My Journey: 4. Learning About Addiction Treatment – WGCADA Stories

Three stories from the treatment agency West Glamorgan Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (WGCADA) in Swansea describe a medical student’s experiences during a day with community support worker Dave Watkins; a client’s experiences whilst interacting with Arrest Referral worker Becky Hancock, and a client’s experiences in the Primary treatment programme at WGCADA. (4,644 words)

In the previous part of My Journey, I described some of what I learnt through a small group of practitioners (some of whom were in recovery) at the treatment agency WGCADA in Swansea. During my time at WGCADA, my colleagues and I wrote a number of stories, three of which I include here.

1. ’A Day in the Life of Dave’ by Annalie Clark

The first story is written by my daughter Annalie, after she finished her first year of medical training at the University of Edinburgh and worked as a volunteer for Wired In over a period of the summer. One of her projects involved following around WGCADA Community Support Worker Dave Watkins.

Annalie and I in Kalbarri, Western Australia, 2006.

Dave’s role was to help WGCADA clients with every aspect of their lives that could interfere with progress on their recovery journey. He helped them gain recovery capital, the quantity and quality of internal and external resources that one can bring to bear on the initiation and maintenance of recovery. You can read more about recovery capital in Section 7 of my article Factors That Facilitate Addiction Recovery, and in my article Self-Change and Recovery Capital.

The article Annalie wrote about her experiences with Dave Watkins appeared in Drink and Drugs News (27 June 2005, p. 10), the leading UK magazine focused on addiction treatment

‘Nine o’clock on a Thursday morning and Dave is already hard to pin down. Rushing around dealing with telephone calls, clients and staff, he is unnaturally energetic for the early hour, and in my bleary-eyed state I start regretting volunteering to follow him around for a day. At this rate, I’m bound to lose him and get left somewhere, undoubtedly with some unsavoury drug dealers or the like.

My fears are compounded by the ominous warnings I receive from people around the agency, along with advice not to enter his office in case I get lost amongst the clutter (despite the clutter management course!). This is a man whose reputation as a ‘superman’ precedes him, and I, a naive medical student from a sheltered background, am going to have to do my best to help and not hinder him in his duties.

Yes, I am undoubtedly extremely naive to the world Dave works in. I may live in Scotland, the home of ‘Trainspotting’ and legal street drinking, but I’ve never actually seen or met (at least knowingly) anyone with an active addiction.

What I will learn today however is that I probably have seen people suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction. I just haven’t realised it because they mostly look like normal people and don’t fit into my stereotypical view of what an addict looks like.

Sitting in on an interview where Dave describes his role, I start to get a real understanding of what he does: absolutely everything and anything. From arranging housing, to dealing with debts, to working on the agency’s allotments. He talks of the importance of his network of contacts, which I am to see in person later—he seems to know everyone, from receptionists to magistrates.

What starts to sink in is the fact that Dave hardly ever refers to the person’s drug habit. Not what I would have expected from a drug worker. It dawns on me that Dave’s role is not to just treat the addiction, but to provide the resources an individual needs to support them in beating the addiction and preventing them from being pushed back into it.

It’s no wonder that someone living on the streets needs a bottle of cider before going to sleep—they need something to warm them up. And there’s no point in helping them to recover from their addiction if they are going to face the same circumstances tempting them to drink when they get out of rehab.

The first person we see is a homeless man who is a recovering alcoholic. He had experienced a relapse a few days previously and was feeling hopelessly guilty about it. Moreover, he was desperate to find a flat, because living with his brother was putting a lot of pressure on him.

Dave goes to get his big book of contacts, and I face my first challenge of the day: talking to my first client. Until this point, I had been following him around like a lost soul, feeling hopelessly awkward and unnecessary. And as the seconds tick by, and we sit in silence, that awkwardness increases and increases.

I have no idea what to talk about: whether he feels comfortable talking about his addiction, whether he wants to talk about his addiction, or whether I should just make desperate small talk until Dave’s welcome return.

Finally summoning up the courage to talk, I find that we are united in our mutual love of our mobile phones and PlayStations. What strikes me is his complete normality—he is nowhere near what I had imagined an alcoholic to be like—and his unprompted openness about his addiction, even to a stranger.

Our next stop is Singleton hospital, to visit an alcoholic suffering from pancreatitis. When we arrive, the Sister informs us that he is ready to leave, and that he can’t stay the weekend because they need the bed.

Approaching the bed however, I get a different impression. The man is sobbing and sobbing, due to the pain he is experiencing. Apparently, he is not allowed any pain relief because he is a drug user as well. He tells us that he is depressed and cannot even hold water down. I immediately feel immensely sorry for him, blaming the hospital staff for being uncaring and insensitive.

Dave, on the other hand, knows the client far better than me. He has seen this behaviour again and again and seen the client turn down numerous rehab places, just to return to drinking on the streets. He says he finds this incredibly frustrating, but nonetheless, he makes a number of phone calls, eventually finding a place in a rehab in Weston-Super-Mare.

A few days later he already has him installed. I am hugely impressed by this dedication—Dave makes the effort to give the man another chance, despite the fact that it has been thrown back in his face again and again.

Back at the centre a gorgeous, smiling woman asks for Dave’s help. I am shocked to hear that only seven years earlier Dave had literally picked her out of the gutter, helping her to overcome her addiction to amphetamines.

Her husband has been convicted of aggravated bodily harm, under hugely unfair circumstances, and she came to the centre hoping someone could help. There is clearly little Dave can do however, but this seems to me to be a prime example of people’s faith in the centre, and what they can do to help them—even to the extent of influencing Crown Court proceedings!

It is now that I get to experience the first of many of Dave’s magic tricks. He had talked about his ‘magic trick meeting’ earlier in the day but in my naivety, I thought it must be a key word for some sort of rehab or detox.

But no, he actually meant real magic tricks—and very impressive ones too. Dave explains to me the importance of gaining the trust and confidence of clients, by engaging them, or their children, by performing a magic trick. And from what I see, it really does the trick.

Running late, because Dave’s scheduling encompasses all the problems he encounters regardless of how insignificant, we arrive at Cefn Coed—Swansea’s psychiatric hospital. I am immediately intimidated by the red brick building, which is like something out of a film, and this feeling is far from alleviated when Dave explains that half of the front door is boarded up because someone drove a car through it the previous day.

Inside, the hospital is dark and dreary—some wards are locked all the time and doors are boarded up where people have forced entrance. Despite obvious efforts to improve the atmosphere of the hospital, I feel overwhelmingly uneasy in it—it really doesn’t inspire the most positive mental attitude.

On the secure detox ward, Dave chats about a number of patients who are in, or have been in, the ward. His detailed knowledge of a client’s history regarding their addiction and treatment is amazing, especially considering the sheer number of people with which he deals.

We meet a client who has obviously been self-harming—Dave addresses the subject in a direct yet positive manner, emphasising that it wasn’t as bad as last time. His unfailing ability to say the right things in the right manner and tone is remarkable—he knows exactly how to pitch advice for each individual client, whatever their state of mind, and never seems to put his foot in it.

The next woman we see at the hospital is undoubtedly the most striking case I see all day. She is an alcoholic. If she is let out, she will be on the streets, drink again, be picked up by the police and brought straight back.

So, she has been sectioned for an indefinite length of time because, Dave says, ‘No one wants her.’ She hasn’t got any friends with whom she can live. Her family don’t want to know her and so she will probably be in the hospital in a secure ward, for who knows how long.

Dave Watkins, Community Support Worker at WGCADA.

The fact that even Dave says that nothing can be done for her emphasises to me the gravity of her situation—Dave, the ‘superman’, who does everything and anything he can to help people, even if they don’t want that help. Nonetheless, even though he can’t do anything to help her situation, he continues to visit her. Amazing really.

Next, a quick call to check-up on a client whose friends are worrying about her. We get no answer on the intercom, so proceed up to the flat. At the door, still showing the signs of the last time Dave had to break in, we bang and shout through the letterbox to no avail. She is either out, drunk or dead. Reassured by a neighbour that she wasn’t drunk earlier we leave, although I remain worried.

Our final call of the day and we’re visiting an alcoholic with an eating disorder. She is so painfully thin she looks like she could be broken at the touch of a finger. She moves slowly, as if in a dream, and her speech is confused. From my lack of experience, I assume this is the normal effect of chronic alcohol abuse, but Dave later tells me he suspects she is taking another type of drug.

This perceptiveness amazes me—it hadn’t even crossed my mind. As we sit down, she brings out piles and piles of unopened letters, mostly all from creditors. This is another aspect of the job that I had no comprehension of, but I can now see how quickly financial situations can spiral out of control—a number of deadlines had been missed because she had been burying her head in the sand and not opening her mail.

Despite the daunting size of the task, Dave gets to work, reading, sorting and making phone calls—a hugely complicated job, but another of his talents. Within an hour, the mail has been sorted, Dave has been in contact with her solicitor and has arranged a medical appointment to ensure that she doesn’t lose her benefits.

So, I reach the end of my day with Dave, and to my surprise I’ve survived! My brain is only slightly frazzled and all my previous misconceptions about drug and alcohol addicts have been pretty much thrown out the window. Despite having heard numerous stories and news reports about drug and alcohol addiction, I was completely unable to comprehend the reality of the situation, because I couldn’t relate it to actual people.

But meeting clients today has enabled me to relate real experiences with real people, people who are just as normal as you or me.’

2. Kathy’s Story: ‘They Taught Me To Be Strong’

In 2005/6, I wrote a 181-page profile of WGCADA with Wired In colleagues Lucie James and Sarah Davies. In that profile, I wrote a Story that involved one of the WGCADA specialist workers engaged in one particular form of criminal justice intervention introduced by the UK government.

Arrest Referral schemes were a new criminal justice approach to dealing with offenders who were also problem drug users. The idea was that when an offender was arrested and taken to a custody suite in a police station, the custody officer would inform them that they could see a drug worker if they so wished. If the person agreed, they would meet the drug worker, be given a cursory assessment, and an appointment arranged for a more detailed assessment at a local treatment agency.

The rationale behind the scheme was that when a person was taken to a custody suite, they may be at a more significant part of their lives that they would be more willing to discuss their drug problem, whether they genuinely wanted some help, or if they thought that engaging with a treatment agency might lessen their sentence.

The idea of this Story is not to prove that the Arrest Referral scheme worked—attempted outcome evaluations were fraught with problems—but to show how one person benefited by interacting with an Arrest Referral worker, and reveal some of the themes that likely contributed to the positive outcome.

The worker, Becky Hancock, had previously been an undergraduate in my Psychology Department and had worked with me on the Welsh Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) evaluation in 2000-2 (cf. My Journey, Part 5). Becky became the Deputy CEO of WGCADA in 2014, before leaving in 2021. Although this is a true story, Kathy is not the ‘storyteller’s’ name. I also created the title of this story.

‘My first encounter with WGCADA was via the Arrest Referral Worker, who visited me whilst I was detained for shoplifting. I failed to keep the appointment offered. I had been recently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and failed to even attend psychiatric interviews.

Following a second offence for shoplifting, for which I was convicted, this and my drug use seriously impacted on my life and sent into a period of manic and depressive episodes. I received a one-year Probation Order, and my Probation Officer, seeing that I needed and wanted help, referred me to the Arrest Referral Worker at WGCADA who I had met previously. 

WGCADA was the lifeline that I had needed. I didn’t have to stay in this rut—there was hope, but I just hadn’t realised it. I started to slowly feel some sort of self-worth. The first few meetings were about me learning to open up and discuss my life, and see the results of my two years serious addiction. Initially, it was hard to relive those years and be completely truthful. But the more I got to know my key-worker, I realised that she wasn’t sitting there in judgement; she was genuinely there to help with no prejudice attached. 

We went through each drug, including solvents, one-by-one with all the relevant information: How much? When? How often? I was still using for the first months of our appointments, although I had started to make lifestyle changes and cut down my heroin use. Each week, I felt that I could unburden everything that had been worrying about during that period. That helped me keep going, feeling that I could get advice on even the most mundane of issues. 

Fairly soon, I was referred to the Community Drug and Alcohol Team (CDAT) via the Rapid Access Point. The feeble excuses I’d always made, ‘It’ll take too long to get seen!’ and ‘I don’t feel well enough, unless I’ve scored first’, were very quickly buried, as I had an appointment within a week of Becky referring me.

At the CDAT, we discussed various options—residential rehab, in-patient and home detox—rather than a maintenance script. I feared I would relapse after a short-term detox, and decided that a reducing maintenance script was the answer, along with changing my lifestyle. 

Due to my desperation to move residence, I grabbed the only hand out there, which happened to be that of a new friend who was a fellow drug- and alcohol-dependent. He had been sober and clean for one year, and offered me a ‘safe’ refuge away from the estate where I had been living. I though accepting his offer was the best thing to do. My key-worker advised caution, but I went ahead anyway.

The relationship turned sour and I found myself in a dangerous situation. My new partner was determined to prolong my dependency for his own agenda. This was very difficult for me, but my key-worker could see the situation clearly and made it her job to find me somewhere to live.

She took me to the local Council offices and to the homeless charity Shelter, and made numerous calls to hostels and refuges. All this, while I was having numerous meetings with the CDAT to assess my suitability for a maintenance script, multiple appointments with the Probation service, and a difficult home life.

My Subutex prescription eventually started in April 2004. It was the best news I’d had in years. I had to collect my script on a daily basis, and take the drug on the premises, which was great. My heroin use ceased immediately. Then came the news that I’d got a place in a Woman’s Aid Refuge. My life was turning around. I continued my appointments at WGCADA and Probation, and continued to stay out of trouble. It was during this time that I met my current partner Paul.

Slowly but surely, the friendship developed into a relationship. This was something that I would never have recommended to anyone newly sober or clean, but it has worked for me. It so happens that we met when we were both in a fragile state, although I was dealing with past drug problems, whilst he had recently ended a failed marriage and had left two children behind, with whom he was now having difficulty in being given access.

These difficulties brought us together and we supported each other enormously. Together, we found a lovely home, away from my past haunts and faces. Both of our families and our friends helped us greatly. 

Very soon, we got the news we had been waiting for—Paul was given temporary custody of his children, due to their mother’s illness. However, it wasn’t long before we had a setback. Due to my past drug problems, Social Services questioned me seeing the children, and for a moment I thought my world had just fallen apart.  But then I thought, ‘That’s not WGCADA has taught me. They’ve taught me to be strong, and if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again.’

So, I picked myself up and told myself this won’t be for long. I set about proving that I am the person that I am today—someone suitable for Paul’s children, someone who would have a beneficial effect on their lives. I also went to see my key-worker. She did all she could in the way of speaking to the relevant people, and writing the necessary reports, to show that I’d come as far as I had in my recovery.

The children have been with us for about eight months now and they are thriving. As well as having other prospects, I am attending a Welsh Refresher course to help both children with their schooling, particularly the little one who has speech difficulties. Paul has recently been given custody of the children and we are now building a life together as a family.

I still have regular contact with WGCADA and I am attending a Relapse Prevention course. This course has certainly opened my eyes to all aspects of drug and alcohol dependence. Along with other projects my key-worker has involved me in, it has left me with a strong desire to get involved in this field myself professionally and help others who are in the situation that I was previously in.’

3. ‘A Life So Rich and Rewarding’

This heartfelt story was written by one of WGCADA’s clients and included in the treatment agency profile of 2005/6. The sentiments expressed here capture the sorts of things I heard when I was first visiting WGCADA. [You can learn more about the steps of AA and the Minnesota Model in my article Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 12-Step Movement, and Minnesota Model].

‘I am writing about an amazing two years in my life. It has truly been a life-changing time. Not only have I stopped drinking (and that in itself I would never have believed possible!), but I’ve really begun to live life more fully and have been able to put my life back together again in a very positive way. Throughout this time, I have had great support and help from WGCADA. I can’t speak highly enough about the organisation and the staff I have been in contact with…. so please read on… 

Starting at the beginning, I came to WGCADA in despair. I had developed a serious drink problem. I never drank alcohol in my youth and only drank socially small amounts until my early 30’s. By the time I was 40, alcohol had become an important part of my life.

But it was fast becoming a bigger part of my life than I could deal with. Initially, the amounts of alcohol were not great, but it was the regular daily drinking and reliance on the alcohol that should have alerted me to the problem to come. Instead, I just drank more and more, and wine and cider became a way of chilling out, relaxing after a hard day, cheering me up, slowing me down, and just about any other excuse going. 

Over time, I became well and truly addicted, physically and mentally, and I was very frightened. But I would rarely admit to the intense fear. It normally sent me straight to the bottle again, and after a calming drink the future always looked easier and the plan to cut down on my drinking seemed much more achievable.

I tried on many occasions to reduce my drinking through my own self-discipline and through a structured programme. These plans were short-lived and failed, and overall the quantities I drank were steadily increasing. My life was a mess, I was off work ill, long-term, from a fairly responsible job. As my condition was getting worse, there was not much hope of going back to work. My family relationships were disintegrating and I had also lost all sense of personal value and meaning in life. The future was very bleak.

I knew my only chance was to stop drinking. I had tried many times to quit, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I was able to organise an inpatient detox. After I came out I felt so clean, but I knew there was no way I would be capable of staying that way. My lifestyle and all my impulses were too mixed up in alcohol to stay sober for long.

I had been to WGCADA while still drinking and desperate for a way forward. Now I was sober, was this a resource I could turn to? 

And what an amazing resource! Early on in discussions, I had to make a fairly fundamental decision. Was my personal programme of recovery going to be about controlled drinking or about abstinence? I knew I really needed to stay clear of alcohol. Knowing myself, I was sure moderate drinking and I were not compatible!

That first week, as I heard the counsellor speak to me about abstinence, I remember clearly thinking, “How can this counsellor and anything he can say ever have the power to stop me drinking again?” I was as determined as I have ever been about anything, but I just couldn’t imagine a Programme which could change me that much. 

We started to look at the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous which were new to me, and to work in more detail with the Minnesota programme I found the structure this gave me was so important. Even so, there were weeks when I came to see my counsellor and cried my way through the session in despair.

Like many people in early sobriety, I found life to be very hard. Not only is there coping without drink, but there is facing up to the chaos your drinking has caused you and others around you. The help that WGCADA gave me to feel my despair, and to channel it in positive ways, was immense. The atmosphere was so supportive, and I felt so accepted for being me, a recovering alcoholic.

I began to gradually work through the programme. I had already discovered that I was not alone. Many staff at WGCADA understood where I was at; they had been there in their own experiences in the past. The staff were wanting for me what I willed for myself, that positive sobriety.

There was always someone to speak to if I phoned, on the occasions when life threw me one challenge too much and I needed to hear some sane strong words. And there was always access to weekly help and advice in my counselling session. This was not soft, easy advice, and there were many times that didn’t want to hear those tough words and reminders of what was best for me! 

It is easier to learn in an environment of acceptance. I recognised the unmanageability of my life and my need for sanity. I knew I never wanted to be in that despair and hopeless place again. I also knew I had the beginnings of a new life which was exciting, full of self-discovery.

Working through Step 3 was a wonderful experience for me. I had a faith and had questioned it and doubted in my dark drinking days. I found that faith in such a new and real way and could really understand and accept Step 3, which says, “Made the decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” 

I completed Step 4 and 5 when I made my moral inventory and had the opportunity to share it. I was then very moved by a presentation that was made to me in front of the client group and staff. It was in the form of a letter from my counsellor, and a medallion. I’ll always treasure this to remind me of the hard work WGCADA staff and I put into the early days of my recovery. I now have the opportunity to continue the counselling on a monthly basis, as the initial treatment is over. 

As I write this, I’m almost two years into sobriety and can honestly say that life is so rich and rewarding, and this is the result of being able to digest and apply the lessons of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and its application using the Minnesota programme. I would not be here without the staff of WGCADA and the amazing Programme they helped me to understand and apply. 

I continue to follow the Programme. I’m on a course, which I know I need to maintain and continually progress along, but it is so blessed to have such a strong foundation.’

> My Journey: 5. ‘Start Telling Recovery Stories’

> ‘My Journey’ chapter links (and biography)