Recovery Voices: James Deakin, Founder of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC), with David Clark

After being interviewed by Wulf Livingston, James Deakin describes various stages of his life to David Clark. He starts by briefly talking about his cocaine addiction, the time he was tortured by some Manchester hoods and the psychological impact this had on him, and his move to Bangor. He describes working as a chef, then as a mental health worker and Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) worker. Once he started working in the recovery field, James realised he could make a significant contribution. He talks to David about peer-led recovery communities and describes what he tells members of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC). [8 films, 43 mins 13 secs]

1. Life in Disarray [6’15”]
When he was selling drugs, James used to ‘look down his nose at addicts’, considering them weak-willed. But life has its way of turning you into the person you once said you’d never become. Within a year of first trying cocaine, he was seriously addicted to the drug. He was funding a £2,000 a week habit by his drug-dealing, until supply of the drugs he was selling was cut off. 

James goes on to describe how he was in hiding from Manchester hoods and was then person non-grata in the city. [You can listen to the lead-up to this situation at He suffered severe anxiety and paranoia at times—‘when people are trying to kill you, I think it’s a legitimate feeling’—and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown for a couple of years. It took him a few years to be able to manage the anxiety. Today, he can rationalise and manage things when he wakes up with symptoms that are commonly labelled as ‘anxiety’.

2. Manchester to Bangor [4’35”]
James describes how he came to terms with the fact that the Manchester hoods to whom he owed money might find and kill him, whatever he tried to do. He also thought that one day these people at the top of the Manchester crime scene might find themselves at the bottom… or in prison. 

James moved from Manchester to Bangor in North Wales. ’Bangor saved me. He gave me this time and this space to work out who I was as a person’. It was a very different environment to what he was used to. James loved the pace of life there. He accepts that Bangor has its issues, but unlike Manchester it has no serious organised crime. It’s a safe place to live. James didn’t initially plan to settle there, but the more he lived in Bangor the more comfortable he felt. He soon became part of the fabric.

3. Making Amends [3’32”]
James initially wanted to be a nurse, but once he started selling drugs and realised that he had an aptitude for it, his initial career desire disappeared. He believes that he is a product of his environment. He always thought he had good street-smarts. When he was living in Manchester, his options were limited to crime and offending to ‘get a leg on’, but when he arrived in Bangor he felt that he could actually do something good there, shine in another way without having to risk going to prison. He felt compelled to right some wrongs. 

James started to work as a chef and rose up the ranks quickly. He ended up running some big kitchens and earning good money, but the jobs ‘bored him shitless’. The thought of doing that for 30 years or more before he retired terrified him. He looked at the old chefs… ‘they were all piss-heads, druggies, with a string of failed marriages behind them.’ James thought that he’d already got out of addiction once; if he didn’t watch out he would be heading there again. He points out that chefs work in a very stressful environment and they are surrounded by alcohol all the time. The first thing many do when they finish a shift is go and sit in the bar and drink a pint… there’s your link between alcohol and stress-relief. 

4. Working in the Mental Health Field [5’22”]
After ten years as a chef, James started working in the mental health field. He had originally intended to do this for six months before heading to university, but he loved the job so much he ended up staying for four years. He worked, as part of a three-man team, with sex offenders who were locked up in a secure unit. 

James was shocked when he read his first case file, belonging to a boy who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. What was in the file challenged his preconceptions he had about sex offenders. ‘Not everything in life is black and white.’ He started to believe that rehabilitation is a fundamental right, particularly for lads like he saw who had such traumatising abusive childhood experiences. 

James became disillusioned, and eventually left the job, when a person who had been doing well had his support reduced and then lost his support team, and as a result started taking backward steps. James developed a cynical view of certain organisations working in the field and their agenda.

5. Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) Worker [10’04”]
James points out that his options and opportunities were never great due to his upbringing, social circumstances, and poor education in Manchester. Whilst working in the mental health field, he started to think that there must be other people who had gone through what he had gone through, and who wanted to move on from a life of crime and drug use. He emphasises that for him, the most important thing was ‘being straight’–that was a harder part than abstaining from drugs. At the time of his problems, he had no idea of what ‘being straight’ involved. 

These sorts of thought influenced James’s decision to move into the next stage of his career. He spent eight years working as a Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) Worker. When he first entered this field, James had a very good commissioner. The original ethos of DIP was spot-on—get people out of crime and into treatment. He loved his work with service users because he could effect change at an individual level. However, over time he learnt that ‘the whole treatment industry stuff doesn’t work.’ 

James got involved in some really interesting research. He was working with a group of lads who exhibited symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). They’d come in to be drug-tested and participate in group work, but they would just fidget around, engage in distracting activities, and not focus or retain anything. James suggested to the probation officer that they tell the group there would be no drug testing the following week. The group came in the following week, obviously having been using drugs, and sat there for two hours—focused, listening, contributing, retaining information, and learning skills. The probation officer couldn’t get over the difference. James explained that their drug-taking was self-medication—some people take stimulants to get high, whereas these guys were taking them just to feel chilled and focused. 

James also did some addiction recovery coaching and guided relaxation. The vast majority of the service users had never experienced such things, since they just came in for a methadone script. He tells the story of a worker who was seeing a client for the first time, explaining that he just wanted to go through what help the client had been receiving, what his plans were, etc. The bloke replied, ‘Listen mate, I’ve been coming here for six years now. I’ve never had to f…… speak to anybody once. Don’t f… me about, just give me the script, the taxi is waiting outside.’

6. There’s A Place For Me [5’48”]
James points out that he used to be incredibly intimidated by academics at one point. He felt out of place mixing with academics at recovery-related events, but later realised that he had something to contribute. He heard academics talking about recovery-related matters in a theoretical way, but he could see how to apply these theories in the real world and make positive things happen. 

James still struggles with precisely how recovering people go from being a negative influence in society to being a recovery carrier. They have disproportionate effects on their social circle, but it goes from a negative to a positive impact as the person recovers from addiction. What sort of psychological process takes place for this transformation to occur? James knows how to facilitate such changes in people, but not what underlies them psychologically. However, knowing that he was able to help people change made him realise that ‘there is a place for me at this table.’ 

James goes on to talk about how he identified with, and was inspired by, Mark Gilman—‘he had them all eating out of his hand’ during his presentation. Seeing Mark at this presentation made him realise that, ’I can contribute something meaningful.’ This was really important to James—he needed to know that he could make things happen, rather than just be a ‘passenger’ in the field.

7. Carrying The Message [4’04”]
James believes that both people with lived experience, and academics, have a role to play in the recovery field. For individuals on their recovery journey, storytelling is more relevant, but academic research is needed to influence funders and drive policy change. James says that the upside of people with lived experience is that they are able to support people much more effectively, compassionately, and in a quicker manner. The downside of it is that ‘we’re also an ex-bunch of addicts and alcoholics, and it’s really easy to discount what we say, and what we think, and what we stand for, and what we advocate.’

David emphasises that an important role for academics working in the field must be to promote the voice of recovering people. He believes that this is the most important thing he’s done in the 40+ years of his career. He points out that one of the most intriguing questions relates to the psychological processes that underlie the transformation seen in many people recovering from addiction.

James points out that he is always trying to identify potential recovery carriers—people who make recovery infectious to those around them—when people access North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC). Of course, everyone receives the same sort of help, but it is important to recognise recovery carriers as they provide the continuity in the programme. James has come through addiction 20 years ago and it is easy for a new person to dismiss his journey because it happened so long ago—‘what do you know about recovery?’ 

James emphasises the importance of NWRC’s cyclical approach—keeping recovery ‘fresh’ in the eyes of new community members—and recruiting recovery carriers as paid staff. At present, the six housing management staff at Penryhn House—the residential part of NWRC—are recovery carriers and this underlies the high rates of success within the community. All staff have passion, drive and commitment. Their primary purpose is to carry the recovery message to still struggling addicts.

8. On Being ‘Ballsy’ [3’31”]
James is often accused of being an ‘ego-merchant’. He think there’s a fine line between ‘being ego’ and ‘being ballsy’. He believes he is the latter. He says to his community members, ‘I’m not afraid to fail. I’m afraid of not trying.’ David points out that we need people who are ‘ballsy’ in the recovery field. 

James believes that, in general, addicts are driven by fear… ‘whether it is the fear of withdrawal, the fear of having to deal with the consequences of our addiction, the fear of [dealing] with the psychological trauma that underpins it in the first place. I think we’re just fearful people in general.’

North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) is all about leading by example. James emphasises to community members that you have to push yourself for growth to occur. And growth occurs outside your comfort zone. ‘You’ve got to stretch yourself on a regular basis. You’ve got to take yourself to places where you feel uncomfortable…’

James points out that many ‘lived experience’ recovery communities are driven by the influence of one person. The principles that underlie that community are the principles that underlie that person’s own recovery. In a sense, the person sets an ethos. Interviewer David Clark says that when he views these communities from the outside, he sees one person starting the recovery community and the infectious nature of recovery then driving things forward. Community members respond to what that person emanates… including their ‘ballsy’ attitude.

James Deakin has been in recovery for 15 years and is now sharing his experiences of active addiction and offending to support other people to bring a positive change to their own lives. He believes strongly in the concepts of mutual aid and shared experience, and these are underlying foundations of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) which he developed in 2014. NWRC delivers a programme of meetings and recovery activity from Penrhyn House and members of NWRC contribute significantly to the local community in various ways. Their community cafe, Bwyd Da Bangor, provides the best food on High Street, Bangor.