Drug offences accounted for 16 per cent of all prison sentences in the UK in 2021 , and this figure does not account for the number of violent or acquisitive crimes where substances were involved .
Many of the behaviours Kelly had adopted in prison were carried into her life after release , and despite her desire to access rehab with her son , it took some time for her to adjust . ‘ When I first came to rehab , I would kick off straight away if I didn ’ t like the answers from staff , I couldn ’ t keep my mouth shut ,’ she said . ‘ But once you ’ ve built the trust , it is massive . In here you ’ re encouraged to change and challenge your behaviours , and you don ’ t realise the change until it ’ s done . Without my son I ’ d still be on the same path , using and going in and out of prison , Time is big , you don ’ t realise it ’ s running out . If I could do it over again , I would have surrounded myself with people who were better for me .’
ANDY Andy had spent several years in prison prior to coming to rehab . ‘ By age 40 , I ’ d spent 20 years of my life in prison ,’ he told me . ‘ There were times when I got out and I wanted to be back inside . I found the outside world alien and hostile . In prison there was a sense of belonging because people thought like me and had a similar lifestyle .’
Andy explained how his childhood experiences contributed to the intertwining of drugs and prison in his life . ‘ I lost my mum to a heroin overdose . The year after that I went into the care system ,’ he said . ‘ I didn ’ t use drugs up to being 15 , but there was a situation where I smoked heroin with an older friend . Addiction set in straight away , then I got my first prison sentence for stealing .’
Andy ’ s life from this point onwards was a repetition of the same cycle of drug use , crime and prison time . ‘ When I was clean , I felt like I couldn ’ t cope . I had no skills to be a productive member of society . I had no responsibility . Prison was my parent in a way .’
Andy spoke at length about the circumstances that led to his final prison sentence before coming to rehab . He lost someone close to him , and through an illfated error of judgement became involved in a murder enquiry after helping an acquaintance avoid the police . ‘ I went to prison , but I was found not guilty during the trial . Whilst awaiting the trial I started working with a drugs worker in prison . For the first time in my life , I became honest . I would always tell lies , cheat , steal , but something changed within me . When I got to rehab , I was determined . I adhered myself to the programme . I put 100 per cent in . I wasn ’ t going back to that life . I couldn ’ t say I wanted my life back . I never had a life . I wanted to start again .’
As our conversations drew to a close , I asked what next for the three of them . ‘ I just want to be a mum to my little boy . I want to do the school run , take him to his hobbies , enjoy life ,’ said Chelsea . ‘ I hate the word normal , but I want a bit of normality . I want to be a mummy .’
Kelly too echoed that same word . ‘ I want a normal life . Go on holidays , make a business , hold my head up high as I walk down the street . I feel free . ‘
‘ I always say I ’ m one of the lucky ones . I really mean that ,’ said Andy . ‘ Now I have goals , I have aspirations , a belief system , integrity , morals .
‘ I look at my story and what I ’ ve been through emotionally , mentally and physically and my goals now are to help people who suffer with addiction ,’ he said . ‘ I want to have a beautiful family , earn my own money . I want to use my experience , my story to help people .’
Liam Ward is residential marketing and engagement manager at Phoenix Futures
Over the years we ’ ve had countless conversations about the stigma faced by people who use or experience problems with substances . The same extends to their families . It ’ s as if we all know it , detest it , want to change it – but it ’ s felt to be too big , too ingrained , too embedded . We ’ re busy on the ground , we ’ re small , we ’ re ‘ just ’ one organisation , ‘ just ’ one person . Or , for myself , it ’ s something greater minds than my own should be doing something about !
Why is it important ? Social , institutional , self-stigma or the fear of stigma embed the shame and guilt many of us feel . It prevents us from seeking support , prevents families getting help early enough , it contributes to problems escalating , trauma going unhealed , it means people keep their recovery quiet … and so the cycle continues . We ’ re not junkies , we ’ re people . The language needs to change .
Having been involved in the start of the recovery movement in the UK over a decade ago , the September recovery month walks felt like the start of something . Since then , there have been amazing efforts from all the home nations . We ’ ve kept stigma on the agenda . But at the same time , it ’ s also felt like those ‘ countless conversations ’ have continued . Our members and their families tell us stigma is still real , damaging and unjust .
However , change is once again on the breeze . It feels like 2022 is the year of challenging stigma . Campaigns by lived experience recovery organisations ( LEROs ) like Recovery Cymru ( shameless plug there !), CLERO , Addiction Providers Alliance , Adfam , Alcohol Change UK , Collective Voice , Welsh Coalition on Stigma ( and many others I ’ m sure ) are raising the agenda .
Lived experience can help us change the narrative on stigma , says Sarah Vaile
Why will this time be different ? Because people with lived , living and familial experience can drive it . ‘ Done with , not to ’. The role of peer programmes and LEROs are increasingly recognised across the UK . ‘ You can ’ t build a community around a service , you build a service for the community ’. We , as a collective and as individuals are starting to recognise our strengths , citizenship and worth . ‘ Addiction is born in shame and at the heart of it , recovery is a diversity issue .’
We are more than our problems and our stories have power . I don ’ t have rose tinted glasses – there ’ s work to be done for parity , respect , funding , appropriate quality standards and longevity – but we ’ re on the right road .
So , whether you ’ re an individual , family member , provider , LERO or commissioner , let ’ s work together to make sure this isn ’ t just a hot topic for 2022 but the start of long-lasting change . Let ’ s bring lived experience out of the shadows and change the narrative around substance use . It starts with us … we have to believe it .
We ’ d love to hear what you ’ re up to : info @ recoverycymru . org . uk .
Sarah Vaile is founder and director of Recovery Cymru , writing as a member of the College of Lived Experience Recovery Organisations ( CLERO ). All quotes are from CLERO members .
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