redemption in another then they believe that first path won’t work for others either’, and that was ‘simply wrong’.

Alexander pointed to various historical milestones in the field of addiction including the introduction of harm reduction methods, the building of communities, widespread recognition of addiction recovery and the loss of credibility in the ‘war on drugs’.

The 1940s and ’50s were ‘the Dark Ages of addiction’ and even when he was growing up in ’70s America, drug addiction was classed as ‘evil’ and ‘sinful’. Police brutality was commonplace, he added, and prison was viewed as punishment rather than an opportunity for rehabilitation. It was accepted that any heroin user could expect to spend half of his or her life behind bars. Over the past few decades he had witnessed ‘amazing changes’ in the perception and treatment of addiction.

Reiterating the importance of local support he said, ‘People recover from addiction better when they re-establish a place in their community.’

Launching Addaction’s new Communities Fund – which will award £300 to individuals or groups for community projects – the charity’s director of UK operations, Gervase McGrath, said he believed that recovery from addiction could extend beyond the individual to their community. The awards would seek to recognise local projects such as tidying up an elderly neighbour’s garden or organising a sports day for local children.

‘There are plenty of examples of community recovery out there,’ he said. ‘They didn’t do it with the help of resources, experts or money but rather by harnessing a determination and commitment from within.

Screen shot 2014-12-01 at 14.26.40‘Healthy communities are ones which have common goals and work together to face challenges. We want to help create the conditions which will allow this to take place.’

Former VSO head of UK volunteering, Michaela Jones – who celebrated six years in recovery this year – also advocated for communities, and particularly conversation.

‘I don’t know what made me sick,’ she said, ‘But I know what keeps me well, and that’s getting out there and talking to people – and in doing so ignoring my natural instinct to remain isolated.’

Social connections, she said, were the cornerstones of our lives and her focus was now on a continual way of life rather than the active stages of addiction and recovery. This was made far easier, she said, with the existence of ‘conversation cafés’ which offered her both space and interaction with like-minded individuals.

Former Coronation Street actor Kevin Kennedy also extolled the virtues of conversation cafés and said he found the idea of a ‘dry bar’ a far more attractive meeting place than a ‘dusty church hall with plastic chairs’ – a step towards making recovery ‘sexy’. ‘I gave up drinking – not living,’ he added.

Kennedy, who has been in recovery from alcohol addiction for 16 years and runs a charity that helps businesses manage the recovery of employees with addiction problems, told the audience he’d like to change the perception of addiction and other mental health issues.

He is also an advocate of the American idea of job applicants revealing they are in ‘long-term recovery’ on their CV – ‘chiefly because this says more about you as a person than any qualification ever could,’ he added.

Yaina Samuels, founder of Cardiff social enterprise Nu-Hi Training and winner of the Welsh Government‘s citizenship award earlier this year, explained how everyone working for her company – including herself – had personally experienced addiction and were now delivering training. They had recently rolled out a programme for more than 1,000 employees at Cardiff City Council.

‘Who better to deliver training than people who have been through the whole process of addiction themselves?’ she said, advocating a ‘conversation café’ approach. ‘To me, recovery meant getting my life back. It meant health and it meant having conversations with people which didn’t centre on drugs.’

Offering a personal perspective, comedienne Janey Godley – herself from Glasgow – revealed how heroin addiction had caused the death of her brother, prescription drugs had meant she’d regularly come home from school and find her mother ‘out cold on the kitchen floor,’ and her father had been in recovery from alcohol for 34 years.

It was a group of bereaved mothers in the East End who had started the biggest addiction recovery group in the city, and the initiative had made her look again at her own life.

‘I used to look down on drug dealers when I lived in the East End,’ she said. ‘Yet at the time I was a pub landlady selling booze. I asked myself what the difference was between the two and realised there really wasn’t one.’

Jill Stevenson is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow