We Are With You provides addiction recovery services in the South West of England. People’s Voice Media have been working with Manchester Metropolitan University on the service’s Social Impact Bond (SIB) evaluation, using Community Reporting methodologies to gather rich, qualitative understandings of the both the lives and experience of those who access and work in the service. These stories provide insights into people’s worlds and how they relate to the service, as well as helping to illustrate the findings from other evaluation activities, provide stimuli for on-going learning and development and involve people involved with the service in meaningful and transparent ways in the evaluation process.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the work on the project had to be suspended or was conducted remotely. However, as restrictions eased in latter 2021, we conducted more in-person story gathering activities, working directly with people accessing addiction recovery support services. The insights from these stories have been curated and reported, however one set of insights around the importance of lived experience were of particular interest to us at People's Voice Media.
“I am leaning more towards people who have used. People who are real.” - The importance of lived experience in recovery services
One particularly interesting aspect of the stories was how many of the storytellers cite the importance of support workers with lived experience of addiction and support services, and how many of the storytellers are now working or volunteering – or want to work or volunteer – in support services themselves. One man talks about his search for a support worker he feels he’s compatible with, saying “I’m looking for a champion.” He wants to be able to choose his worker rather than being assigned someone and wants to have someone he trusts, who he has a rapport with. Although he says he respects service workers who have learned about addiction from books, "I am leaning more towards people who have used. People who are real.” He goes on to explain that this is because “they can see if you’re bullshitting.” He recounts a tale of lockdown, when public toilets were closed. Because he was homeless at the time, he relied on public toilets to relieve himself, but because they were not available he was forced to wet himself on more than one occasion. He says how having a support worker with similar lived experience “takes the embarrassment element away,” which would help him maintain dignity through the recovery process.
While, of course, it is possible for someone without lived experience to have understanding and empathy, it is clear that people in recovery find that they get more benefit from a support worker who has gained that through lived experience. One woman speaks of her experience with We Are With You staff:
I've really learned from the staff. I mean, half of them have been there and done it, and they're the best ones to really get it. And even the ones who haven't been there, they're still really good.
There is clearly a distinction for this woman between being “really good” and being “the best ones to really get it,” which comes with having “been there and done it”. Another man, meanwhile, highlights that it’s not just support workers who provide that benefit, but that being around a support group made up of people with lived experience of addiction can be helpful. Of his experience in rehab, he says:
It was a really nice experience. It was the first time I'd been around a big group of people who were all in the same boat. So, we all had a lot in common and it was a nice environment. … It was like waking up again.
It’s apparent from several of the stories that there can be feelings of shame associated with living with addiction as well as feeling as if the road ahead is too long and difficult, so being supported by people who are where you are or have been where you are can make a person in recovery feel less alone – as well as showing them that recovery is possible and that there is a future beyond addiction.
It was heartening to hear several storytellers state their aspirations for the future, which often include using their lived experience for the benefit of others living with addiction. One woman says:
I really want to be an outreach worker because I've been there on the streets. I'll never forget the person who helped me and stuck with me. … I'd really like to take my bad years and put it to good practice.
Another man says how he would like to be a mental health nurse and is working with another organisation, Positive People, on training and volunteering that might help his career choice. Another, when asked if he would go into counselling, says, "I would do it like that [snaps fingers] if it came up." He refers to himself as a spiritual person and finds being in a position to help others also rewards him: "It's almost like a spiritual bank. If you keep putting stuff in then you're OK. … It's good to have it at the top, or overflowing slightly, so that you're giving more than taking." In the meantime, until he can get into counselling, he has been running some Alcoholics Anonymous groups and working on the Alcoholics Anonymous helpline: “I’m sure I helped people.” Being able to take that experience of recovery and help others can, then, make a long, hard process even more worthwhile for the person going through it. This is echoed by another story teller who talks about how he started up an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting during lockdown when the group had to stop as the Elders were shielding. He says how he has now gone from receiving support to giving it (he also works in his local community delivering food parcels and has volunteered with other vulnerable groups) but he says, “I never forget where I was. … It's a miracle, know what I mean? And that's all from getting help.” He goes on to add:
When I help other people, it helps me. It makes me feel good. It's selfish, but in a good way. … 21 months ago I was at rock bottom, nearly dead. And I'm sat here today and I'm getting interviewed by yourself and Lee, who saved my life, and I'm getting calls from people who are using asking me for help. I think that's amazing.
Being able to reflect on and draw from his own lived experience of life with addiction and recovery and using it to help others who are in the same position viewed as a reward by this storyteller, a reward for surviving and persisting. But it also shows that importance of lived experience in providing a recovery service – that it puts the service provider and person accessing that service on an equitable footing without stigma or shame. That is something that the storytellers appear to have got from We Are With You that they don’t necessarily seem to have got from other support services, resulting in a very mixed experience of recovery services, which we explore in the next section.
The stories of people who use the recovery support services in Cornwall have raised several key findings, but key among them is lived experience. Lived experience is highly valued by those accessing recovery services and there is a general point of view that support workers with lived experience of addiction and recovery provide the best service. Possibly there could be more done to assist people who use recovery services to volunteer and then work with them, if that is the path they wish to follow.