In six films edited from an interview in June 2023, James Deakin describes a number of principles that are the foundation of NWRC and facilitate the process of long-term recovery in community members. One of the key features of NWRC is that it is ‘permeable’ to the outside world, both in terms of members of the local community coming into Penrhyn House, to deliver mutual aid groups for example, and NWRC members doing acts of service in the local community and further afield.
James and his colleagues tried to ensure that North Wales Recovery Communities [NWRC] was a broad a church as possible at the beginning of its development. They wanted to create as many recovery pathways as possible. James says that one way to describe NWRC is that it is a residential rehab that is also open to the wider community. NWRC does not limit itself to using one form of mutual aid, such as the 12-Step Fellowship. He points out that many people with a substance use problem can’t relate to some of the principles of the 12-Step approach, such as the concept of a Higher Power.
James emphasises that a lot of people who go through addiction have been traumatised from a young age. He believes that one of the most common misconceptions about addiction is that it is a choice. It is not, he argues. ‘For the vast majority of us it is self-management of an underlying condition, it’s self-medication, or it’s just using any drink or drug to move away from a set of feeling[s] for a period of time.’
At a very early stage, James and colleagues realised that they needed to ‘cover all the bases’ in relation to mutual aid. People were given a variety of options. If the person couldn’t relate to the 12-Step approach, they could try Smart Recovery, and if that didn’t work they could try CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Theory). James argues that no two addictions are the same, as are no two recoveries. He wants to provide the best opportunity for people to get well by giving them a whole variety of choices.
However, he and his colleagues tell people when they first arrive at Penrhyn House (NWRC’s residence) that they must do all the options (groups) for the first 12 weeks, so that they will be able to make an informed choice of what works best for them. People find their group, their ‘tribe’, that best suits them.
James describes research conducted by John Stoner of Chester University with members of the North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) which suggests that it was not the actual mutual aid group (e.g. AA or SMART Recovery) that is important in helping people, but the fact that members are around other people who are clean and sober. After the initial 12-week period when members had to attend all the different mutual aid groups, some people were going together to both AA and SMART Recovery, despite the very different principles underlying these two types of approach.
NWRC members have to engage in 20-30 hours of organised social activities a week. This is important so that members can be around people and form strong positive, ’sober’ connections. Addiction is disconnection, recovery is connection. Right from the beginning, people are encouraged to get assimilated into a group as quickly as they can. ‘The sooner you feel part of the group, the safer you become.’
James describes people being in agony, and feeling the days are dragging, in the early stages of abstaining from drink and/or drugs. However, at some stage, there is a switch in many people’s head, so that rather than feeling ’desperate not to use’, they think that ‘life is far easier if I don’t drink or take drugs.’ Life becomes easier; it’s not a grind, or a hardship, anymore.
James would love to research the psychological processes that underlie this transition. He believes that the transition creeps up on most people. They don’t wake up suddenly one morning and say, ‘Oh, there’s no desire there anymore!’ He sees people walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders in the early stages of their recovery journey. Three or four months later, ‘the penny has dropped’. They are happy, laughing… and ‘free’. James terms the transition, ‘the moment of emancipation’.
Initially, James had to encourage members of different mutual aid groups in Bangor to come in and hold meetings at Penryhn House, which could be accessed by members of the North Wales Recovery Communities, as well as people in the local community. James says that there are now either eight or nine different mutual aid groups that operate out of Penrhyn House. At one time, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings didn’t exist in Bangor, but NA is now the strongest Fellowship group operating at Penrhyn House.
James talks about the different Fellowship groups, and emphasises how people who run the meetings do so much to help other people. He wanted to provide a space for the different groups, and make sure that he and his colleagues never interfered with the running of the meetings. Although things run really well most of the time, there is the occasional problem which requires negotiating, e.g. if someone is banned from entering the building because of causing trouble at Penrhyn House, but still wants to attend Fellowship meetings.
James believes that the recovery agenda never really worked well in the UK because people working in the treatment system never respected, and appreciated the value of, mutual aid. Treatment services don’t want to surrender ‘their’ power. ‘Hang on a minute, we’re all these highly paid professionals and what you’re saying is that you’re better off giving [them] back to a load of ex-addicts and they can do a better job at getting them well than we can?’
When a newcomer is brought into North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC), there is more of an emphasis on the group to get them assimilated, than there is on the person to get assimilated into the group. James points out that the group knows that this is one of the riskiest times for them as a whole, a person joining the community who is in the early abstinence phase. It is important for the person that they immediately start engaging in the mutual aid groups and other activities—they mustn’t be sitting alone lost in their thoughts, with the possibility of deciding that drinking or drugging again is the best option.
NWRC pushes a lot of health and fitness activities as well, e.g. hillwalking, 5-a-side football, weekly 5km Park Runs. Most people are unfit when they arrive at Penrhyn. They are told that ‘emotional resilience begins with physical fitness.’ They are encouraged to eat healthily and told to avoid energy drinks. James emphasises that ‘recovery is holistic’—attending mutual aid meetings, along with a social group around you, some exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a healthy diet is going have a positive impact.
James emphasises that it’s tough at Penrhyn House. He points out that the more intelligent or intellectual a person is, the harder is the process of recovery. People who are very intelligent often think that the problem (addiction) is so complex, invading so many parts of their lives, that the solution must be complex. They often turn out to be chronic relapsers. James says that the solution is not complex.
When James first started, members of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) used to refer to themselves as a family. That statement used to give him ‘the horrors’, as he started to think of the ‘boundaries’ issue. When he talked to Wulf Livingston about the matter, he was told to stop being an a…….. ‘These guys, for some of them, it is the first family that they’ve ever connected with, or ever felt part of. Who are you to tell them that they’re not, or that we’re not a family?’ Wulf told James he needed to embrace the idea of the family, because the more members felt part of a family, the more they would own it and protect it.
James makes the point that early on he and his colleagues had a very clear idea of what NWRC would be like. However, the community members have shaped it into something very different. It’s this that has made NWRC work so well. The community keeps changing and developing without it needing to be be nailed into some really tight box. That’s one of the beauties of recovery, James emphasises.
James points out that some people are doing very well on their recovery journey, but then something acts as a trigger for their past traumas. When people arrive at Penrhyn House they are asked to provide a timeline of their life, as James and colleagues want to be aware of potential triggers arising from past traumas. In some cases, they refer people on to specialist trauma counsellors—they also have an on-site counsellor. They generally ask their new members to initially focus on building their sobriety before tackling issues arising from past traumatic experiences. James believes the support of other people is key to tackling issues around trauma, and the impact of this support grows over time.
James goes on to describe how one of their community members is very open about her personal traumatic experiences, and this makes it easier for others to open up about their own traumas. He points out that shame and guilt often play a key role in preventing people talking about their traumatic experiences. Despite her horrific experiences, the community member does not let them define her—she is not a victim.