When I was a teenager, I competed in chess competitions around the UK, including the British Under-18 championship on two occasions. I was my county junior champion. To be competitive, I had to study chess theory and practice. I learnt from those people who were champions at what they did, including world champions. Not by being in the same room as them—although I did play Anatoly Karpov, who was later to be world champion, in a simultaneous exhibition—but by their games and introspections. I learnt from the experts.
You would have thought that people working in the addiction field would also be learning from the experts—the people who are in recovery, or are recovering, from a serious substance use problem. Many do. But far too many don’t…. alt least from what I have seen.
Some of you know that I spent the early part of my career, some 20 years, as a neuroscientist focused on studying the regulation and function of brain dopamine systems. In later years of this career, my university laboratory’s research was focused on dopamine and its role in addiction.
You might find this strange, but I knew very few neuroscientists who knew much about the nature of addiction (as experienced by people in the real world), other than people take substances in an addictive fashion. One well-known neuroscientist told me in my younger days that there was no hope for drug addicts—their brain was ‘screwed’. Another well-known neuroscientist wrote that drug addicts don’t continue taking drugs to avoid drug withdrawal. When I asked heroin addicts…
Once I changed career and started working with people and communities, I met many treatment practitioners who did not listen to the people who had come to them for help. They got to learn very little about the nature of addiction and recovery. Many people with a problem told me that they were seen by practitioners who only had text book knowledge. Of course, I also met many practitioners who did listen and in an empathic way.
Once I started meeting and listening to people with, or who were recovering from, a serious substance use problem, I knew immediately I was doing something important. I was learning key information that not only would shape my own behaviours, but other people’s as well. I knew I had to start writing Recovery Stories, so other people would learn about the nature of addiction and recovery from the voices of the experts.
I released the Recovery Stories website in 2013 which contained a number of stories of people recovering from addiction, some written by the person themselves and others I wrote after multiple interviews. Most of these Stories were updated in 2020/2021 for my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. You can read these Stories in the Recovery Stories section of this website.
As an example of what one can learn, here is what one of our storytellers, Adam of A Moment of Clarity, reflected on when he looked back on his addiction and recovery.
‘In my younger days, my addictive behaviours occurred with friends, in a culture of heavy drinking and drugging. However, over time, I changed such that a lot of my substance use occurred when I was alone. I moved around a lot as the consequences of my addiction became too problematical in each place. If I owed too much money, it was time to move on before trouble occurred. However, as time progressed it became more difficult to escape from my addiction-related consequences. I became more and more cornered, and more and more in pain.
I was always good at denying I had a problem. At first, I never considered I had a problem. Later, I knew I had a problem. After all, I was homeless and still drinking and drugging whilst wanting to stop. I had burnt all my bridges and had no friends to whom I could turn. Despite all this, I was still in some form of denial. Finally, my denial system broke down and I experienced a painful and overwhelming vision of the truth. I now hated myself for all I had done to my family and to others.
When I look back to that time in the cemetery and my first meeting with Paul, it was like I had some kind of emotional or spiritual experience that marked a turning point in my life. This conversion experience was not sufficient in itself to help me on the road to recovery, but it was a necessary element. I saw myself dead or in jail and this really frightened me. I was broken and I surrendered into Paul’s arms and to all those people who helped me in Perth and Northam.
Thinking back now, it was as if something had clicked deep inside my body. I just did not want to drink or do drugs anymore. I was just sick and tired of it all. I just knew that I could not take any more. I still cannot really explain it to myself to this day—it was almost as if someone had cast a spell on me—but enough was enough, and I was now committed to NOT using or drinking.
The environment that I found myself in—the residential rehab—was perfect for someone who had reached the stage at which I had arrived. I needed to learn to live a life without drugs, and learn to deal with all the things that life throws at you without succumbing to substances or to depression.
In the rehab, I began to feel hope and a sense of belonging. I began to believe that I could and would have a new life. I started to interact with people and make new friends, which reduced my isolation. I discovered that people cared about me and wanted to help me. I also started to learn how to live without using drugs and drinking as a coping mechanism.
As time moved on in this environment, I learnt to trust and respect again. I accepted what I had done in my past and forgave myself for all the hurt I had caused my family. I became more accepting of other people. I started to see the benefits of change. I began to see and feel a new me. I began to view the world, and the way I interacted in the world, in a different way. I felt a letting go of my old self, some sort of emotional release or purging of the spirit.’
The photograph of Adam (right) and I was taken in Perth on 5 September 2011, just before he went on a ‘tour’ of UK to visit leading recovery advocates and recovery communities, as well as attend the 2011 National Recovery Walk in Cardiff. He had an inspirational and thoroughly enjoyable tour. Sadly, no one in the treatment service in which he worked in Perth were interested in what he had learnt and the stories he had been told whilst in the UK.