Recovery Voices: Wulf Livingston, Part 2

In a second interview with my co-founder of Recovery Voices, Wulf Livingston describes the national addiction recovery movement which grew up in the UK between 2008-12, and then how this initiative faded at a national level over later years. What we see today in terms of recovery is very different to what occurred at this earlier time. Wulf goes on to talk about the development of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) in Bangor, North Wales, one of a number of exciting recovery community initiatives dotted around the UK, and its Founder, James Deakin. Wulf has been closely associated with James and NWRC since its development. Here is the eighth film clip from that interview, along with summaries and links to all the films. [12 films, 77 mins 14 secs]

1. Early UK Recovery Movement [7’52”]
Wulf talks about the development of the addiction recovery movement which rapidly in the UK between 2008 and 2012. He mentions a long article about recovery written by Ian Wardle describing some of the issues and events. (Recovery and the UK Drug Treatment System: key dimensions of change can be found online).

From his viewpoint, Wulf saw one set of recovery-related activities that were centred around the Recovery Academy, that involved people like David McCartney, the late Rowdy Yates, David Best, Tim Leighton, and Wulf himself. Conferences and other events were organised, and a number of people became Academy trustees. A second group of people, such as Michaela Jones, Alastair Sinclair and Annemarie Ward also organised recovery-related activities. These and others around the UK organised events in September that highlighted recovery, including national walks that attracted more than 5,000 people marching in city streets. 

There was lots of recovery activity across the four nations. However, there was a waning of these activities after 2012, although pockets of this activity exist today, including the September Recovery March. Wulf says, ‘It doesn’t feel like an everywhere thing’, as it once did.

Wulf argues that the UK government came to almost treat the recovery movement as a means of promoting abstinence as the only ‘legitimate outcome of services or expectation on individuals.’ The Scottish and Welsh governments had a more mature way of viewing recovery and harm reduction in their policies—both were considered important. The UK government also had a separate drug and alcohol agenda, whereas the other governments had more joined-up thinking.

Wulf is supporting a PhD student who argues that the recovery movement was previously ‘based much more on societal and political change, and what we have been left with is a recovery movement that supports and promotes the individual and community change, but without it hitting at a harder level.’

2. Early UK Recovery Movement Fades [3’49”]
Wulf argues that North Wales created so much positive development around recovery because people there managed total collaboration without the falling-out amongst recovery advocates that occurred in some other parts of the UK. ‘Maybe the only people we really pissed off were the statutory sector and some commissioners, but maybe that’s okay.’ 

Wulf and David agree that the system encourages conflicts and fallings-out within the recovery field by ‘dangling bits of money and roles that cause people to have a bit of a bun-fight…. Throw a few crumbs on the table and watch them scrap is a classic systemised behaviour’, also in wider society. 

Wulf points out that another problem is that when some people become heads of organisations or movements their ego is fuelled. He has seen this happen to a couple of people in recovery who have then had a catastrophic relapse.

A third and very important factor that Wulf mentions is that after 2012 or thereabouts, recovery became part of the service provider system. Recovering people were taken on in treatment services as peer supporters or support workers. Now that recovering people had jobs within the treatment system, they couldn’t advocate for radical recovery in the same way they had when they were outside the system. They couldn’t bite off the hand that was feeding them.  

3. Growth of Corporate Identities [3’53”]
Wulf argues that the last thing that anyone in the treatment system wanted ‘was a whole bunch of independent peer-led organisations having lots of successful recovery outcomes, and the government bypassing the providers as they stood and said, “Oh, you lot are useless at your job, we better give all the money to the peer movement.”’ The way for the drug and alcohol treatment agencies to avoid this situation was ‘to suck up the peer movement, call yourself the recovery movement, and provide it.’

Wulf emphasises that it is very important that we have lots of peer mentors and people with lived experience working in drug and alcohol agencies. But not at the expense of a powerful recovery advocacy voice. 

When Wulf started working in the recovery field, there was an absolutely myriad of local third sector organisations, e.g. the Westminster Drug Project, which only worked in Westminster. However, over a twenty year period, the UK ended up with very large addiction treatment services, such as AddAction and Phoenix. In order to continue sweeping up the money, these organisations then removed drugs from their title and started to use ‘crazy’ names, like Change Grow Live and We Are With You. 

The reason to change names like this is that allows an organisation as a corporate identity to hoover up drug and alcohol money, and also hoover up mental health money, job and employment support money, and housing money, etc. ‘You change the articles and conditions, or the memorandum or your legal status of the organisation, to allow you to trade in a bigger circle. And that’s all about feeding a corporate identity. It’s actually got absolutely nothing to do with the individuals underneath.’ 

Wulf says the first rebranded name that did ‘his head in’ was We Are With You. He sees the organisation as much the problem as the solution. He wonders what Indigenous populations who say ‘Nothing without us’, would say about such a name as We Are With You. David points out that many ‘white’ organisations in Australia get money to go into Aboriginal communities, where they create more problems than solutions, even damaging local Aboriginal-run initiatives, and then walk away when the funding is ended.

Wulf finishes by saying that during that during that 2008-12 period, ‘A lot of us were filled with massive political optimism and we really enjoyed getting together and networking so extensively across the UK. It’s left some really strong legacies, but it no longer looks like it did then.’

4. Transformational to Transactional [4’34”]
Wulf points out that the change that has occurred in the field from between 2008-12 and today can be described by two words. The earlier period was transformational. Today, peer-led organisations like North Wales Recovery Communities, which operate mainly outside the system, and some that operate within the system, such as David McCartney’s LEAP, are still transformational. In contrast, what happens in mainstream treatment services, particularly if they are involved with the criminal justice system, is transactional.

Transactional is where there is some explicit goal or expectation—an outcome that can be measured and monitored in the here and now. It is more short-term than the transformational, has specific contracts, such as the person having to attend a service for a particular period. Or if the person relapses, they must stay away for a specific period. The practitioner may not attempt to understand why the person relapsed.

At its crudest, transactional is what Wulf calls the ‘piss and test’ regime. You come in to have your piss tested and if it’s clean you’ll receive your prescription drug. If it’s not clean, you are told to stay away, without the practitioner bothering to understand why you relapsed, and knowing you are going off to use street heroin when he was supposed to be helping you stay off. 

Transformational stuff is innovative and inspirational, involves deeper understanding, and is about the elusive future. Recovery can be seen—it does not need to be measured. Wulf used to say to commissioners just come to the room of 50-60 people and see what is going on. He describes his work as a commissioner when he emphasised to those being funded that he would come along and talk to people who had come for help whether what was being done was effective for them. He could tell what was working. 

Wulf finishes by saying that social care and health have had a system imposed on them by ‘bleeding accountants’. 

5. Beginnings of North Wales Communities, Part 1 [7’52”]
Wulf describes that when James Deakin was working as a Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) worker for a drug and alcohol treatment agency in North Wales, he decided that he had to report to management the inappropriate behaviour of a member of staff. He contacted Wulf, who he already knew, and the pair met privately for about a year so that Wulf could offer personal friendship and clinical guidance to help James work his way through the whistleblowing process. James continued the process, knowing he would lose his job (!), but he had already decided that he did not want to be part of a dysfunctional treatment system.

James became involved in community activities organised by AGRO (Anglesey and Gwynedd Recovery Organisation) and was inspired by recovery-related events in North Wales and further afield. He invited Wulf to come along and see Penryhn House, the former youth hostel in Bangor, and meet the person who was subletting the property and filling it with people who had just been released from prison. They paid for their room with their housing benefit. The whole situation was chaotic, to put it mildly. 

James told Wulf that he had a vision for the place and asked him what he thought. He wanted to use the place for a recovery community and call it North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC). He considered it very important that NWRC was not like a traditional rehab, ‘sealed off’ from the community in which it is embedded. James wanted the residential part of NWRC to be integrated with the surrounding community.

During their meetings, Wulf and James decided that you couldn’t do what James proposed with standard drug and alcohol commissioning money. Too many restrictions and regulations would be imposed on the organisation. They would be subservient and have to deliver the type of service the commissioners wanted.

James agreed with the guy leasing Penrhyn House that he would sub-lease the place and NWRC would take over its ‘inherent group of chaotic residents’. NWRC tried to have recovery conversations with the residents over the next year, but this was very difficult. You can’t build a recovery conversation unless you have enough clean time in the room. Initially, the only income coming in was from the guys’ housing benefits—that covered their room rent and food, but little else. 

6. Beginnings of North Wales Communities, Part 2 [7’59”]
Wulf describes how James had a conversation with someone in the Department of Work & Pensions, a government department which had been under strong pressure to deliver services to the so-called ‘hardest to reach’. The Department decided to fund North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) for two years, with the simple aim of getting people on benefits who hadn’t ever attended a job interview to just get over this hurdle. The funding allowed NWRC to employ two workers. 

Two guys who had come from Penryhn from prison had stayed on in the community, and along with new people coming in from the local community, a momentum built. Eventually, mutual aid groups such as AA started to visit Penrhyn House to deliver sessions. NWRC started to organise external activities, such as walks and football games, and a boxing ring was set up in Penrhyn House. Growing food in the huge garden commenced. 

Since NWRC was not taking money from the drug and alcohol field, nor the criminal justice system, they were able to choose what sort of person came to Penrhyn House. They weren’t taking people who other agencies didn’t want to work with—they worked with people who wanted recovery. Staff members were in recovery. 

Even though James was the man behind the development of NWRC, the community reached a stage where it wasn’t just James who was moving things forward. The organisation was not driven by one person’s ego, and was not subject to the ups-and-downs of one person’s mental health. 

Eventually, a stage was reached where James would say to Wulf, ‘I think of the 16 or 17 people living in Penryhn today, I actually think eight or nine of them are now active in recovery.’ The balance had tipped and NWRC was on its way.

7. Community to Communities [6’11”]
Wulf points out that although the organisation was astutely called North Wales Recovery Communities. Initially, it was a singular community—residential rehabilitation recovery community—for the first 18-24 months. Once there was enough recovery in the house, it was time to invite ‘the recovery that was around the house into the house.’ The second community that got involved was parts of the external community, such as AGRO (Anglesey and Gwynedd Recovery Organisation). 

This change set up the Stage 3 questions of ‘how we really encourage the house to go out to the community, and the wider community to come into the house.’ Initially, individuals from the house went out into the local community and did acts of giving, and later the whole house engaged in activities that helped the community.

Wulf emphasises that a recovery community can’t survive and thrive on its own. It must not only have its own internal community, but also a group of people who are friends of recovery. This latter group are not necessarily in recovery themselves. However, they must believe in the process of change, and the value of peer-support and the particular recovery community. A number of people in the local community started to get involved with NWRC.

A very important part of James’s initial vision concerned the permeability of Penryhn House—activities would seep in and out of the place. The house got actively involved with its neighbour, Maesgeirchen, a large housing estate located on the outskirts of Bangor. The Covid lockdowns helped explode the profile of NWRC and the size of its footprint, in that Penrhyn House delivered many hot meals and food parcels to people in Maesgeirchen. Ultimately, the lockdowns led to a meeting with someone in the Health Board who asked whether this activity could happen on a larger scale, and then to the setting up of Bwyd Da Bangor, NWRC’s cafe/restaurant.

8. Visions Happening [8’49”]
Wulf describes how some of James’s other visions started to happen. James wanted to make recovery visible and challenge the stigma which is so common in the field. He started to set up challenges for community members, such as a 100-mile in a week challenge. One year, he got 12 people into a mini-bus and they walked Hadrian’s Wall in a week. 

Early on, James had two very robust Trustees, both highly sought after professionals. The number of Trustees has expanded over time, and included expertise in law and finance, essential given the complexity of the organisation today. A latest change has been the recognition that NWRC is now the umbrella for three different legal community interest companies—the residential, the cafe, and the Growing for Change initiative.

Wulf points out that James, the Trustees, and NWRC as a whole, keep reminding themselves that they must not become the organisation that they were set up in antithesis to. They do not want to be a standard service operating in the system. It is difficult to be true to what they want, because so much of the funding they require to stay alive, and do the stuff that makes a difference, is compromised, or comes with caveats or clauses. They have this expression they use a lot: which of The King’s Shillings can we take?

Wulf and James keep saying to each other, ‘Let’s just keep doing what we know to be right, and if we do it right, people will come and hopefully give us money to do what we want to do, rather than we have to get their money to do their bidding.’ 

In a latest development, NWRC has several big local businesses—nothing to do with the drug and alcohol feudal or the health sector—who have said, “We really like what you are doing for the individuals in the community. How can we support you with our financial muscle?” These companies have no interest in wanting to influence the direction of NWRC’s journey. 

Wulf points out that it’s been an eight year journey and there may well be problems ahead. But today, there are over 200 people in North Wales who are connected with NWRC and are sustaining a long-term recovery!

9. Our Space [7’49”]
Wulf believes that there is something unique in building a recovery community in a ‘fairly far-flung rural community’. The dynamics in Bangor are that people stay and they get known—it’s not the same as in a city. He points out that many of the successful recovery communities are located in smaller towns, like Bangor, rather than cities. A notable exception is David McCartney’s LEAP in Edinburgh, Wulf says.

Critical to the success of NWRC is that members have access to plenty of free environmental space on their doorstep. No-one has charged them for taking a walk on a beach or up a mountain. And NWRC has access to lots of land where members can grow food products. Green therapy and the healing sound of waves.

Wulf goes on to say, ‘I think the notion of commissioning recovery is almost an oxymoron. Because if recovery is coming from within and the community and the peers, you can’t actually buy it as a commissioner.’ Whereas they can buy treatment services and say how they want treatment delivered, the best they can do in relation to recovery ‘is to hand over the resource and support the environment for the recovery community to grow. But they can’t determine what that [environment] is.’ 

Wulf later talks about a sea fishing recovery group which exists in North Wales. 

10. Professionalisation, Permeability & Privilege [5’35”]
Wulf worries that after a recovery community develops, some people may want to professionalise it. As a qualified social worker, Wulf has seen social work go from being a certificate, to a diploma, to a degree, and increasingly people are asking social workers to have a Master degree. There is a genuine fear of professionalisation by some people. Professionals can say, ‘You can’t do it, because you are not qualified. You begin to wonder at what point in time the only people who will be able to get jobs in recovery organisations is if they have got a degree in recovery.’ 

Wulf talks about how members of North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) join a local Park Run once a week. Members running, in their recovery t-shirts, in the local community is another illustration of the permeability between the two communities. You’re unlikely to find a statutory drug and alcohol treatment worker giving up their Saturday morning to do a Park Run with a group of treatment service clients. 

Wulf has a very simple statement: ‘recovery is everything beyond treatment.’ He argues that treatment should stop trying to occupy the recovery space. Treatment is immensely valuable and many people at NWRC have benefitted from a detox or prescription drugs. ‘But that’s all it does. It  sobers people up, it gets them clean, it gets them ready to think about what’s next, but that’s all it should do.’

Wulf has been a supporter of James as an individual and NWRC as a whole for quite some time, and he says that it’s been a privilege to be one of the group of people who have been friends of NWRC. It’s been such a brilliant story to watch.

11. Looking to the Future [3’56”]
Wulf describes a difficult episode that occurred when North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) wanted to move from one building (Penrhyn House) to another residential area in Bangor more involved in student accommodation. It became an immense NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) conversation. During the planning application process, there was a suggestion that ‘non-taking drug and alcohol users were going to be responsible for exposing students to drug use, as if university students aren’t more than capable of doing their own drink and drug use without any help from ex-addicts.’ 

As far as Wulf is concerned, the future for NWRC looks very good. He expresses his excitement, as does his interviewer David Clark. However, Wulf points that things can get challenging and wearisome at times for recovery communities like NWRC and people like James. For example, ‘perpetually having to defend what it is that we don’t do, rather than being applauded for what we do. When you become a very different organisation, it’s always about things like, “Well, why are you not following what we consider to be standard risk assessment processes?”’

12. Taking Risks [8’55”]
Wulf talks about DARE (Drug & Alcohol Recovery Expeditions), a North Wales mountaineering group involving people in recovery. He points out that it was important that DARE is a non-legally constituted group, because when you do such activities under an organisational umbrella you attract a great deal of red tape and bureaucracy. 

Wulf talks about being involved with NWRC in taking eight members on a trek that involved climbing the 15 peaks in Snowdonia that are over 3,000 feet—27 hours of non-stop walking including two nights on the mountain! He points out that groups like North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC) take more risks than other organisations, albeit that they are smaller, more measured risks. He emphasises that growth does not come without taking risks. Interviewer David Clark says that the system tries to stifle ‘risk-like’ behaviours.

Wulf points out that statutory sector jobs often pay better, and have better terms and conditions, than third sector jobs. For many people, it is very hard to take the risk of leaving a statutory sector for a third sector job, potentially exposing them and their family to a lower quality of life outside of work. In a way, the system fosters this situation. Lots of individuals feel trapped in the system and it is common for some to start to look forward to an early retirement. Many people working in the statutory sector cannot make the societal contribution they would like to make.

Wulf talks about the three major leaps he has made in his life, from being a well-paid chef, to becoming a social worker and working in drug and alcohol agencies, and then becoming an academic. He’s been lucky living in North Wales, because if he had been living in a large city he wouldn’t have been able to make those leaps without compromising his family. He points out that very few people make huge leaps in their working life because they don’t have the right circumstances. Interviewer David Clark has also taken some major leaps. He and Wulf agree that the situation described above, in relation to statutory and third sector jobs, makes it difficult for recovery-based organisations like NWRC.

Wulf is currently Professor of Alcohol Studies at Glyndwr University, Wrexham, Wales. His journey to this point has been one from an adolescent and early adulthood of hedonistic alcohol and drug-taking, through a period as a chef, into qualified social work. His formative practice experiences have all been in alcohol and drugs service provision, before an increasing drift into teaching and research. Today, he focuses on alcohol and drug research and publications. He is an active member of the North Wales Recovery Community. He likes nothing more than to be on a mountain or a beach, including with those friends walking through their recovery.