Warriors of the Calder Valley

I took a call from a friend in December, who had been contacted by the desperate mother of a 43-year-old daughter. The daughter, who we’ll call Rachel, had been out of a residential rehab for a couple of weeks and was back in a full-blown alcoholic episode, drinking around the clock and falling in and out of taxis and in and out of hospital.

The physical repercussions were immense, but the obsession to drink had turned Rachel into an emotional and mental wreck. Her behaviours swung from aggressive and arrogant to those of a frightened child. Rachel’s partner had had enough and was taking their daughter away to stay with family for the duration of Christmas. All concerned knew it was crunch time for Rachel and that this period could decide whether she would live or die.

This call to us was nothing new – a cry for help, sometimes by a loved one, sometimes by the addict. For an organisation like The Basement Recovery Project (TBRP) the question is how can we respond, and how did we respond?

My own journey into this world has been defined by the Pennines, especially the Calder Valley. I was born in Todmorden and brought up in Burnley. My life became unmanageable and my recovery journey started back in the hills of Todmorden, but it’s only in retrospect that I can look on these hills and valleys with fondness – a sense of belonging and of how their presence creates small communities that become families supporting each other. Our response to an addict who is struggling – like Rachel – has been happening for years, in communities just like this.

TBRP operates in an unusual environment of being both service provider and host of an emerging recovery community and this dual responsibility requires careful management, not least in maintaining appropriate boundaries in how we respond to someone like Rachel’s mother’s request for help. It’s not our place as a provider to outreach someone who hasn’t asked for help, but as a recovery community we can adopt the ‘warrior down’ approach to reach out into the community and provide assertive support.

What do I mean by this? Adopted from a peer-to-peer programme originally designed to provide support and community referrals for Native Americans in recovery, ‘warrior down’ is the cry to signify that a warrior has been wounded or incapacitated and needs help. The warrior down initiative creates a response team to provide support and finds the resources to get that person back into their recovery process.

Recovery isn’t just staying sober – it’s a way of experiencing life through new eyes, new thoughts, and a new spirit. Re-establishing one’s life following treatment for alcohol or substance abuse or incarceration requires a community effort. Without the support of a knowledgeable family and community, many who try to return to healthy, productive lives find themselves frustrated by the need for a job, training, education, housing, mental health care, medical support or connections with others who value sobriety and healthy behaviours.

Throughout the evolution of the UK recovery movement there has been close liaison with colleagues and friends in the USA, and it was in 2011 that Phil Valentine came to the UK and told us about the White Bison Warrior Down Program. The whole warrior down ethos and philosophy had an immediate resonance to those in recovery communities in the north of England, where small but influential groups of addicts have come together to create abstinence-based recovery communities.

They have done this most obviously in NA and AA – many got there via prison or simply stopped taking methadone and dropped out of treatment. It’s very rare to find people in abstinence-based recovery who got there via community methadone treatment and, similarly, the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous have facilitated peoples’ recovery and been the driver for them to reach out to those who are still in battle.

Given the numbers of people entering recovery it was only a matter of time before people started to relapse, and we asked ourselves how we should respond. This really is brand new territory. Treatment professionals are not used to assertively reaching out to people who relapse – people in 12-step fellowships may respond with comments like ‘God or drink and drugs will bring them back – one way or the other’, but neither standard treatment assertive outreach or benign 12-step fellowship felt like the right thing to do.

The people who had relapsed had become our friends and allies. They were almost family, and you don’t leave one of your own out there on the battlefield, in the madness of addiction, to die. You go and get them and do everything you can to get that warrior back into their recovery process.

Our warrior down response teams are driven by ethical governance as opposed to clinical governance, and they work across geographical boundaries. We have allies in Blackburn who have been utilising this approach for years, alongside people from Liverpool. Our approach is made up of informal coalitions of work colleagues, treatment professionals, friends and family members, as well as those supporting family members like Loved Ones Unite and Al-anon, faith based group members and peers in recovery. They operate inside the recovery system, but outside of the treatment system. They respond to anyone who is in need, at any stage of their journey.

Many recovery slogans and clichés have become part of people’s lived reality. People in recovery know that ‘you alone can do it, but you cannot do it alone’, because they have tried it on their own and failed time and time again. They know that ‘I can’t but we can’, they have been that addict or that alcoholic who has sat on their own thinking about recovery while ordering two bags of brown and one of white. Then there is the addict whose thinking turns to drinking: ‘I’ve never really had a problem with alcohol, it was just gear and crack – I’m sure I’ll be OK having a drink.’ These experiences prove that an addict on their own is indeed behind enemy lines – rhetoric soon becomes reality when you realise that we really are in this together.

So last Christmas we mobilised a member of the warrior down team and throughout the Christmas period this elder visited Rachel every day – sometimes she would refuse to communicate, some days she didn’t even know that the elder had called. A leaflet about TBRP was left at her home and contact numbers put up on the kitchen notice board, and throughout this time our elder simply made sure Rachel was as safe as she could be. Some days that involved a call for an ambulance, and some days it was removing the alcohol that had amassed in vast quantities around the house.

Slowly, the communication between these two addicts started, and by the new year Rachel started to turn a corner and engage with a range of support services. Today, Rachel is six months abstinent and learning about the mutual benefits of one addict supporting another. She is contributing to her recovery community.

It’s not for us to speculate how Rachel’s Christmas, and more importantly her life, would have been had the elder not intervened. All we can say is that warrior down provides an opportunity for people at any stage of their journey. In the last year or so, I personally have seen this support for ten people back from the battle – from those who have never approached treatment services and are in early recovery, to those who have had years of sobriety, to those who now work in the field and have lost their way.

Today, all are sober, happy and re-engaged with living, and today I am sober, happy and living a life beyond my wildest dreams. The family of the Calder Valley gave me this over twenty years ago, so today I do my own service to the warrior down team and hold out a hand to others who need help.

Recovery is owned by the individual and the community they belong to. Our treatment system, as it is currently configured, cannot respond in this way. When Phil Valentine spoke of warrior down he also illustrated that recovery communities have existed for years and years, and treatment as we know it is relatively new. This was a ‘light bulb moment’ for many who work in the field. For me, it illustrated the limitations of our systems, reoriented the addict at the centre, and reminded us of the power of kinship. So forget the battle of the rhetoric of treatment and recovery and see beyond it, as the magic of ‘warrior down’ prevails.

Article Featured in DDN Magazine, Nov. 2012 and RecoveryTimes issue 4

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