Back in 1991 I was once again heading down to the dark place that those who are traumatised and addicted know only too well. Sweating and shaking, delusional, and on day one of the delirium tremors, a special horror of demon faces rushing at you from the kitchen wall, insects crawling over your skin, fever and pain. The mind begins to collapse after such anguish and I’d been through it a hundred times before. 3 days later I had 3 choices, go see some expert addiction councillor my father had found, continue trying to block the madness using any substance I could lay my hands on or hang myself. Bizarrely I chose none of them and phoned a mutual aid group instead. Some guy called Maurice appeared at my door and took me to my first mutual aid meeting. I hated it but recognised that these people sat in a dusty church hall had been where I’d been and knew about something that I’d never heard of before, recovery.
And so my recovery journey began. I stopped drinking and taking drugs and soaked myself in meetings and I spent hours in people’s houses drinking copious amounts of tea and learnt about the recovery community. I suddenly had friends. A man who lived just round the corner from me started coming round to mine sharing his story, he scared me at first, proper Wythenshawe lad, and his experience was both different to mine and the same. Where I’d spent years locked up in psychiatric hospitals he’d spent years in prison; I’m god father to his daughter who is now grown up, he is my brother and one of the best friends I have ever had. I met so many people from all walks of life and they bent over backwards to help me. They explained why I behaved in the way I did and I saw that every time I spent time with others like me I felt a relief, a lessening of the horror that has plagued my head for years and years. Connection with my friends in the community had a healing effect. I have found this to be true in the many different types of mutual aid meetings, connection with other addicts is fundamental. I also learnt that the substance is really of very little importance, if it was simply a matter of stopping drinking/using then once you’d done that everything would be fine, but as all addicts know it’s not fine. Recovery has to be a way of life, a lifestyle that never takes a break, connection with others has to be maintained. I have found that you also need to be connected closely to a small group of friends, just 2 or 3 that truly know you. I’m lucky to have such people in my life, my little sister who I share everything with, a woman I would never have met had I been normal, keeps me sane, she is my soul friend and we are connected, this is what the recovery community really is. I also learnt that unfortunately I had other conditions that needed addressing, mental health and significant trauma. A life spent in addiction utterly traumatises a person and of course those childhood traumas that most addicts have lurking in their cupboards ready to jump out and re traumatise them at any stressful moment. A catalogue of failed relationships and damage to self and to the many others that were damaged in the addictive journey, regrets and shame pile up till you can barely look at yourself in the mirror anymore.
And this gets me to the point of all this. If you want to help people recover from addiction or trauma or mental health then it’s quite simple really, you create a space that’s safe and kind where people who suffer can connect. Secondly in that safe place give people a chance to explore their condition, knowledge really is power, and lastly you help connect people with the recovery community. My own recovery has nothing to do with the professionals I met and all to do with the people I connected to. I was at a big conference event and a professional, a service provider, was talking about mutual aid and unfortunately he was completely wrong. I don’t mean this in a nasty way it was simply that as with most professionals their understanding of mutual aid and recovery is still rooted in the old school war on drugs harm and crime reduction and outcomes and a focus on the substance in the case of addiction. This mentality has dominated services for decades. There are very few professionals who get what recovery actually is though there are workers who really try to help and some that don’t. Mutual aid is anarchistic, there are no managers or leaders, no policies and procedures, just a few guide lines, each group runs itself, there’s no safeguarding or risk assessment and somehow it bumbles along and has worked for decades unseen by the professional world. And more than this is the recovery community that comes out of this connection; it’s huge and worldwide. I connected with the recovery community in Barbados, Greece, France, Spain and spent times in stranger’s houses who then became friends. The governor of Philadelphia looking at the poor outcomes of services in his state asked the question is there any one recovering in America, he found there were, 20 million. So he then asked the question, what are these people doing and how can we do something similar. A good man. The doctor I was seeing when first in recovery was astounded that the wreck of a man she had been treating for years suddenly and inexplicably began to recover. She became interested in what I was doing and attended open meetings and guided others towards the recovery community.
Unfortunately my first open minded doctor was an exception. During my journey I have met many professionals who were fiercely opposed to mutual aid. I’ve been told by mental health professionals and GP’s and substance misuse services that I should stop attending mutual aid, it’s a cult, and it causes more harm than good. Right through the 90’s and beyond, there has been a severe lack of understanding on the part of services and professionals about the recovery community. It is only in the last few years that a small change has taken place but still the lack of knowledge is astounding. A chasm exists between services and the recovery community, as an expert, part of the WY-FI Network, I really believe that we have a duty to try and explain what the recovery community is and how it works to services. There are many types of mutual aid and all are valuable. It’s not just meetings it’s conversations in cafes, houses, social events, it’s connection. I live on my own but when I look out of the window I can see my friends like beacons of light across West Yorkshire. There’s M probably putting his daughter to bed, he’ll text me later. There’s A starting a new chapter of his novel. There’s J checking the locks and counting things. And there’s D who will ring me later and talk at a hundred miles an hour and jump from one subject to another and bizarrely I’ll understand all of it. These are my brothers and sisters who keep me safe and step in when I’m not well, we carry each other through the difficult recovery journey, we are a community and we did this ourselves, made this astonishing community, it is separate from services and should remain so but services would be enhanced by an understanding of the community and all it does. One thing I have learnt is that I often don’t know, in fact I often don’t know quite a lot. A service that is willing to say those words, I don’t know, but is willing to learn, has the potential to be a great service. So go on, give it a go. Say those words, actually I don’t think I know.