Recovery Voices: James Deakin with David Clark, Part 2

My second interview with James Deakin, Founder of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC), took place on 16 June 2023. We covered a range of topics relating to the functioning of NWRC. These topics included NWRC trying to create as many recovery pathways as possible, involving various mutual aid groups holding meetings at NWRC’s Penrhyn House; the power of ‘the group’ in helping individuals; the importance of being committed to, and engaged with, the various activities offered by NWRC; the importance of service to the community and further afield (with examples, including a project in Kenya); education; and dealing with trauma and its impact. I’m fascinated and excited by what is going on at NWRC. [11 films, 57 mins 56 secs]

1. Broad a Church as Possible [6’26”]
James and his colleagues tried to ensure that North Wales Recovery Communities [NWRC] was a broad a church as possible at the beginning of its development. They wanted to create as many recovery pathways as possible. James says that one way to describe NWRC is that it is a residential rehab that is also open to the wider community. NWRC does not limit itself to using one form of mutual aid, such as the 12-Step Fellowship. He points out that many people with a substance use problem can’t relate to some of the principles of the 12-Step approach, such as the concept of a Higher Power.

James emphasises that a lot of people who go through addiction have been traumatised from a young age. He believes that one of the most common misconceptions about addiction is that it is a choice. It is not, he argues. ‘For the vast majority of us it is self-management of an underlying condition, it’s self-medication, or it’s just using any drink or drug to move away from a set of feeling[s] for a period of time.’

At a very early stage, James and colleagues realised that they needed to ‘cover all the bases’ in relation to mutual aid. People were given a variety of options. If the person couldn’t relate to the 12-Step approach, they could try Smart Recovery, and if that didn’t work they could try CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Theory). James argues that no two addictions are the same, as are no two recoveries. He wants to provide the best opportunity for people to get well by giving them a whole variety of choices.

However, he and his colleagues tell people when they first arrive at Penrhyn House (NWRC’s residence) that they must do all the options (groups) for the first 12 weeks, so that they will be able to make an informed choice of what works best for them. People find their group, their ‘tribe’, that best suits them.

2. Power of the Group [5’41”]
James describes research conducted by John Stoner of Chester University with members of the North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) which suggests that it was not the actual mutual aid group (e.g. AA or SMART Recovery) that is important in helping people, but the fact that members are around other people who are clean and sober. After the initial 12-week period when members had to attend all the different mutual aid groups, some people were going together to both AA and SMART Recovery, despite the very different principles underlying these two types of approach.

NWRC members have to engage in 20-30 hours of organised social activities a week. This is important so that members can be around people and form strong positive, ’sober’ connections. Addiction is disconnection, recovery is connection. Right from the beginning, people are encouraged to get assimilated into a group as quickly as they can. ‘The sooner you feel part of the group, the safer you become.’

James describes people being in agony, and feeling the days are dragging, in the early stages of abstaining from drink and/or drugs. However, at some stage, there is a switch in many people’s head, so that rather than feeling ’desperate not to use’, they think that ‘life is far easier if I don’t drink or take drugs.’ Life becomes easier; it’s not a grind, or a hardship, anymore. 

James would love to research the psychological processes that underlie this transition. He believes that the transition creeps up on most people. They don’t wake up suddenly one morning and say, ‘Oh, there’s no desire there anymore!’ He sees people walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders in the early stages of their recovery journey. Three or four months later, ‘the penny has dropped’. They are happy, laughing… and ‘free’. James terms the transition, ‘the moment of emancipation’. 

3. Mutual Aid Groups [6’44”]
Initially, James had to encourage members of different mutual aid groups in Bangor to come in and hold meetings at Penryhn House, which could be accessed by members of the North Wales Recovery Communities, as well as people in the local community. James says that there are now either eight or nine different mutual aid groups that operate out of Penrhyn House. At one time, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings didn’t exist in Bangor, but NA is now the strongest Fellowship group operating at Penrhyn House. 

James talks about the different Fellowship groups, and emphasises how people who run the meetings do so much to help other people. He wanted to provide a space for the different groups, and make sure that he and his colleagues never interfered with the running of the meetings. Although things run really well most of the time, there is the occasional problem which requires negotiating, e.g. if someone is banned from entering the building because of causing trouble at Penrhyn House, but still wants to attend Fellowship meetings. 

James believes that the recovery agenda never really worked well in the UK because people working in the treatment system never respected, and appreciated the value of, mutual aid. Treatment services don’t want to surrender ‘their’ power. ‘Hang on a minute, we’re all these highly paid professionals and what you’re saying is that you’re better off giving [them] back to a load of ex-addicts and they can do a better job at getting them well than we can?’ 

4. Being Committed & Engaged [5’21”]
When a newcomer is brought into North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC), there is more of an emphasis on the group to get them assimilated, than there is on the person to get assimilated into the group. James points out that the group knows that this is one of the riskiest times for them as a whole, a person joining the community who is in the early abstinence phase. It is important for the person that they immediately start engaging in the mutual aid groups and other activities—they mustn’t be sitting alone lost in their thoughts, with the possibility of deciding that drinking or drugging again is the best option.

NWRC pushes a lot of health and fitness activities as well, e.g. hillwalking, 5-a-side football, weekly 5km Park Runs. Most people are unfit when they arrive at Penrhyn. They are told that ‘emotional resilience begins with physical fitness.’ They are encouraged to eat healthily and told to avoid energy drinks. James emphasises that ‘recovery is holistic’—attending mutual aid meetings, along with a social group around you, some exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a healthy diet is going have a positive impact.

5. Tough, But Family [4’39”]
James emphasises that it’s tough at Penrhyn House. He points out that the more intelligent or intellectual a person is, the harder is the process of recovery. People who are very intelligent often think that the problem (addiction) is so complex, invading so many parts of their lives, that the solution must be complex. They often turn out to be chronic relapsers. James says that the solution is not complex. 

When James first started, members of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) used to refer to themselves as a family. That statement used to give him ‘the horrors’, as he started to think of the  ‘boundaries’ issue. When he talked to Wulf Livingston about the matter, he was told to stop being an a…….. ‘These guys, for some of them, it is the first family that they’ve ever connected with, or ever felt part of. Who are you to tell them that they’re not, or that we’re not a family?’ Wulf told James he needed to embrace the idea of the family, because the more members felt part of a family, the more they would own it and protect it.

James makes the point that early on he and his colleagues had a very clear idea of what NWRC would be like. However, the community members have shaped it into something very different. It’s this that has made  NWRC work so well. The community keeps changing and developing without it needing to be be nailed into some really tight box. That’s one of the beauties of recovery, James emphasises. 

6. Filling a Void & Sewing for Kenya [6’53”]
Boxing is a big part of the physical fitness activities at Penryhn House. ‘There’s nothing quite as liberating, or as enjoyable, as being punched in the face by one of your close friends.’ Early on, James used to take some real pastings off the lads. The community does lots of creative writing. They partner with Eternal Media in Wrexham, which is run by Marcus Fair. Eternal Media film the NWRC Expeditions and they’ve recently won Best Documentary (Wales) for Focus Wales 2023. They do a 12-week programme for NWRC members showing the basics of filmmaking and podcasting. 

James emphasises that addiction takes up everything in a person’s life, so when you remove that, ‘there’s this massive void that is left behind…. You have to fill that.’ The person can’t sit around and watch TV all day. They need to find something that they can get passionate about. James believes that hobbies are really crucial to a person’s recovery. ‘The things that we do by choice, the things that we just do for sheer enjoyment, either because they give us just a sense of pleasure or a sense of mastery…’ James points out that when you stop using or drinking, your emotions come back again, so its important to find something that you can get passionate about that fills that gap. The community’s growing project is also relevant here; it’s also about people being outside and nurturing something.

One of the NWRC Trustees, Sarah, goes out to Kenya regularly. NWRC sponsors a family, a woman with six children who had lost her husband in tribal fighting. The family was homeless, so NWRC raised the money in the community to build them a house. Sarah went over to sort things out with one of NWRC’s longest members, Linda. NWRC now sends money to help the children with their education. 

When Sarah and Linda returned from Kenya, they pointed out that one of the big issues for the girls was ‘period poverty’. Once the girls start menstruating, they can’t access school anymore as disposable sanitary towels didn’t really exist. NWRC obtained about ten sewing machines and members started making reusable sanitary towels out of material in the Penryhn House classroom. They made about 20,000 towels. James could feel the buzz and vibe in the room where Linda was working away with ‘a load of hardened former heroin users who had spent half their life in prison.’ One of the lads said, ‘For the first time in my life I actually feel like I’m contributing to someone else who is worse off than me.’

7. Service & Identity [4’54”]
One of the big fundamentals for North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) is service to the wider community. James emphasises that people with addiction problems cause a large cost to society, so it’s important that when they’re getting well they give something back. When he was getting well, he was very conscious of the fact that he caused harm and damage to those around him. As he started to help others, he realised that there was so much value to giving back, and to be recognised as a positive, upstanding member of the community.

Members of NWRC know that the work that they did to help people in their local community during Covid was of immense value. This help, which was greatly appreciated local community members in lockdown, included providing 80,000 meals which were prepared at Penrhyn House. []. 

James points out that when NWRC first set up at Penrhyn House, there was some local resistance. When they recently announced that they were moving to a new location, loads of local people approached them to say they ‘were gutted’ we are leaving. They want NWRC to remain in contact with their community. James emphasises that whilst they will be a couple of miles across the city, they will ensure they retain a big footprint in that area.

8. Accommodation [3’13”]
Eighteen recovering people reside in Penrhyn House. James describes NWRC’s two ‘move-on’ units where two of their recoverees who were volunteering or working for them resided. 

9. Education & Skills [3’16”]
John Stoner of Chester University runs a mutual aid facilitation programme at Penryhn House which breaks down how and why recovery works. James describes how many of their recovering community members want to better themselves and go back to, or start, higher education programmes. One of the members has just finished a Masters and will shortly be giving birth to a baby. 

10. Dealing With Trauma [6’40”]
James points out that some people are doing very well on their recovery journey, but then something acts as a trigger for their past traumas. When people arrive at Penrhyn House they are asked to provide a timeline of their life, as James and colleagues want to be aware of potential triggers arising from past traumas. In some cases, they refer people on to specialist trauma counsellors—they also have an on-site counsellor. They generally ask their new members to initially focus on building their sobriety before tackling issues arising from past traumatic experiences. James believes the support of other people is key to tackling issues around trauma, and the impact of this support grows over time.   

James goes on to describe how one of their community members is very open about her personal traumatic experiences, and this makes it easier for others to open up about their own traumas. He points out that shame and guilt often play a key role in preventing people talking about their traumatic experiences. Despite her horrific experiences, the community member does not let them define her—she is not a victim.

11. A Trauma Legacy [4’09”]
James emphasises that there are far too few resources devoted to tackling trauma, particularly in North Wales where there has been a history of institutional sexual abuse. He points out that there are numbers of men who were affected by this abuse who are ‘basically full-on addicts’ and have been for years. Everyday people only see these men’s addiction; they don’t see the traumatised children who sit behind it all. 

James points out that these abused men received small amounts of money as compensation years ago, far less than they should have received. He has worked with 15-20 of them over the years. He emphasises that they don’t sleep at night—they wait for the daylight hours when they will be safe. This is over 40 years after the abuse occurred. Their number is dwindling and James feels that the system will never do anything proper to help the survivors. This is North Wales’s legacy of trauma.  

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.