A Wonderful Addiction Recovery Champion: Rowdy Yates RIP

I was deeply saddened to hear of the recent passing of one of the great Champions of the addiction recovery field, Rowdy Yates. I only met Rowdy a few times; one memorable occasion was when Mark Gilman and I travelled up to see him in Stirling in March 2009. However, I was well aware of his contribution to the field. We also emailed each other over the years, the last time being last year when Rowdy sent me copies of some of his papers and informed me that he was not well.

Rowdy was not only a Champion in his field of work, but was also a very talented musician and a wonderful guy. He had a HUGE personality and was very passionate about all in which he was involved. I once joked that if I could find the portal between Perth (Australia) and Perth (Scotland) I’d be seeing a lot more of him. I truly wish I had seen more of him. He was a big supporter of Wired In and the Wired In To Recovery online community, for which I will always be very grateful.

Rowdy will be sorely missed by many people, including myself. Here is a ‘Tribute to Rowdy Yates’ on the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities website, written by Karen Biggs and Bob Campbell. Please check out the original, since it contains a number of photographs, more films and a number of Memories of Rowdy from friends and colleagues. Please note, I have changed the format slightly in a couple of places. The photo below is of Rowdy (right) with Mark Gilman. [25 March, 2009]

‘Rowdy Yates died on 14th February 2022 surrounded by his family.

He was a teacher, a researcher, a mentor, a musician, a role model, a leader, and a confidant.

Rowdy spent his life, using his whole life experience and his learning, to help others. It was a big life, too big to give it justice on a page. We will all have our own memories and stories; some we were part of some we heard him tell. That was what Rowdy was good at. Making you feel part of something. Part of a community he believed so passionately in.

If it weren’t for the alligators

Rowdy’s career started in a characteristically 1960s fashion. Rowdy stopped using drugs in 1969. He often told us how his career as a musician was frustrated by his methedrine and heroin use. Resulting in him getting ‘kicked out of the bands’ he was playing with due to his behaviour.  In a bid to help himself in his recovery he set up a support group of people in early recovery from drug use. One of his group read a book on a Therapeutic Community, Rowdy met a priest who rented him a house for a shilling a week and they all lived together as a community based on their understand of the book they had read.

In 1971 Rowdy’s group merged with another group called Eros led by Eugenie Cheesmond and the Lifeline Project was created. Rowdy worked for Lifeline for 23 years as volunteer, paid worker, manager, and CEO. Rowdy said of Eugenie, “She was an unbelievably powerful force at a time when many in the medical profession felt that addiction was simply incurable and were deeply suspicious of the contributions of ex-addicts. Eugenie never wavered in her belief in me and the other ex-users she gathered together when she started Lifeline.”

Lifeline had an open-door policy, people who used drugs found a place of sanctuary providing food and advice.

Under Rowdy’s influence Lifeline became a radical and adventurous project that gained national recognition. It was characteristic of Rowdy to stretch the boundaries and develop new  ways of working. ‘Smack in the Eye’ was a series of comics with hilarious characters such as Peanut Pete which included information on safe drug use and safe sex. It immediately outraged some of the authorities who wanted it banned, missing the whole point that it was widely read, providing a valuable source of information to those who most needed it.

True to his character Rowdy refused to back down and the comic continued to be published.

Many – including drug professionals – found ‘Smack in the Eye’ outrageous and disgusting. One said we were “degenerate scum”. Another member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs formally complained to the police. As a result two officers said they were considering prosecuting me under the Obscene Publications Act. I replied that I would be overjoyed to test the publication in the courts. They left bemused. I was so convinced of the virtue of the comic that I could not conceive I would be convicted. Probably more significant were the changes the comic brought about. ‘Smack in the Eye’ became a focus for our belief that Lifeline could, and should, be visibly, tangibly different from NHS services. It was also pivotal in altering drug users’ views of the organisation. We began to be seen as ‘on their side’.” Rowdy in 1993.

In 1992 Rowdy wrote and published ‘If it weren’t for the Alligators’ a history of the Lifeline Project’s first 21 years. The title for the book taken from ‘the Lakes of Ponchatrain’:

‘….if it weren’t for the alligators

I’d sleep out in the wood

You’re welcome in kind stranger

Our house is very plain

But we have never turned a stranger out

On the Lakes of Ponchatrain

In 1993 Rowdy left Lifeline and become the Director of the Scottish Drugs Training Project (SDTP) at University of Stirling.  This was an organisation offering in-service training to the drug and alcohol treatment field.  In 2001 when the SDTP closed, he became a member of the faculty specialising in teaching and researching in the addictions.  Rowdy retired in 2016 but didn’t stop publishing right up to his death. You can find details of his published papers here.

Wrestling with Demons

In 1978 Rowdy met Eric Broekaert at a WFTC conference in Rome. That was the start of lifelong friendship spanning nearly 40 years until Eric’s death in 2016. Rowdy and Eric worked closely on so many pieces of work. They led the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities to the successful far reaching self-funded organisation it is today. They co-founded EWODOR, The European Working Group on Drug Orientated Research.

They did all of that with intelligence, passion, commitment, and humour. We always knew where to find them whatever country we were in – go to the darkest smallest pub you could find that did the best beer and you would find them in the corner putting the world to rights and having a brilliant time.

Rowdy supported the establishment of Therapeutic Communities across the world and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of them all. Rowdy was Vice President of EFTC from 2004-2012, when he became President a role he kept until 2019. He remained as a Board member of the organisation he was so committed to until his death.

In 2012 he released ‘Wrestling with Demons’, a mini disk of four songs reflecting the struggles and victories of men and women in recovery and working towards it. In true Rowdy fashion – the proceeds of the mini disk were donated to EFTC.

In this House

Rowdy was a founding member of the Phoenix Scotland Board. As a Board member his focus was always on the recovery journey of our residents and people who used our services. He challenged us to stick with the evidence base, to know it, to teach it. A regular visitor to ‘the house’, he loved nothing more than sitting with residents, singing with them, and ‘breaking bread’ together. He inspired so many residents and staff who would greet him warmly and talk of him often.

In 2010 he combined his two passions for music and therapeutic communities and wrote ‘In this House’ the EFTC Anthem.

He said about the song, ‘’It was written to celebrate the colossal achievements of so many former addicts who have graduated through drug free therapeutic communities. For far too long we have failed to challenge the myth that addiction is incurable. This song was written to give ‘’incurables’’ – the ‘’No chance kids’’ something to sing about.’’

And sing they did – often, including in 2012 in Glasgow with a Phoenix Choir of residents from ‘the house’. {Watching this video brought tears to my eyes – DC}

‘In this house we will wrestle with the demons of our past

In this house we will struggle to make changes that will last

In this house the cost is courage as a price we can afford

Oh the No Chance kids are coming home restored.

You say its for your own good but we want this understood

We demand the right to live our lives anew

If you wont support our fight to turn darkness into light

Then get off the road the kids are coming through’

Rowdy left us on Valentine’s Day surrounded by his family that he loved so much.

What we would do to be able to listen to his growly voice sing a folk song, sit with him regaling a story or call him up to tell him our woes and get his sage advice.

In an interview with Dianova in 2017 he said

‘’over the course of my working life, I had the privilege of experiencing the drug treatment field as a customer/client, a worker, a manager, a researcher and a teacher!’’

He was so much more than those roles he has held. In the 53 years of working with people who use drugs he gave us so much, left a huge legacy behind but took so much with him.

We will miss him,

Rest in peace brother

Karen Biggs and Bob Campbell’

Such a beautiful Tribute to a much missed Rowdy Yates. Our only consolation to his loss is that he has left such a great legacy.