“ADDICTION doesn’t discriminate; it can happen to anybody at anytime,” says Vicki Brignall, who knows more than most on the topic.
Speaking to The Northern Echo from an unremarkable office on Darlington’s Northgate, Vicki is the clinical lead for The Gate addiction recovery programme at NECA recently rated ‘outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission.
Vicki and her team support addicts on their recovery journey, helping unpick the myriad psychological, physical and societal issues that often lie behind long-term drug or alcohol addiction.
And as medical director Dr Rob Dawson explains, there are people using the service from every single ward of Darlington, emphasising that there is no such thing as 'a typical addict’.
“The one thing that we must never be is judgemental,” says Dr Dawson. “Because you never know the backstories, you don’t know the reasons. Often there are some very, very tragic circumstances. It isn’t saying it isn’t the individual’s fault, but sometimes there are very valid reasons why somebody has chosen that path.”
To help people off that path, The Gate team have adopted an innovative approach to helping people off drugs. From group sharing sessions, to working on allotments and even forming a music band ‘RockCovery’, the service has been highly praised by the CQC for the ‘consistently high levels of constructive and meaningful engagement’ its users receive.
As recovery lead Tony Beck explains, the team ‘are not here to hand out a script’ and instead use a holistic approach to recovery tailored around each individual’s needs. “For some people, accessing the service can be quite daunting,” says Tony. “They might be worried about the public perception of a drug and alcohol service and think ‘I’m scared of going there’. But it is not like that at all, we have a very wide spectrum of service users. Some people have fantastic professional careers but everybody is vulnerable. Everybody can be impacted by drugs and alcohol abuse and gambling.”
Dr Dawson adds: “There are a lot of psychological drivers behind addiction and I think there are so many more people who are managing potential addiction in the community - alcohol being one of the most obvious ones, because at what point does alcohol become a problem to the individual? It is about raising awareness so that people can protect themselves from moving down that path before substance misuse takes a problematic hold on their lives.”
Former amphetamine user Darren Wheelhouse knows all too well the ‘problematic hold’ drugs can take.
Having used ‘on and off’ since his mid-twenties, Darren , now 48, says amphetamines have long been his ‘demon’. But with the help of NECA he has been clean for several months and is determined to stay that way. “This time it is for real,” he says. “This time I am using everything that is here. I have done umpteen courses and I am still looking forward for more.”
Darren says his young children are the prime motivation to stay clean. "I'm on the way to fixing me, so that when I fix me, I can be there for them," he says. "I have never been this positive. Whereas before I have done it all off my own back, I have never had the help from anybody else. It is up to you to do it, at the end of the day you have to be the one who wants to do it, but here you get the help you need." Darren's progress has led to the suggestion that he may one day become a mentor for other recovering addicts and he says that gives him 'extra incentive' to stay clean.
Steven McGuinness, 47, said his heroin addiction ‘crept in’ during the mid-nineties and led to periods living on the streets. "I was homeless for a good few year," he says. "Living in squats, in and out of jail. On the streets I got booted all over a few times."
Steven has been accessing The Gate's services for 'many years' and is currently on a methadone programme. Now living in stable accommodation, he is determined to kick the drug that has dominated his adult life. He said: “People always ask what it’s like and the only thing I can think of to say is that you could see a kid killed in front of you one day and the next day you take heroin and it’s as though you’ve won the Lottery. But when you come down and get depressed you want to go back up and it’s like a bad, mad circle.”
Service manager Caron Cook said it is people like Darren and Steven who help shape The Gate and it is they, along with partners such as GPs and pharmacies, who have helped make it so successful. As Dr Dawson explains: "The medical side, the prescriptions, are actually a tiny part of what treatment is all about, it is the wraparound support that makes the difference, because anyone can pop a pill, but it takes a lot to recover."