My Journey: 16. A Major Life Change

Wired In attracts new volunteers and stories of recovery, the latter of which are uploaded to our websites. I return from a holiday in Australia, only to experience bad anxiety at the thought of returning to the toxic environment in my university department. I am advised by my doctor to take extended leave. Just before I am due to return to work, I visit a counsellor who diagnoses me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An interesting conversation follows in the university. (2,710 words)

1. Wired In Activities

Soon after I had returned to the UK in early January 2006, I wrote the Annual Report for the Trustees (Canon Peter Williams [Chair], Michael Ashley, Margaret Wilson and Jeff Zorko) of our charity Wired International Ltd. I used to get anxious about our charity’s Annual Meeting every year, since I felt guilty about attracting the low level of funding on which we operated. However, I needn’t have worried, as our Trustees were very understanding and impressed by how much work we had done with so little funding.  

Ironically, many people thought Wired In was a well-funded research institute. They were shocked when I told them our small operating budget! And the fact that our team members were my past and present Psychology students.

Kevin Manley, a recovering heroin addict, and David Wright, both living in Cardiff, now became Wired In volunteers, joining Mark Saunders. Kevin’s mother Kerry later became a volunteer. David Wright had written his Personal Story, Diary of a heroin addict, in six instalments for Drinks and Drugs News which started in the 21 March 2005 edition (p. 14).

We were now receiving Personal Stories from other parts of the country, including from Stuart and Mark, both of whom had been physically abused as children by violent step-fathers. Stuart from Inverness had experienced long periods of incarceration in different prisons. However, he was now two years into his recovery, getting high marks (75%+) on an Open University Health and Social Care course, doing various forms of voluntary work, and acting as a group facilitator for SMART Recovery.

Mark wrote his three-part Story for Wired In whilst serving a custodial sentence in HMP Bullingdon. He had been on the RAPt treatment programme and now strongly related to the 12-Steps of Narcotics Anonymous (NA). 

We also started receiving stories from people recovering from benzodiazepine (e.g. Librium) addiction. These stories revealed how severe the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms could be after withdrawal from long-term use of ‘benzos’.

2. Anxiety

When I had arrived back in the UK after my latest trip to Australia in January, I immediately started to experience strong anxiety about returning to the toxic environment in which I worked in my university department.

This anxiety condition had developed back in 2001 and resurfaced from time-to-time. When I met my good friend Keith Morgan of WGCADA soon after my return from Australia, he saw I was not travelling well and insisted I should take time away from the university. Another good friend who had known what had been going on in the department over the past decade also insisted I take leave—she pointed out that I could take six months sick leave on full pay. 

I went to see my doctor, who I had kept informed of what had been happening to me in the university over time, and he insisted I take extended leave to protect my health. He was greatly concerned with what I had experienced over the years, and now wrote to the university saying I needed to take extended leave. As an aside, he knew my negative thoughts about the use of prescription drugs to manage anxiety.

My doctor also pointed out that I could continue supervising the research of Lucie James from my home—Lucie had been awarded a prestigious PhD studentship from the University of Wales and was now conducting qualitative research into recovery from heroin without treatment.

The university agreed to me taking extended sick leave on full pay. However, my Head of Department (HOD) told Lucie that if I was not willing to come to work, then I could not supervise her PhD. She would be supervised by someone else in the department, and have to change the topic of her research. ‘No one recovers from heroin addiction without treatment,’ he told her.

Lucie pointed out that he was wrong—he knew nothing about recovery from heroin addiction—and that she was also being supervised by Linda Sobell in the US, the leading addiction researcher in the self-change field. That made no difference to my HOD. Lucie therefore gave up her studentship and left the department. I was never contacted about the matter by my HOD. [1]

I now slowed down, although Lucie and I maintained our Wired In activities. I did a great deal of reading about addiction and recovery, and spent time walking the hills and beaches of Gower with my dog Tessa. I also continued to see my children regularly. I stayed in Reynoldston, as I could not sell our house. There was a big price differential between houses in Swansea and on Gower, and few people were moving into the area at that time. 

In April, I travelled to Perth with my oldest daughter Annalie to attend my nephew Graham’s wedding. It was fun watching his shocked reaction when he first saw Annalie—he had no idea she was going to be there. Graham’s family and fiancée knew what was going on! Graham and Annalie had previously met only once, over a decade earlier in the UK. It was wonderful spending quality time with Annalie and seeing her interact with her relatives.

3. A Diagnosis and Offer

In the later phase of being away from work, I decided to take up the first of six free counselling sessions to which I was entitled. My decision to see this counsellor was the best thing I could have done at the time.

I talked and she listened, reflecting back to me from time to time. I told her my story and after an initial concern, I felt really good in telling her what had happened to me in the university. When we finished, we both got up, but my counsellor nearly fell over. I asked her if she was okay and she replied:

‘I just suddenly felt faint. I have to tell you that I have never ever heard such a story. I have no idea how you ever put up with and survived all the terrible events you have had to deal with. Your trouble was that you are incredibly resilient, but no one can be that resilient. Finally, you just broke. You are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).’

She went on to tell me more about PTSD. Now, I am not a great believer in diagnoses, but in this case my counsellor’s diagnosis made so much sense. She helped me no end, in just giving me an explanation for what had happened and was still happening to me. The anxiety I had been experiencing now made sense to me. I left her office feeling so relieved that I had gone there in the first place.

I continued my counselling sessions and they were of great help. I won’t say that my anxiety disappeared—I still get anxious today—but it didn’t happen as much and I learnt to control its intensity (most of the time]. The real test of course would come when I went back to work. 

The time for my return was rapidly approaching and I was asked to visit the Head of Personnel (Human Resources) at the university, who I knew well. After asking me how I was doing, he pointed out that the university didn’t want me to return to the department. He and his colleagues felt that it wasn’t safe for me to return at that time! The environment was too toxic.

I pointed out that I had to return; if I stayed away longer I would be on half-pay. He replied by saying that the university had made a special rule for me and that I could remain on sick-leave on full pay. I agreed to stay away.

The Head of Personnel then told me that the university wanted me to help them address the issue of the toxic environment in my department by naming the person or people who were causing the problems.

I looked at him in shock and asked if he knew what had been happening to me over the years? How a government department and the university had first asked me to be a whistle-blower against a department Professor in a case of laboratory animal abuse nearly a decade earlier. How I had to become a whistle-blower again when a PhD student approached me about her data being manipulated by her PhD supervisor (the same person as in the first case) and then sent off to a drug company. Again, the matter was not dealt with properly. I had to be a witness again when external investigators approached the university about this same case of scientific fraud.

After the PhD supervisor left the university, an anonymous letter with false accusations about me was sent to the university. The university brought in auditors who conducted a financial investigation, leading to the Vice-Chancellor detailing a variety of problems in a letter to me. I responded immediately to the allegations, which were all nonsense.

In the same letter, I informed the Vice-Chancellor that I was now heading off to be at the birth of my second son. I had informed my doctor about the situation and he said he would approach the university if anything went wrong with the birth. We were both concerned that the whole situation with the university, and the stress I was under, would have affected my partner.

I was investigated and found to be innocent of all of the allegations. However, the university took one year to inform me of my innocence, during which time I developed my anxiety condition. Day after day, I would head into work worrying why the university was not getting back to me about the case—even when I asked—when it was very clear that I was innocent of all the allegations. [2]

The Head of Personnel had no idea of what had been happening and was shocked to hear the story. I was surprised that no senior member of the university had told him about my past, although to be fair, the original Vice-Chancellor had retired.

I told the Head of Personnel in no uncertain terms that I could not again become a whistle-blower. My health wouldn’t hold up. He undoubtedly understood my situation. I then said to him that as far as I was concerned, the best option would be for the university to offer me an early retirement package.

I now knew that I could not go back to that toxic environment. I also couldn’t be sure that the university would do the right thing. If they had addressed the initial problem properly nearly a decade earlier, then subsequent events would not have occurred. The student would not have been put in the insidious position in which she found herself, and she and I would not have gone through so much stress.

On top of all of this, I realised that my heart lay in my addiction recovery work in the community. It was time to take a gamble, get an early retirement package, and use that money to finance my Wired In work until I could raise external funds.

I would certainly be taking a big gamble in taking early retirement from the university at the age of only 52. I knew that I would not be able to survive on a small pension—it would be a greatly reduced pension, due to me be being abroad for years in my early career, and leaving the university early—so I needed to generate income from Wired In.  This was a worry, as we had experienced so much difficulty in obtaining funding to date.

Fortunately, the university gave me a lump-sum early retirement payment which would give me some leeway. I was also made a Professor Emeritus, in recognition of my research standing and contribution to the university over the years. 


[1] Check out my article Stopping Heroin Use Without Treatment in which I describe research by Partick Biernacki in the mid-1980s which was carried out with 101 people who had recovered from heroin addiction without treatment. You can also read my article Self-Change and Recovery Capital, in which I describe similar research carried out by Robert Granfield and William Cloud and written about in their book Coming Clean: Overcoming Addiction Without Treatment.

[2] One of the accusations was that I had stolen money from the university. This money was the consultancy I was paid by the Welsh Assembly Government for leading the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) evaluation [cf. Chapter 6], for which a contract had been drawn up between government and university so that I would be paid by the latter. When I told the person overseeing the DATF evaluation for the Welsh Assembly Government what I had been accused of, he was very angry and immediately called the university to clear up the matter. The auditor had not seen the contract!

The auditor made a variety of other allegations, such as the fact that I had claimed for a copy of the Guardian newspaper when I claimed for petrol for my lease car which was used for the DATF evaluation. The receipt showed clearly that I had only claimed for the petrol! He or she measured the distance of each of my trips and said that I had claimed for an extra ten miles or so on one trip. I had to divert on my trip to pick up a team member! I had to work through one petty allegation after another, all of which were auditor errors. I hope the university gave the large company conducting the audit a piece of their mind and insisted they reimburse their costs!

Things didn’t settle down over the next few years. One day, a new Head of Department informed me that I needed to ‘buck up my ideas’ and improve my teaching standards, as I was the worst lecturer in the department. I asked him where he had obtained this information, but he would not tell me. He just informed me it was fact.

I told him that he needed to come with me to the Department Administrator and view the student ratings of staff lecturers. Contrary to what he was saying, I knew I had the highest rating of all members of staff. The Head of Department would not come and view the ratings. I insisted, but he walked away. 

On another occasion, I was informed by my PhD student that a fellow PhD student had been asked by her supervisor to collect whatever dirt she could on me and let him know.  I was aware of other efforts being made to destroy my reputation.

The toxic nature of my work environment started to affect me badly—I never knew what I would be facing when I turned up for work. At the same time, I had such a great relationship with the students and this helped me to deal with the adverse experiences. 

I spent a good deal time deciding whether I should include these events here. I eventually decided it was important to include this section because the events, and my psychological reactions to them, helped me to relate to the nature of trauma and its consequences, which I will discuss in more detail in a later chapter. Traumas don’t need to be major one-off events, such as being raped as a child or being in a major car accident, but can take the form of repeated uncontrollable negative events such as I experienced.

I also think it was important I describe these events—which are very much a summary of what happened over the years—so that other whistleblowers or potential whistleblowers are aware of the negative things that can happen. I cannot regret the actions I took—that’s what an honest person does—even though events that started nearly 30 years ago periodically affect me today.

> 17. Wired In’s Cardiff Recovery Community

> ‘My Journey’ chapter links (and biography)