Making it real

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How do you bring a recovery conference to life? Jamie Gratton shares his experience.

We have just enjoyed our first Aquarius recovery conference, celebrating how we all approach recovery in our own unique way. The idea came about as a result of discussions with peer mentors and people using Aquarius services about how they could celebrate recovery on a local level, and we worked with partners from the Derby Substance Misuse Services and Derby University Law School to bring it to life.

With a small budget for the event, we set up monthly planning meetings with staff, peers and volunteers to put together a list of what would be needed to move the conference forward.

Our first challenge was to find a venue – not easy, as most of the conference centres in the area wanted £2,000 to £3,000 for the day. Aquarius had been doing some work supporting the Derby University Law School around social justice issues and vulnerable groups, so we discussed our conference proposal with the university. Two days later, we had a venue free of charge, complete with refreshments.

Next came the agenda, and the local recovery community agreed that the main focus for the event should be around sharing life stories and highlighting the power of recovery. We felt it was vital to have a mixture of speakers on the day, offering different perspectives, including those of family members affected by addiction.

With a clear theme in mind, we invited guest speaker Tracy Carr from Public Health England (PHE) to speak about the importance of building recovery capital, and Tony Mercer from PHE to give insight into the social justice issues faced by individuals and families.

Over the coming weeks the team worked hard to bring the different elements of the conference together, and it came with a lot of stress. I had never done anything like this before and was extremely anxious about whether anyone would even turn up! Luckily, I was able to rely on the different coping mechanisms I had learnt while going through my own recovery, and my team leader was able to rein me in when I was panicking and help me to look at things more logically.

When the big day arrived, the conference opened with an introductory speech about the power of recovery and the vital role it plays within communities. This was followed by an ice breaker, run by Steve Gill, and a series of mini games to make people feel relaxed. Soon the conference hall was full of laughter and people were feeling more confident about sharing their stories.

First was Angela. She was open and honest about how a family member’s addiction had impacted on her life and the rest of the family, and how the support she had received had helped her get through the hardest times.

Then came one of the Derby Recovery Service peers. Maria had battled with alcoholism for 11 years and had been sober for two years. She spoke about how becoming a peer had strengthened her recovery and her relationship with her children, and how the community had helped her to find somewhere she belonged.

The life stories came one after the other. Kate talked about her journey from teaching at schools around the world to ending up with an alcohol problem, and how joining an art group had given her confidence and made her feel useful again.

Claire, performing at the conference as part of Recovery Rocks, talked about how music had helped her move forward from addiction. She learned to play the guitar because of the support and encouragement given to her by peers within the recovery community.

The final story was from Paul, who explained how 12-step mutual aid has helped him to move forward. Each story moved the audience, some making them laugh, some making them cry, but each one celebrating the fact that discovering recovery meant discovering life.

Four workshops also formed an important part of the event and focused on the different elements of recovery, from building and maintaining a recovery community to ways of encouraging participation and creativity. An exhibition displayed different recovery options open to people living in the area.

photos by Kate Hemming

A variety of different performances closed the day, including local poet Jamie Thrasivoulou, who is in recovery himself and used his gritty poetry to strike a chord with guests.

This was followed by Hazel, performing a song that she had written herself before taking up her position as sound engineer for Recovery Rocks – the group that we run at Aquarius every Tuesday night with the idea of using music to strengthen recovery.

This was the moment – as they performed in public for the first time ever – that I felt really proud of what we had achieved at the conference. It was the perfect ending to an amazing day. Throughout the day we had laughter, tears, shared experiences and fun.

I had spent the whole of the day saying I was not going to do another one, but about an hour before the end I leaned over to two of my colleagues and whispered, ‘I have a great idea for next year!’

Jamie Gratton is recovery network coordinator at Aquarius