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Real Voices: A different way of approaching recovery from addiction

Huseyin Djemil is a founding member of Towards Recovery, a community interest company (CIC) which offers a safe space for people in recovery from addiction. In this week’s Real Voices, he describes how his personal experiences as someone in recovery informed his different approach to helping others.

I am Turkish-Cypriot, born in England and raised in Stoke Newington. I grew up having what felt to me at the time like a normal upbringing, but looking back I’ve realised that I had a rather troubled childhood and teenage years. There was a lot of trauma for both me and my family, which then influenced my behaviour as I grew up.

I ended up hanging around with a gang and taking drugs, committing petty crime, anything that took the pain away for a short while. I eventually got help with my addiction and managed to get sober in my early twenties, after which I started a new life, moving to Henley and getting married and having kids. For a time after I got sober I was trying to stay as far away as possible from anything to do with substance addiction, but I eventually began working in the addiction field in 1993. In 2012 we started Towards Recovery, my social enterprise. My main job in the drug field is as a freelance consultant, helping to improve drugs services. My work with Towards Recovery is more to do with individuals with addictions, helping them to initiate and sustain recovery.

Every year in Henley there is a tradition called Henley in Bloom, where we try to win a competition against other small towns and villages for the best floral displays. In 2012 we had people coming round and knocking on doors to talk about Henley in Bloom with reporters, and one woman criticised the focus on a floral competition when the town’s drug problem was being ignored. It caused a bit of a stir locally, and as a result we had increased police controls in the area. But I wanted to do more. Instead of focusing on addiction, I wanted to focus on recovery, as I myself am a person in recovery. Whenever I engage with the press or any group, I have to tolerate them talking about me negatively and focusing on my addiction rather than my recovery. The media always tends to highlight the addiction and the chaos of it for salacious headlines like, “This man took £200 worth of heroin a day”, and so on. I decided to try and make recovery more visible. Addiction is indeed all that you know it to be from the press, but recovery is the polar opposite. We in recovery are responsible citizens, and we focus on helping others. People come to me all the time asking me to help their friends or relatives who are struggling with addiction, because they know I’ve been there and see me as a source of help.

As part of my recovery journey I have become a Christian, and have spent a lot of time in our local church in Henley. The church cafe became the home of our Recovery Cafe, mainly because I wanted to create a “cafe culture” within our group, where people could come and relax and the atmosphere was very casual and comfortable.

My personal experience with my own recovery journey has really informed the way I approach helping others in recovery. I understand that the official processes that people in recovery need to go through are imperfect, and with Towards Recovery I really aim to affirm their humanity. People who have had addiction struggles have often been through horrific experiences, and it’s important to remind them that there is still good in them and that there is a way out. The main difference with other treatment services is that they see themselves as experts who are there to fix broken people. There’s a narrative that tells people in recovery that they are “other”, that there is something seriously wrong with them and there’s almost an assumption that they are also liars and criminals. At Towards Recovery, people in recovery are not treated as broken and there isn’t such a separation between expert and addict, rather an equal group of people with different experiences having an open and non-judgemental conversation. We want to know what happened to them, not what’s wrong with them.

The biggest misconception that the public and the media have around addiction and recovery is they believe that drugs are the problem, when in fact drugs are the answer to people’s problems. When I first started using heroin, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t on it all the time. It made all of my problems disappear, and brought me peace. Of course, heroin did come with lots of problems and didn’t stay as my solution for long, but people need to understand that if someone is homeless or sick or poor, they see drugs as an escape from those issues, not an additional problem. We at Towards Recovery understand this, and rather than treat drug use as a problem, we try to help those in recovery make small changes to gradually improve their lives, and integrate them more in their community.

Organisations like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) call addiction a disease, and take more of a disease-management approach to helping those in recovery, which can go some way to reducing the level of stigma and shame around being a recovering person. But there’s still a question of whether the anonymity at the heart of NA and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) actually increases stigma in pushing an idea that people in recovery should be invisible. I don’t know if that’s true, but at Towards Recovery we definitely try to be visible in our recovery journeys. If you are visible, you aren’t buying into stigma and shame. I worked in a rehab centre where, if a resident who was leaving was too ashamed or nervous to disclose where they had been, the centre would help them construct a cover story, so that they needn’t tell anyone about their past. My question was: is it good to start your recovery with a lie? Maybe what we need to do is learn how to disclose, and then perhaps there would be less shame and stigma around recovery. The professional drugs services also reinforce stigma, I believe. Professionals will use the term “addict” and say that they lie and manipulate, and that may be true of some people with addictions, but that’s true of anyone. People who have drug and alcohol problems aren’t the only ones who lie and steal and manipulate.

Our group rejects the approach of the professional drugs services. We use techniques like motivational interviewing, where we solicit change talk from people, rather than backing them into a corner where the only choice they have is to defend their current position. This means that the decision to try to get sober and embark on a recovery journey is not something someone is forced into, but rather something they choose freely. It restores the agency and power to the recovering person. We tell them: “You’re in charge. You are the boss of you. We aren’t experts, we don’t know any more than you. We’re simply here to talk, and discuss ways in which you could make changes.” We don’t infantilise or patronise, like professional drugs services do.

This freedom means that we can approach recovery in a variety of ways. We ran a course called “Three Degrees of Recovery” over 16 weeks online during the lockdown. We also do improvised comedy courses for people with substance issues, which are massively successful because they offer people a different way of seeing the world and encourage imagination. Other services are beginning to take a more humanising approach like us, but they’re limited because they need to generate a certain amount of success and results so that their government funding continues to be approved. We definitely aren’t doing treatment in the normal way, but we have much more freedom to innovate and expand our approach, in order to offer a more personalised service for each individual who comes to us for support. My hopes for the future of our community interest company is to stay innovative and carry on helping people make sense of their lives and find a new way forward.

To find out more about Huseyin’s community interest company, Toward’s Recovery, visit: