I started working with James just over a decade ago. Firstly, in supporting him to work through the ethics of being a whistleblower, and from this into early musings and foundations of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC). What struck me then and has remained to this day is James’s passion to provide alternative enabling environments to those of the standard treatment services.
What I have seen over these years, and is reflected in our conversation, is the establishment of a vibrant peer-led organisation. Daring to say and do things differently. Harnessing strengths, challenging stigma and sustaining change. Supporting James and NWRC has been a privilege, as is the sharing with you of what makes them so different and work.
In my interview with James, which took place on 21 March 2023, he describes his drug-dealing days in Manchester and cocaine addiction. He begins his recovery journey after moving to Bangor, and spends ten years working as a chef before becoming a mental health worker and then a Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) worker. He becomes disillusioned with the treatment system, but inspired by recovery advocates Mark Gilman and the late Rowdy Yates. He receives funding from outside the system to set up the peer-led NWRC, which now has a residential facility (Penrhyn House), Growing for Change food project, and a community cafe, Bwyd Da Bangor. James describes NWRC activities. The interview was edited into 14 films, totalling over 82 minutes, for this archive section.
Sadly, James’s internet connection was slow, so the quality of image and syncing between image and sound is not always good. However, the interview is not only very informative but also enthralling.
James grows up in a single-parent family, surrounded by heavy drinking, conflict and violence. He feels he is constantly on edge. He experiments with cannabis and party drugs. The work options for someone his age are narrow, and there is a marked contrast between low-wage workers and drug dealers with their posh cars and chunky mobile phones.
James starts dealing and soon finds a nice market for selling cannabis and party drugs—to students at Manchester University—away from the violence of higher parts of the drug dealing scene. He has a good business acumen and his market mushrooms over a period of four to five years.
Cocaine explodes on the scene in the UK around 1996. After resisting cocaine for a good period of time, James takes up an offer to try the drug. He takes to it immediately and is soon using large quantities regularly. He leads the high life, his habit supported by his drug-dealing business. At the same time, he is a mess inside, continually having a sense of impending doom and lacking in confidence and self-esteem. His cocaine habit is later costing him £2-3,000 a week.
Today, James is thankful for small mercies. If circumstances hadn’t consider against him, his habit would have gotten much worse.
The day after James buys 10,000 ecstasy tablets for selling to students, newspapers print a photograph of 15-year-old Leah Betts on a ventilator. She had taken ecstasy and later dies. James can’t sell his supply of the drug, for which he has not paid. Realising he is in serious trouble, he does a bunk to Bangor in North Wales. However, the dealers track him down and bundle him into the boot of a car. He is shipped back to Manchester and tortured over a period of days. After his sister pays his debt, James is told that he will be shot if he doesn’t leave town. He moves back to Bangor.
Living in Bangor, James decides he has to go straight. He pictures himself where he’d like to be and behaves in the appropriate way. ‘What would a straight person do in this situation?’ He gains a peace of mind from being legitimate. He doesn’t have to worry about anyone kicking in his door at six in the morning.
James spends ten years working as a chef, whilst at the same time learning sober-living skills. He wants to go to university, but decides to gain six months work experience in the mental health field first. He loves the job so much he ends up working in the field for four years. He gets a job as a Drug Intervention Programme (DIP) worker where he learns about recovery from his boss, Peter Moorhouse.
James is totally inspired by attending the Recovery Academy in Glasgow in 2010. He listens to David Best talking about addiction recovery, and Mark Gilman describing Asset-Based Community Development approach (ABCD). The latter approach is a primary foundation of the North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) that James is later to develop. He views the late Rowdy Yates and, in particular, Mark Gilman as recovery carriers having a huge influence on him.
James meets Mark Gilman on the train home from Glasgow and pumps him dry of recovery knowledge. Mark emphasises that recovery is an organic experience and can’t be commissioned through treatment services. He argues that we must must build bridges between treatment and mutual aid.
Wulf says that treatment should be helping people get off drugs and alcohol, whilst staying off occurs via a person’s peers in the community. James points out that people working with the medical model still don’t understand this distinction. He becomes disillusioned with the system—‘how can it be so dysfunctional?’—and thinks about leaving his job. Someone points out that maybe the system is so dysfunctional deliberately.
James becomes frustrated with the local recovery community—Anglesey and Gwynedd Recovery Organisation (AGRO)—as there are too many people from the treatment system involved who are just talkers, not doers. After setting up a charity, he successfully applies for funding to help people with ‘barriers to employment’. He spends the next two years working with a group of people with substance use problems.
The recovery programme he develops is successful, but the housing situation—the council houses community members—is chaos. He decides that he has to take control of the housing situation for the community. Several people, including Wulf Livingston and Sarah Flynn, offer to help in any way they can.
Wulf starts a discussion about how a peer-led, independent recovery group obtains funding such that it is not working to the agenda of the funder. In the early stage of NWRC’s development, James has ‘zero trust and zero faith’ in the commissioning process in the North Wales substance misuse field. He has seen too much control and tokenism in the field, and fears that his community’s work will be undermined by the system.
He receives funding from outside the field which allows him to control the community’s housing. The building he and his colleagues acquire hosts mutual aid groups which work with members of the recovery community.
James and Wulf have been talking about the concept of The Space for a number of years, both in terms of the physical and human interaction space. It is a space that is in large part agenda-free and allows for an organic development. James describes how community members have told him that they have never previously felt part of anything, other than a using community. The bonds that are forged between members are sometimes closer than those with an intimate partner, particularly if that partner is a ‘normie’. Bonds are often forged through the adversities that members experience on some of the community’s expeditions.
James describes activities of the NWRC, eight years on from its initial development. It has a residence that houses 18 people, and provides a space for a larger group of people to engage in mutual aid groups daily. It organises outside activities, such as hill walking for recovering people. The Growing for Change project, with its gardens and allotments, engages community members in beneficial activities and provides food for local restaurants, including the community cafe Bwyd Da Bangor.
The latter not only provides the best food on High Street, Bangor, but operates a surplus food club and organises special events, such as a dinner for families with autistic children. James says, ‘We get well, we gain strength by giving our time and efforts away to other people.’ NWRC tries to be of service to all marginalised groups in the local community.
During a Covid lockdown, 18 NWRC members, including a number of former chefs in recovery, are locked down in the recovery community’s Penrhyn House. They start to feed vulnerable people in the community, using food from the community allotment and provided by supermarkets. The food is gathered, cooked, frozen and delivered. A total of 80,000 meals are provided to families and individuals.
The recovery community responds quicker to feeding vulnerable people than the Welsh government and local councils. In fact, the Welsh government eventually provides some funding for the initiative, at least during the Covid lockdown. NWRC currently runs a surplus food club at their cafe, Bwyd Da Bangor (Good Food Bangor).
Wulf and James discuss the nature of the treatment system, and the role of large statutory services, and the need for them to recognise the huge potential role of recovery communities. In relation to the latter, ‘it is probably one of the only examples there are of a genuinely altruistic society where we don’t want anything from anybody. We just want you to get well.’
Treatment practitioners need to get people ‘clean and sober, detoxed and counselled, and what happens then, don’t worry about that.’ Just connect clients to their recovering peers.
James’s interview has also been edited into a large number of shorter clips which will be used on our Themes section. You can view these shorter films on James’s YouTube Themes Playlist.
James Deakin has been in recovery for 15 years and is now sharing his experiences of active addiction and offending to support other people to bring a positive change to their own lives. He believes strongly in the concepts of mutual aid and shared experience, and these are underlying foundations of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) which he started to develop in 2014. NWRC delivers a programme of meetings and recovery activity from Penrhyn House and members of NWRC contribute significantly to the local community in various ways. Their community cafe, Bwyd Da Bangor, provides the best food on High Street, Bangor.