Reflections on, and Quotes from, Noreen Oliver MBE (RIP)

In my last blog post about the late Noreen Oliver MBE, I referred to the evaluation of the structured day care programme at Noreen’s Burton Addiction Centre (BAC)—later to become The BAC O’Connor Centre–that my Wired In colleagues and I conducted back in 2004. In addition to this evaluation, which was requested by Noreen, we wrote 19 Stories of BAC clients, and conducted two pieces of qualitative research, one focused on recovery and the role of treatment processes, and the other on recovering heroin users’ views on substitute prescribing (methadone versus Subutex).

This was an incredibly stimulating and enjoyable collaborative project that led to a close friendship between Noreen and I which has continued over the years, despite me living on the other side of the world. In this blog post, I refer to my early visits to BAC, Noreen’s earlier life, Noreen’s reflections on key treatment matters, a memorable short story, and …

Our Wired In Trips to BAC O’Connor

My first trip to BAC O’Connor with my colleague Sarah Vaile (formerly Davies), now Director of Recovery Cymru Community, was such an eye-opener for us both! Here was a genuine recovery community, a place where recovery literally oozed out of the walls. The enthusiasm was palpable. Smiling faces everywhere. Everyone was so friendly. It was a special experience and I learnt so much from my visits to BAC O’Connor.

We talked to a wide range of staff, collaborators working in other services, and people who had turned to the Centre for help. I remember turning up to the room where we were due to talk to clients as a group, to find the room packed. Everyone was so upbeat about how they had been treated in the Centre, and what a difference being there had made to their lives! Here is what I wrote in our Evaluation report:

‘During our visit, we noticed the bright colours in the Centre, the nice furniture, the pretty flowers … and the way that staff and clients mingled together. It was difficult to work out at times who was client and who was staff. Clients commented that there was no hierarchy. The largest room was for clients—and it filled up quickly when our focus group was announced!

One of the commissioners pointed out, “they even have the best biscuits … and the clients have them as well.” Clients dropped into the CEO’s office to ask if we needed tea or coffee.’ 

Noreen’s early path to developing The BAC O’Connor Centre? (as described in our evaluation report)

For years, Noreen was a functioning alcoholic who held down two jobs. She had her first alcohol detox treatment when she was 25 years old. By 1992, at age 31, she was drinking a bottle of gin a day and was hospitalised with cirrhosis. She was malnourished and weighed just 6 stone (38kg). At one point, she was so ill she was given the last rites by a priest; after surviving, she vowed to turn her life around. Noreen’s family then arranged for her to attend a rehabilitation clinic in Nottingham. She recalled: 

‘I shared a room with a female crack addict who also worked the streets. This was a completely alien thing to me and, at first, I was horrified but soon realised she was not so different to me.’ Noreen

Noreen stopped drinking completely in 1993. She sought doctors’ advice on how she could help others and ultimately founded her own treatment centre, BAC, which started in two rooms in Burton-on-Trent in 1998. She re-mortgaged her home and the Centre started to grow. A sister organisation, The O’Connor Centre, opened in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 2002…. 

The Intensive Day Care Programme

Group therapy sessions, which covered a wide range of topics, took place on a daily basis. A number of workshops and educational sessions were provided, again covering a wide range of topics. Complementary therapy sessions were also part of the programme: Indian head massage, Shamanic Healing, reflexology, aromatherapy, Rieki healing, acupuncture, and relaxation techniques. There were a variety of recreational activities, involving day trips and camping trips, or sports such as tenpin bowling, football, and golf, all of which were by client choice and vote. Noreen Oliver said:

‘As well as doing treatment and the rehabilitation, it is also really important for this client group to see that you can have fun without drugs and alcohol. You can laugh without drugs and alcohol. And that’s what is important. Instead of telling somebody we are taking away your drugs and alcohol, which a lot of the time is taking away their whole life style, their whole social circle, everything, we tell them what we are giving them instead.’ Noreen

Noreen’s Reflections on Relapse

BAC O’Connor were more realistic about relapse than many other treatment agencies. Relapse was considered part-and-parcel of the recovery process and was an issue that was addressed in a pragmatic and humanistic manner. Clients who continually relapsed and left the Centres were always given the opportunity to return and receive the help they needed. Noreen said to me:

‘… and to actually slap someone on the knuckles and say, “You’ve relapsed, away you go you bad boy,” is a complete waste of time and it totally destroys what has already been achieved. You’ve built up self-esteem and self-worth…’

‘… you are dealing with a group of people who are experiencing for the first-time emotions and experiences without, in a sense, an aesthetic and without entrenched coping skills. If a client disappoints you, then you need to look at your own expectations, and your understanding of addiction.’ Noreen

Noreen’s Views on Motivation and Client Attitudes

Over the years, I frequently heard treatment agency workers say that clients must be ready (be motivated) to access treatment, otherwise treatment will not work. Some agencies ‘cherry pick’ clients, picking out those who they consider are highly motivated to overcome their problem. Noreen emphasised that BAC O’Connor did not screen clients and adjust their admission criteria to help ensure successful outcomes. They did not believe that clients should jump through hoops to get into the service; they believed that motivation is part of the treatment process. It was up to BAC O’Connor staff to motivate clients into wanting to take the journey towards recovery. If they couldn’t do that, how were they going to keep the client motivated on their recovery journey? 

‘Time and time again, professionals elsewhere say, “I want to test their motivation first”, or “You’re not ready, it’s not the right time.”’ Noreen

A Memorable Story

Noreen turned up to work very early one day to find a queue at the Centre’s door, longer than she had ever seen. When she asked who they were and what they wanted, they said they were friends of a well-known criminal in the area who had visited the Centre. They said that he was so impressed by the way that BAC O’Connor had helped him change his life, they had decided they all wanted what he had got! I was learning that recovery could be infectious!

Our Abortive Plans…

In my last blog post, I described how Noreen and I ‘talked and talked’ during the day and later in the evening at her and Tony’s home during my last visit on 3 October 2022. That evening, Noreen asked whether I would consider coming back to the UK and conducting another evaluation, this time of The BAC O’Connor Centre nearly 20 years after that initial piece of work.

I pointed out that I would love to work with her again, but I didn’t think a treatment service evaluation was the best way forward. I suggested that she consider me writing her biography and taking this to publishers, as this would be an invaluable memoir and educational piece for the field (and a wider audience). Noreen said she would think about it.

She got back to me after my return to Australia and agreed that I write her biography. We discussed the details, and decided that I would initially conduct Zoom interviews with her, complete a draft of the book in Australia (sending her chapters as they were completed), and then return to the UK to work closely with her on a final draft.

We began the process in January this year. We were both very excited. We conducted five interviews focused on her earlier life—prior to her entering treatment—and I was blown away by this part of her story. In March, Noreen became very ill and then started a long recovery process. The interviews and book writing were put on hold. And then I received the message about Noreen’s passing. I was devastated to hear the news.

I will miss Noreen greatly. She was so very special. I will continue to be inspired by her as a person, and by the life she led.

RIP Noreen.

The photograph above is taken from a visit to The BAC O’Connor Centre that Mark Gilman and I made on 11 July 2011. The photograph below was taken during my last visit to The BAC O’Connor Centre on 3 October 2022. You can read an article I wrote, Learning From the Experts at BAC O’Connor, on this website which focuses on a qualitative piece of research we conducted with BAC O’Connor clients that provides insights into the positive effects of the structured day care programme, as well as the factors that contributed to these beneficial effects.