Visiting UK Recovery Friends: Part 8 (Natalie)

It was wonderful for me to catch up with ‘Natalie’ whilst I was in Wales in September 2022. She was the first treatment service user I spent in-depth time with, and from whom I learnt a good deal about the nature of heroin addiction and recovery.  She told me that when she was using heroin, she did not know how to stop. She could find no information about how to stop using. She knew no one who had stopped using. The solution to these problems was to keep using, letting heroin kill her pain, shame and the hatred of herself for what she had become.

Through listening to Natalie, I first started to realise the importance of key factors facilitating recovery: gaining hope, understanding, and a sense of belonging. As Wired In, we emphasised the key importance of Empowerment and Connection for facilitating recovery. We pointed out that hope, understanding (of the nature of the problem and the solution), and belonging were key factors underlying Empowerment.

Natalie emphasised to me that if I wanted to help people overcome substance use and related problems, I needed to tell their stories. I asked her if we could write her Story. She agreed. My Wired In colleague Becky Hancock, a former Psychology student of mine, first interviewed Natalie. The Story was written in various ways, including for the first two editions of the UK magazine Drink and Drugs News (Part 1 and Part 2).

In 2013, I published Natalie’s Story on this website. In the second half of 2020, I started interviewing Natalie on Skype for an update of her Story. She was now 20 years in recovery and was really enjoying life. She was a Team Leader at an addiction treatment centre in Wales. She was married, and in addition to her son who featured in her original Story, she had two stepsons.  Her son had his own successful business and did not use drugs and drinks only occasionally. The family cycle of addiction was broken.

You can find Natalie’s Story update in my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction; it really is quite amazing. What really struck me once I started interviewing Natalie again was that her Story was a story of trauma. And the healing from trauma.

Natalie’s ‘new’ journey began when she attended a talk given by Ray and Vi Donovan during a session of the Sycamore Tree Project [1] run in a local prison. The programme involves a Restorative Justice approach [2] and it resonated with her. In her extended Story, Natalie describes the following occurring when she entered the prison gates:

‘… my past started to resurface and affect me emotionally. I remembered visiting my Dad at the same prison when I was child. I kept thinking about Dad; my thoughts were almost overwhelming me.

During Ray and Vi’s talk, I started to cry uncontrollably. Their story was deeply moving (and very interesting), but my reaction was way over-the-top. I told myself, ‘What’s going on here, I need to pull myself together?’ I then found myself continually talking about my Dad to the programme facilitators, Julie and Chris, but saying to myself, “Why am I doing this? I’m not here to talk about Dad.”

Ray and Vi were well aware of what was happening to me and how I was feeling. They said to me that it would be amazing if could share my story one day. Julie and Chris agreed. I thought there was no way I could do that.

When I got home, I was really upset. I kept thinking about Dad, my experiences from years before, and what had happened in the prison when I attended Ray and Vi’s talk. This ruminating continued over the following days, then weeks, and then months. I would go out for long walks and be lost in my thoughts, and feel all sorts of emotions.

I realised that I was experiencing trauma from my past, triggered by my recent visit to the prison. However, I didn’t just experience negative and upsetting thoughts. I also spent lots of time thinking about the good times I had with my Dad and these thoughts made me feel happy.’

It was so good seeing Natalie in person again in September 2022, for the first time in many years. Natalie is still a senior practitioner at a Welsh treatment service and really enjoys her job. ‘My job is absolutely fantastic! I love it!!’ She has no doubt helped large numbers of people overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol, either directly or indirectly (by managing and supporting staff in her team).

In the early days that I worked in the field, few people in the addiction treatment system and in wider society talked about trauma. I knew very little about trauma and its impact until after I had moved to Australia. In the past years, I’ve learnt a lot more about trauma and the healing of trauma. There is little doubt in my mind that Natalie was traumatised as a youngster and the impact of this trauma contributed to her early use of heroin—the drug is a well-known analgesic, not just for physical pain, but also psychological pain.

In a forthcoming blog, I’ll describe Natalie’s experiences as a youngster that led to her becoming traumatised.

[1] The Sycamore Tree Project is an intensive 5-8 week in-prison programme that brings groups of crime victims into prison to meet with groups of unrelated offenders. They talk about the effects of crime, the harms it causes, and how to make things right.

[2] Restorative justice brings those harmed by crime or conflict and those responsible for the harm into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. You can find out more about restorative justice here, here and here.