There’s two types of being drug free. The first kind is sometimes described as ‘white knuckle’ abstinence which means that every moment is a constant struggle to stop doing the thing you want to do more than anything. At Providence Row, we’re aiming for the second type of drug freedom, which focuses on a more sustainable change, built on increased self-awareness.
I wanted to stop smoking. I remember a lesson at school where the teacher said that if you quit cigarettes by the age of 35, you could reverse all the damage done to your health. I immediately launched into a 20 year long lifestyle as a smoker, which led me to today, just months away from the milestone age by which I had promised myself I would have given up. Last year, I attempted to quit, coinciding with ‘Stoptober’, the national 28 day no smoking challenge. I lasted only 8 days.
As a Drugs and Alcohol Worker, I wanted to spread the idea of trying to quit something and encourage a group of clients to support each other as they worked towards this goal. On 1st October, 10 people entered the room to start the challenge. Habits people wanted to quit included crack cocaine, heroin, all illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, chocolate and excessive spending. By the end of the day, word had spread and 5 more people had chosen to change something in their lives including the charity’s CEO, who agreed to stop drinking her beloved tea and coffee for a month.
My beloved Wigan Athletic FC overcame all the odds, as the underdogs, to win the FA Cup final this summer. In the Wembley dressing room that day Roberto Martinez’s used positive psychology to lead his team to victory. Drawing on this for inspiration, I put up posters around the centre here at Providence Row with the motivational words ‘You Can Do It’, to encourage my comrades. In the sessions, I wanted a similar positive focus on strengths, goals, values, while looking at what is working as well as what isn’t.
On day one, I had my first wobble. I had finished a piece of work and had a five minute gap between tasks. I automatically thought of going outside for a cup of tea with a cigarette, but I had to rethink, then physically stop myself by substituting smoking for chocolate instead. I had far greater temptation in a place I knew would be a dangerous setting, my ultimate nemesis: a pub garden with friends. 90% of the crowd were smoking, it looked so cool, fun and all I could think of was how much I liked the taste. I almost offered myself a ‘night off’ from Stoptober, I had forgotten my electronic cigarette and I felt weak. But then I remembered the group.
In the second session, 11 people returned. We discussed each other’s progress along with the occasions where we had come unstuck. Some common themes were occurring, with increased drug use around situations involving money and stress. The group had come up with their own tips for avoiding relapse the week before, and many had managed to make changes or continue new habit breaking processes. The group included a range of people, with different levels of motivation. The purpose of the challenge was not to prescribe abstinence, like a 1980s style ‘Just Say No’ campaign, but to provide a supportive environment. A key idea is for the stronger members to encourage the weaker members both inside and outside of the group.
Since the first session, a second client from the group has joined Providence Row’s Catering Trainee scheme, which stemmed from a Stoptober tip to get involved with hobbies and activities. When peers act as mentors or role models for pro-social behaviour they are far more effective at persuading others to behave similarly compared to someone telling them what do. Many clients who have not managed to stop altogether have made significant efforts to address their addictive behaviour and reduce their drug use.
I know from my experience last year that you don’t always succeed on the first attempt and I empathise with people trying to make a change in difficult circumstances. I feel stronger this time around. The content of future sessions is inspired by what each individual is going through and learning from. It has helped to draw ideas directly from my MSc course in Addiction Psychology and Counselling, to link new theories about addictive behaviour with people’s real life experiences. The momentum is going in the right direction and once these 28 days are over, hopefully the majority can support each other through into ‘Just Say November’ and beyond.