Recovery Voices: Wulf Livingston

Recovery Voices colleague Wulf Livingston talks about his early hedonistic drug and alcohol use, life as a successful chef, and qualification as a social worker. He then worked with the drug and alcohol charity Lifeline, the drug treatment charity CAIS in North Wales, and the Probation Service. Wulf later joined academia, eventually becoming Professor of Alcohol Studies at Glyndwr University in Wrexham. He believes what really makes a difference to people’s lives is what occurs beyond the addiction treatment phase. I am enthralled by Wulf’s passion for social justice, his knowledge about what is needed to help more people recover from addiction, and his commitment to helping create positive societal change. [16 films, 79 mins 57 secs]

1. Introduction [4’58”]
Interviewer David Clark reminds Wulf Livingston how he and colleague Becky Hancock, during the time they were conducting the Welsh Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) evaluation in the early 2000s, loved visiting North Wales and meeting Wulf and local evaluator Anni Stonebridge. They thought that Wulf was a very different treatment agency worker to the norm, in a very positive way. David points out that ‘it’s pretty cool’ that they are now working together (running the Recovery Voices initiative) 23 years later.

Wulf describes coming into the addiction treatment field as someone who was not conventional. He wasn’t recognised as a professional, even though he had a Social Work qualification and a Masters in alcohol studies. He initially failed to get a job after seven or eight interviews until he was appointed at Lifeline by Ian Wardle. He learnt from working with Ian that ‘part of the deal’ was trying to challenge the system, as well as working with it. 

By the time that David met him, Wulf (then a service manager at CAIS) was already getting out there into the community and meeting people, rather than managing things by sitting in an office. Wulf says those times were not easy. On one occasion, he was in a meeting with people from various community sectors when two heads of the statutory service said publicly that he ‘was not qualified to comment.’

2. Doing It Different [2’34”]
Wulf points out that in North Wales there was a small nucleus of people in the early 2000s who wanted to do things in a slightly different way to what had been occurring in the treatment field. They thought there was something that needed to be talked about that was ‘beyond’ treatment. (At the time, treatment was pretty much prescription drugs or counselling.) Moreover, there were also discussions around the idea that people with lived experience of addiction needed to be listened to and encouraged to be involved. Fundamentally though, things did not change at that time. 

3. Criminal Justice-Related Interventions [3’39”]
Wulf and David talk about the rapid rise in criminal justice-related interventions that occurred in the UK during the early 2000s. Wulf mentions Richard Brunstrom, the radical Chief Constable of North Wales at this time, who told his officers that he did not think the ‘war on drugs’ could be won. He told some of his officers, two of whom Wulf worked with closely, ‘to go out and start doing proper community partnership working and see how we can go and make a difference for the drug-using community on the ground…’

4. Recreational Drink & Drink Use [5’42”]
From the age of 14 or 15, Wulf drifted into what turned out to be about 14 years of what he describes as ‘exceptional hedonistic drug and alcohol use’. Drugs were very much part of him being into a heavy metal and rock music scene. He used a variety of different drugs and an inordinate amount of alcohol. 

Eventually, ‘other things just kick in and calm that down’. Wulf got married, became a parent, and moved house. He hadn’t experienced trauma in his life. He eventually stopped using all illegal drugs when he became a qualified social worker. He then had to get rid of nicotine, ‘as a fit fell runner’. Alcohol was Wulf’s drug of choice, and it was the substance with which he had the biggest problems. However, he ‘managed to get through that’.

5. Hedonistic Communities [1’37”]
Wulf briefly describes communities in Wales and England where there has been a huge amount of hedonistic drinking and drug-taking. A friend of his recommended he read Wreckage by Niall Griffiths, a book about the Aberystwyth area, pointing out that the hedonistic culture described there would remind Wulf of their past days.

6. My Life as a Chef [4’18”]
Wulf’s first serious ‘career’ was as a chef. He reached the stage where he was asked to manage a whole hotel and kitchen. People have often asked him how he got from working as a chef to being a social worker. There were two main paths to this journey. Firstly, catering colleges asked Wulf if he would take on lads who would find it difficult working in the less relaxed atmosphere of other kitchens. Secondly, he started working with a local agency and took on young people with learning disabilities, along with their support worker (whose role diminished over time). Wulf went on to realise how much he loved human interactions.

He decided to apply for jobs as a nurse, but was immediately rejected and told that they didn’t want his type on the wards—someone who would challenge the doctors. They asked him if he had considered being a social worker. In frustration, he went back to being a chef for another couple of years. He ended up with a very young, hedonistic group of local lads in his kitchen and they were great to work with, despite all the challenges that came with them. The bug finally caught him… and he applied to be a social worker. 

7. Entering the Addiction Field [3’18”]
Wulf completed a two-year Social Work course and a Masters focused on alcohol. He was subsequently rejected for six or seven jobs, before being appointed by Ian Wardle of the drug and alcohol charity Lifeline. He worked there for two years, before giving up the job because the daily travelling between North Wales and where he worked in Warrington, and surrounding towns, became too much. He benefitted greatly from his wide-ranging experience at Lifeline, including working with heavy drug users in urbanised, deprived areas of England. 

Wulf then spent five years working with the drug treatment charity CAIS in North Wales. He and the CEO of CAIS were completely different people, but they got on very well because their relationship was completely honest, respectful and trustworthy.

8. Learning from Lifeline [6’08”]
Interviewer David Clark asks Wulf how Lifeline shaped him for his way forward. The latter describes how impressed he was when Ian Wardle told him and a colleague that whilst he was now going to take them into a meeting where he may have to tell the commissioner that ‘he can stick the contract up his backside’, they would not lose their jobs. 

A number of aspects related to the ethos of Lifeline, and the way the charity operated, impacted on Wulf in a positive way. A number of the staff had ‘lived experience’ of drug-taking and some were on methadone scripts. Staff were in control of the amount of time they spent with the people they were helping, and they saw these people in the community rather than in their office. Wulf also learnt that there was very little risk, even if he had to have difficult social work conversations, if you built a relationship with a client by being genuine and honest. His time at Lifeline was a really rich experience.

Wulf learnt that the stuff that really makes a difference to people’s lives is what occurs beyond that treatment phase. The importance of peer and shared-lived experience was cemented for him during this time. An interaction with a medically-oriented practitioner, although often of value, is not a life-changing experience for a person trying to overcome addiction. David emphasises that recovery does not occur in a practitioner’s office, it takes place in the person’s community. Wulf points out that people need choice on their recovery journey, but it is not the job of the practitioner to determine that choice. The choice must be made by the person seeking help. 

9. Welsh Government [2’47”]
Interviewer David Clark points out to Wulf that when he wrote the final report for the Welsh Drug and Alcohol Treatment Fund (DATF) evaluation for the Welsh Assembly in 2002, he included content related to the shortcomings of the treatment system. The report was never published and David did not hear anything from the Assembly over the following years, despite the work he and his Wired In colleagues were doing in Wales. He points out that in relation to the treatment field, Wales has mainly followed the English. 

Wulf emphasises that a lot that went on at that time was what is called dragonification. ‘You take what the English have got, you translate it and put a Welsh dragon flag on the front, and then you call it Welsh policy.’ He points out that this cycle was broken once the Welsh government got its own legislative powers. And since the Conservative party has come into power in the UK, the Welsh government has not acted in the same way and does not accept Conservative policy. Wulf provides an example (minimum unit pricing policy) of how what is going on in Wales and Scotland in the field is very different to what is going on in England. 

10. Working at CAIS [4’50”]
After two years working with Ian Wardle at Lifeline, Wulf joined the North Wales treatment service CAIS in 1999. He managed CAIS drug and alcohol services across North Wales for five years from 2000, before spending five years doing the same at the Probation Service. This was at a time of much expansion of drug and alcohol service provision, particularly in the criminal justice area.

Wulf and the CAIS CEO had a really healthy relationship, despite being very different people, but this relationship eventually broke down, mostly because Wulf and colleagues wanted an accelerated role in the service for people with lived experience. However, the CEO was resistant to this change, as he felt  professionalisation of the service kept the contracts flowing. Ironically, CAIS would have done very much better with service contracts in subsequent years if they had followed the way proposed by Wulf and colleagues, as very soon after the Welsh government started ‘shouting’ its service user involvement agenda.

Wulf had not worked in the statutory sector (central or local government services) since becoming a social worker years before, and was conscious that it was a bit of a requirement that social workers work in this sector. He eventually decided to apply for a job in the North Wales Probation Service which involved managing all their drug and alcohol service provision. He describes in an amusing manner the most bizarre job interview process he’s ever experienced, which ended with him being the ‘last man standing’. 

11. Probation Service [2’43”]
Wulf’s role in Probation included helping the service understand how to manage the different drug and alcohol treatment requirements, dealing with the explosion of group work occurring at this time, and managing the various accreditation processes. The service was ahead of its time in employing people with lived experience. Wulf was managing 50/60 people in seven or eight different offices, and dealing with an internal budget of several million pounds plus the commissioning budget that came for the drug and alcohol treatment work. 

Wulf realised that there were limits to the partnership ‘stuff’ which occurred through the Drug and Alcohol Action teams and this really got to him. He had to walk away from this in the end. Probation Service management were really supportive of Wulf’s teaching work, which was occurring at this time, and his PhD research which started in 2008. Two years later, however, the Welsh government created an all-Wales Probation Service based in Cardiff. Wulf was not going to move from North Wales in order to keep his job.

12. Leaving the System [3’37”]
Wulf was going to work for himself after leaving the Probation Service, but a lecturing job came up in the Social Work department at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, for which he applied. He was a bit surprised to be appointed. The job gave him the opportunity to do more recovery-related and service user-related work. 

Over the past 14 years or so, ‘I’ve got to do all the really interesting stuff and leave the ‘shit-stuff’ behind… I’m not dealing with all that contract stuff, I’m not dealing with the strategic conversations where people are bun-fighting over the commissioning cash…’ He’s got the privilege now, as a researcher, to evaluate these sorts of activity from the outside, which is much nicer. His past management jobs wore him out.

Wulf believes it is important to explain that by 2010 his ‘practitioner currency’ was beginning to run out. His direct experience of heavily using drugs and alcohol was now 14/15 years old. He points out that you can’t sit in a space and say to a person, ‘When I used to use drugs…’. The person knows it’s a different world.

13. Lived Experience [8’17”]
Wulf emphasises that he feels strongly connected to people experiencing substance use problems and those on a journey to recovery. They are ‘his folk’. He would prefer a social occasion with such individuals rather than fellow professionals. He cares passionately about what he does when working. 

Wulf goes on to emphasise that it is not a pre-requirement for agency workers to have personal experience of addiction. However, this lived experience is important to a lot of people in the field. Wulf believes that there must be ‘enough’ of that lived experience in a treatment agency, so that it pervades, and provides the reassurance and confidence that individuals need. Wulf and interviewer David Clark agree that you cannot run a successful drug and alcohol treatment service if that service has no-one with lived experience amongst their staff. 

Once upon a time, having lived experience excluded you from employment in certain services. Some services needed a person with lived experience to have ‘been clean’ for two years. And if someone lapsed into a short-lived drug or alcohol use days before the two years were up…

14. Support / Advocacy Services [6’45”]
Wulf describes three types of support / peer services. The first is peer-to-peer service that has nothing to do with treatment, treatment agencies and funding, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The second involves service users and ex-service users who advocate for other people to have basic rights. The third, which is the largest group today, involves people with ‘lived experience’ who are employed, or act as volunteers, for drug and alcohol agencies. These people neither have the independence from that agency, nor are they challenging that agency. They can’t do the latter, as it is their job—they are taking the King’s Shilling.

Wulf refers to a project that involved training drug and alcohol users to ‘understand’ the Orange Book—UK guidelines on clinical management for drug misuse and dependence—so that they could go with service users into their prescribing consultations and act as advocate on their behalf. This process was very challenging to the system and prescribing staff were not at all happy, particularly when advocates talked to management about staff not following the guidelines. 

Wulf also describes User Forums that were set up to discuss what was going on in the system. Much of that has died away now, largely because drug and alcohol agencies, either statutory or third sector, have their in-house community through their workers and they don’t feel the need for external points of reference. He finishes by referring to a discernible UK Recovery Movement which was growing around 2008, with national conferences and walks occurring.

15. Holding an Agenda-less Space [11’58”] 
Whilst working in probation, Wulf organised monthly two-hour meetings in Wales, in what he called ‘an agenda-less space’, in which 10-15 people came together to discuss all things recovery. Every four or five months, he organised similar but larger (50-100 people) meetings, where as many as 70% of the participants had ‘lived experience’ of addiction. Wulf emphasises that the key to the success of drawing people to these meetings was to have ‘curry and cakes’. Some very exciting things happened out of these meetings. The most exciting was when three people from Anglesey decided they needed to set up their own organisation, which later became AGRO (Anglesey and Gwynedd Recovery Organisation), which in turn was a forerunner to North Wales Recovery Communities (NWRC). 

Wulf provides examples of innovative use of probation funds that he controlled. One of the people they worked with, a former heavy drug user who had just come out of prison, told Wulf and his team that he had been offered a number of job offers which he couldn’t accept. He was a qualified asbestos remover, but when he was sent down for drugs he lost all his breathing equipment. Wulf’s team bought him £800 of breathing equipment and he worked flat-out throughout his two-year Probation Order. 

Some radical thinking was going on at this time, including around the idea of supporting advocacy agencies. At the same time, other people went out of the way to try and close down these agencies and they succeeded in the end. Wulf provides an example of one of their initiatives that was closed down, to be replaced by a ‘system’ approach which was more costly. He points out that it was just a way to ‘stop these people causing problems.’ People in the treatment system started claiming that ‘we’re doing this stuff in-house now’, ignoring the fact that advocacy is about independence and accepting legitimate challenge. 

Wulf points out that all this activity reached a threshold of community that has led to the positive things that exist in North Wales today. He says there are about 20-30 like-minded people spread across North Wales, many of whom have been around a long time. They all know each other, have been on the same journey, and share the same values and principles. Everyone knows how to get 60—70 service users into a room for a discussion or other event. Wulf emphasises that this period was an incredibly rich time that has left a strong legacy. He points out that there were three commissioners who were really committed to the cause.

16. What’s In a Name? [6’06”]
Wulf believes that there needs to be more than one key person for a recovery community to be sustainable. He points out that people wanted to be at the regular recovery-related meetings that were being organised in North Wales. They were deliberately organised to be late afternoon/evenings, in part because many people were accessing services during the day. Wulf and colleagues also didn’t want professionals coming along who wouldn’t commit to coming during out-of-work hours. 

Wulf says that one set of meetings was called the North Wales Recovery Academy and another the North Wales Service Users Forum—there was also an All-Wales Users Forum. David and Wulf discuss whether the word ‘Academy’ is appropriate in this context—it’s too close to academia. They agree that these things are networks, but Wulf points out that many people don’t like networks—they think they are places where people ‘sit around and chat’. Wulf points out this was exactly what they were doing because ‘change comes from people formulating shared vision and relationships with each other.’ The two agree that this is ‘Community’.

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.