When I was outside, aged sixteen, around the time I committed the offences that led me to prison, I had a bit of a drink problem. For years that was how I phrased it. I refused to call myself an alcoholic because I never hit a point where I felt that I had to drink every day. There were days I didn’t drink at all. Not many, but they existed. Having said that, I did drink most days, and the average amount that I drank was upwards of a litre of vodka or white rum every day. To say that I had a bit of a drink problem is more than a bit of an understatement. But then, a few years ago, it all changed.
I had already done twelve years in prison without alcohol and I didn’t even miss it. Then I went through a relationship breakdown and the first thought that came into my head was “I need a drink.”
I had thought I was over it. I had thought that it wasn’t an issue for me anymore. But it still was and it knocked me back a few steps. So I started to work with the prison recovery team and asked about Alcoholics Anonymous. Strangely, the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team at HMP Wakefield said that they don’t have any input into Alcoholics Anonymous as that group was run by the Chaplaincy department, but they could sign me up for Narcotics Anonymous instead.
I have taken drugs in the past, but not many, not a lot, and not all that often. So I thought Narcotics Anonymous would be a bit pointless. However, I was informed that they would work with people who have alcohol problems too so I gave it a go and attended a meeting. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, a group like no other group I had ever been part of. But as I sat and listened to the guest speaker share his experiences of substance misuse I realised that I identified with almost every single thing he said. In the space of an hour and a half it all started to fall into place for me. Yes, on the outside I had used alcohol to deal with stress, and yes, in my first twelve years in prison I had managed to deal with a lot of stress without drinking. But there are many different types of stress, all with varying affects. On the outside I had used alcohol to deal with relationship stresses. In the first twelve years of my sentence I had had relatively few of those and the stresses I did have were never the kind that I had used alcohol to cope with. It was no wonder then, that as soon as I had some real relationship stresses again which I didn’t know how to deal with, my mind flicked back to my last known coping mechanism for such things: Drink.
Over the following few years I became fully engaged in the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous and it changed my life dramatically.
Every meeting I attended taught me something new about myself that I have never noticed or realised before and, along the way, I built up the confidence to really talk about the roots of my alcoholism. Eventually I came to admit it. My name is Adam, and I am an addict. I have been addicted to a few things over the years, with alcohol merely being the most obvious. Other things often focus around behavioural addictions. Gambling, for example. What each of my addictions have in common was that they were a destructive crutch used to help me feel better about my insecurities.
Many people frown upon the idea of labelling yourself especially to do so permanently. I saw more than a few leave NA on the basis that they were clean of substances and so, therefore, no longer an addict. Some would insist on calling themselves a “recovering addict,” a “recovered addict,” or a “former addict,” and no one ever voiced any objection to them doing whatever works best for them. But I did feel that it kind of missed the point. For me, an addict is someone who cannot have a little without needing a lot. I could be ‘clean’ for fifty years and still have the same neural make-up that causes me to over rely on the crutches I use. On that basis alone, I will always be an addict, albeit a clean one.
Perhaps the objections against labelling yourself are stronger amongst those of us who have either been sent to prison or who have worked in them. We fight so hard to break free of the labels given to us due to our offending. We refuse to be defined by the single worst moment of our lives, instead insisting that our many and varied characteristics are taken into account when forming a picture of us as a person. Labels are not welcome. Certainly not permanent ones. They are the enemy of hope. But the word addict, when self-applied, is not like the word ‘thief which carries judgement and a permanence that contradicts any effort at rehabilitation. It is more akin to the word ‘kleptomaniac’. It is a mental state of being which, though permanent, can be managed. ‘Thief like ‘Drug User’ is a label which refers to a present action. ‘Kleptomaniac’ like ‘Addict’ is a label which refers to a mental state of being that an individual suffers with and tries to resist.
For me, the label ‘Addict’ is not negative at all. It is positive. It is a badge of honour that I carry with pride because, though I am an addict, I resist my addictions each and every day. That makes me a success.
When I came up for transfer to Grendon I queried whether Narcotics Anonymous would run here too. I was informed that they don’t. Then, when I arrived, I asked the recovery team why this was. They explained that it was due to the fact that nothing that happens at Grendon is confidential. Anything you say and anything you do must be open for challenge by anyone else who feels that they need to. Meanwhile, Narcotics Anonymous (and all similar fellowships) operate on total confidentiality. “Who you see here, What you hear here, Let it stay here”. It is called “Anonymous” for a reason. For example, if John and Steve are both in therapy together and also attend NA meetings and John says on a meeting that he has relapsed and is using again, Steve would have an obligation in NA to support John by keeping that confidential and a simultaneous obligation to Grendon to support John by helping him to openly challenge his behaviours in group therapy.
I get it. I get the reasoning and I get the importance. But I hate it. I hate that the meetings I have come to rely upon and enjoy so much due to their therapeutic benefit are not permitted at a prison designed to encourage therapy. Intellectually I understand why, but emotionally it feels wrong. So what do I do with that? Well, in my last couple of posts I have written about two of the types of meeting we are required to attend here at Grendon (Minute Meetings and Business Meetings). There is also something here called your ‘Small Group’. On the assessment wing you have one small group meeting per week and on the therapy wings you have around three such meetings. These include around a quarter of the wing and are your opportunity to bring up any issues that you are having without having to put in a minute and wait for it to be brought up. Of course, not everyone in your small group will be dealing with addiction issues, but the format of the meeting is remarkably similar to one of the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. And without telling anyone at all, that is exactly what I began to treat it as.
At every Small Group, unbeknownst to everyone around me, every time I opened my mouth to raise something, I silently said the words, “I’m Adam, and I’m and addict.”
Why? Why bother? Simply because it centres me. It reminds me that although we are all going through different issues, we have more in common than we do different. We are not alone. Our feelings are valid. We can say them out loud and that is ok. We can learn from one another. We can support each other. We are a fellowship. The serenity prayer is a big part of Narcotics Anonymous and similar groups.
Let’s be clear. It is not Narcotics Anonymous and it is not confidential. On that basis, I would never encourage anyone else to think of it as a Narcotics Anonymous meeting because that, I fear, would blur more than a few lines and boundaries. However, I am fully aware of the lack of confidentiality and, despite this, it works for me. So why not? As a result of this, Small Groups have fast become my favourite part of the week. They are a real chance to offload and, where necessary, to vent, getting the stress out of my system so that I have one less thing to contend with whenever I have to resist the temptation to succumb to my addictions. For those that don’t know it, it is simply “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I am simply doing what I can about the things I can. The rest I must accept.