‘Natural Highs’ by Anthony Nevens

IMG_9117Where do I start? At the beginning, middle or end, who knows? It all ties in with itself in some twisted tangled ball, but I will try and unravel some of it!

I am just like most other Brits who feel uncomfortable talking about themselves! However, here is a quick summery of the Natural Highs project and how it has tied in with my own recovery.

 Natural Highs was born out of the frustrations of government and professionals stating that to recover from substance use problems we must end up in education or employment. This expectation for me personally, someone who has suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and lost the use of my legs, and experienced memory problems, was clearly unrealistic, to say the least.

 I had been using drugs and alcohol since the age of 15 and by the time I was 30 I had experimented with most illegal drugs, suffered two overdoses and been in the depths of psychosis on and off for several years.

 The drugs’ culture was the norm for me from an early age; being surrounded by people in the music business went hand in hand with my parents’ relaxed approach to life, which was born out of the 60’s. However, weed back then was not the same drug as the weed is today, or the weed I was smoking in the 90’s. And in the circles I mixed, we switched from using cannabis, speed, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine, crack and finally (for some) heroin.

 ‘In 2001 I had a brain haemorrhage and was given a survival chance of 10%.‘
It took me a while to recover from my brain haemorrhage and almost three years to regain the full use of my legs. I still have a wonky eye and suffer headaches, but what the heck, I’m alive and still surfing. I’m not popping up on the short board the same as used to and I’m now surfing a huge longboard, like the ones you see in those old films from 60s with the Beach Boys playing in the background. It’s more of a scramble getting to my feet now, but it’s still surfing!

IMG_6766Cannabis was the hardest drug to kick for me. It was a double-edge sword, you know, one causing mad thoughts, anxiety and depression, but also soothing you at the same time.

 During my clean times, I would retreat to a group of friends who got their highs from life. When the surf was up they would be in the water and when it was flat they would be mountain biking. This draw to nature’s elements brings me a greater clarity and an underlying deeper feeling for life than drugs and work can bring for me.

Like a lot of other addicts, I had always been concerned for friends or acquaintances who were taking risks or had completely gone off the rails. I had always given advice and support. This may have been judged as hypocritical in some ways, but it was how my drug culture worked – we looked out for each other.

Gradually during my time recovering from my brain haemorrhage and past lifestyle, I gained clarity in my thoughts about what is important to me. I grew closer to my family and clean friends and pondered on which direction in life I would now take. Now that I was clean and sober, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Help others overcome their addictions.

On a practical level, I obtained a diploma related to substance misuse and gained some friends who worked as practitioners. They became my mentors and I soaked up their knowledge of the treatment system.

After two years of volunteering for a drugs treatment agency and several interviews, I finally gained employment as a drugs worker for Compass in 2007… a dream come true! I had by now been clean from drugs for over six years and I threw myself into further studies.

IMG_6743After a couple of years of being a practitioner, I felt something was missing in  the drugs and alcohol treatment services. During this time, I also suffered two bereavements – both my mum and dad died suddenly from cancer – this drew me  back into a darkness where I experienced both anxiety and depression.

I had to get strong, particularly as I had loved ones dependant on me being healthy. Sometimes, the motivation comes after the event, meaning that even though it felt that I didn’t want to get out of bed or even carry on, I would force myself to get up and do things. I would make plans with the help of my partner, aiming to keep myself busy to help ride these negative feelings out.

I also took time off work and retreated. After reflecting back on what had helped me in the past, I spent time with friends kayaking and climbing in Yorkshire. I pushed myself to the limits. During the evenings on these trips, I talked about the past and what I was going through with people that I trusted. These discussions helped me put my life and feelings into perspective. The suffering was still there, but I felt that I could now cope.

Time is a great healer, as long you deal with the bad emotions and feelings –   otherwise you just end up putting things on hold. At home, my partner and I talked for hours, trying to understand the hand that we had been dealt, as she too had parents who were undergoing treatment for cancer.

My partner and I have grown stronger and become more adaptable to change. We enjoy, love and make the most of life. We grasp opportunities to make our lives richer, and in doing so try and enrich, love and support the people who are in our lives.

I returned back to work with a clearer approach to what I wanted to do in my work life. I came up with the name and concept of Natural Highs.

ImageNatural Highs is about building a positive identity and improving one’s self through experiences and friendships. The first event was a massive success. The activities on the first two events included rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, archery and gorge walking.

We knew as a team that we had a dozen or more clients in Selby who were doing well in treatment, but they were isolated from others in recovery. These were the first clients for the Natural Highs project and I wanted to get this right, so I worked closely with these clients’ key workers and presented them with the concept of Natural Highs.

They also thought that the proposed activities could help people and quickly started working with their clients in preparing them for the activities. This was a key moment to the success of Natural Highs, as I quickly found out that the biggest fear was not the activity but the fear of being in a group of people you don’t know.

It took about two weeks to identify and select a group of 18 clients for our first  Natural Highs event,  I organised two days of outdoor activities with professionals who I knew in my personal life, They have excellent interpersonal skills as well as the experience needed to make these events fun!  the professionals were great and completely got the concept of what I wanted to achieve, which was to show people that you can get a high from life without the use of drugs. Clients were also inspired by these guy’s who have an exciting but relaxed approach to life, they also heavily subsidised the cost, which was very generous of them.

These initial first Natural Highs events brought together a small recovering community, with people buzzing about the day’s experiences and wanting it to carry on. As a result, we quickly put together a weekly Natural Highs support group at the Compass service, which not only organised future outdoor activity events but became a safe caring place where people could discuss their issues, problems and successes.

We have now replicated this model in all our adult treatment services within Compass. You can self-refer onto the program through any of the Compass adult services at present. We also welcome volunteers to help organise and take part.

‘it’s great if you can recover and gain employment but you also need a reason to live’
Friendships are made very quickly through these groups activities and experiences. For some people, it gives them the confidence to complete treatment and move on. For other people it marks the end of a self-destructive lifestyle, and for others it has meant a completely different way of life. The group in Selby quickly established a Natural Highs mounting biking club. This group now organises their own groups away to different parts of the country and help others wanting to learn the sport.

Other events include guitar workshops, equine therapy, art groups, book clubs, craft groups, yoga and free gym passes. We adopt a buddy up system where peers support each other in attending these events or groups within their locality.

‘Natural Highs uses the approach that helped me recover in my life’
Throughout my life, I have been blessed with meeting fantastic people; this, I believe, is no coincidence. Some people come and go, but the ones who have stayed around have been my reason to strive forward, stay strong and be happy. And for the ones who have gone, I take the good times and the lessons and reasons of why we should live and love life.

Natural Highs now runs residential centres in North Yorkshire where we run daily activities, including rock climbing, mountain biking, raft building, archery, and my favourite, Walking. Walking talking therapy, I love it. People open up to each other, and there’s something very therapeutic with the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, walking distances in beautiful surroundings. It gives the mind time to contemplate the bigger picture and put things in perspective.

Image 3At present, there are Compass Natural Highs groups running in Selby, Scarborough, Hull, Goole, Enfield and Harrow. As indicated earlier, you can self-refer onto the schemes or even volunteer as a helper.

Whether you’re a client or a practitioner, we learn from each other and I have learnt and grown as a person so much by being in this profession.

I have so many amazing stories of people recovering through the Natural Highs programme. I would like to thank both clients and practitioners who were the pioneers from the beginning, who continue to help and inspire others in their journey of recovery whatever you’re recovering from, and to the new people who come up with new creative and inspiring ideas and who are now pioneering the way in their own communities.

Image 1Simon, I will always remember the first time you climbed the rock face at Brimham Rocks wall and said, “That was better than any drug I have ever had!”  Simon went on to become a sessional worker for Compass, running the needle exchange from where he once used to collect his own pins. He continues to inspire others in their recovery.

Andy, who was nearing the completion of his methadone treatment, but was difficult to slow down and get to stop for ice creams and take in views on the coast-to-coast bike ride. He said to me “Come on, Ant! I want this to mark the end of my treatment. I don’t want this bike ride to be easy, this is no holiday for me! I want it to be hard. I need to push it, I need to feel the pain just like how recovery has been for me!”

Andy is clean and back in full-time employment as a mechanic. He continues to volunteer his time to the Natural Highs project. He still doesn’t like to stop for ice creams while mountain biking, but does sometimes stop to eat wild watercress at a secret spot!

And Allen, our voice of reason who seems to know everything about anything, which has been a great asset when out of mobile coverage. We nicknamed him GoogAll, his empathy, personal stories and respect for others touches the hearts of all who know him.

We hope to promote and show that recovery is more than just possible, but that it’s all around us. Here is some of the recent feedback that we received from our last event in Yorkshire. I filmed the event.

Testimonials from the event
“The other service users made it easy for me for me to be myself.”

GOPR0188“Anyone serious about recovery, I would say you would be crazy to miss this! It was great to hear stories/suggestions on how to keep pushing forward!”

“Enjoyed all the trip. Especially the team challenges, the raft building was amazing! It was beneficial to meet others who are on a similar journey to myself. Very inspiring to meet people who are clean and have a better lifestyle. The event reminded me of how well I work and communicate with people. My confidence has lifted to near where it was before my addiction. Thanks you guys x”

“I have enjoyed my 3 days at Aldwalk. I have met many service users from other areas and have spoken about the problems I have encountered during my using life and in my recovery. These few days have been very helpful.”

“This event was awesome. Brilliant to see people’s confidences grow with every activity they took on. The people were great in every way supporting each other in every aspect of the events. Fantastic!”

“It was great and I will be pursuing more activities like these!”

 “This event encouraged me to improve my health and start going back to the gym. Above all, it increased my motivation levels and self-esteem. Absolutely Brilliant!”