Visiting UK Recovery Friends: Part 2 (Mark Gilman)

Last month, I returned from a European trip of just under eight weeks, a trip during which I visited a number of friends who work in the addiction recovery field. In a previous blog, I described my meeting with Kevan Martin, Founder of NERAF (Northern Engagement into Recovery from Addiction).

Two days later, I spent the afternoon in Manchester with Mark Gilman, who many of you know. Mark was North West Regional Manager for the National Treatment Agency (NTA) for Substance Misuse, and more importantly one of the leading recovery advocates in the UK, when I first met him in 2008. He had established Recovery Oriented Integrated Systems (ROIS) in the North West, on the basis of the ideas of George de Leon. The latter’s proposition was that by coming together as part of a therapeutic community, people can learn how to live right.

In the past, places like Liverpool had sent significant numbers of people to residential rehabilitation centres far away. By developing a ROIS in a North West community setting, Mark wanted to see if people could get well where they got sick? Could people learn how to live right in the same communities where they had been living wrong? Mark and his colleagues soon showed ‘yes, they can’. He went on to become a major recovery advocate on the national stage. After the NTA closed, Mark became Strategic Recovery Lead for Public Health England.

Mark had a fascinating career even before he joined the NTA, as outlined in his excellent interview with leading US recovery advocate Bill White. He graduated with a degree in Organisation Studies in 1984, and started work as a researcher investigating the growth of brown powder heroin use amongst young people in the North of England. In 1985, he began work as Fieldworker and Manager of Trafford Community Drugs Team. Based on his experiences there and later, Mark said in his Bill White interview:

“Ideally, I would always want to see a qualitative, ethnographic investigation running alongside any quantitatively derived data. The UK treatment sector is data rich but analysis poor. We are awash with numbers and spreadsheets. Our challenge is to be able to say what all this quantitative data means in real terms and real time for real people.”

Mark then spent 14 years working for Lifeline, latterly as Director of Research. Lifeline was a Manchester-based charity working with people with substance use problems, set up by Dr  Eugenie Cheesmond and Rowdy Yates. Harm reduction was very much the organising principle at Lifeline. After Lifeline, Mark spent two years working as a Drug Prevention Advisor for the Home Office, before joining the NTA in 2001.

Mark’s unique background and experiences give him an invaluable insight into the way that we can help people with substance use problems, as well as into the treatment system, recovery-based care and recovery communities, and government policy and practice. He is one of the most knowledgeable people I know in the field.

I met Mark at lunchtime on 2 September and we headed to our favourite Indian cafe. We caught up on each other’s lives and had long discussions about recovery. I was particularly interested in how Mark managed to ‘survive’ in the NTA as a recovery advocate. In my experiences, the NTA was not a friend of the recovery advocacy movement. I remember senior members of the NTA not being too well-pleased by Bill White’s talk, and my own, at the conference Action on Addiction and Wired In organised when Bill visited the UK in March 2009. I later learnt that the NTA had deemed me as a ‘public enemy’ for my addiction recovery work.

Anyway, I had a great time with Mark that afternoon. He is such a well-informed person… and one of the funniest people I have ever met. He could have had a second career as a stand-up comedian. I spent some time telling Mark that he had to write his autobiography. It would make a fascinating read and would be of great importance for the field. If you’re reading this, Mark, I hope you are busy writing!

I leave you with Mark’s final quote from the Bill White interview and a film of Mark giving a talk seven years ago. In this film, Mark talks about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), Asset-Based Recovery, human connection, Bruce Alexander’s work, addiction and trauma, and how recovery works.

In response to Bill’s question, “What do you feel best about as you look over your time in this most unusual of professional fields?”, Mark replies:

“Finding the humility to realize that professionals are not the experts in recovery. Rather, it is the people who are recovering or have recovered who are the real experts. Paraphrasing John Sutherland from his great book ‘Last drink to LA’ – in the world of addiction, addiction treatment, and recovery, it is ‘the guinea pigs who wear the white coats’.”

I’m lucky to have Mark Gilman as a friend, colleague, and inspirational guide. He is an extraordinary human being.