I work with the Scottish Drugs Forum, which is a National organisation. It’s about informing, supporting and developing services in addictions mainly. There are different strands to our organisation. My role in that organisation is the National Naloxone Training Support Officer, so I cover the whole of Scotland and within my role the requirement is about peer education networks in each health board in Scotland. I have been in this current role for about three years. It should be a nine till five but sometimes it ends up a 45-hour week. Before I came into this role I worked as an addiction worker and previous to that I was a service user helping to develop the pilot of this programme in Glasgow in 2006. So I’ve worked right through from the service user to having the national post.
Part of my role when I trained as an addiction worker, part of the project I did that with required you to have a history of addiction, which I had, also a history of homelessness as well, so it was kind of skills that you would learn through that, maybe not use them for the right reason, you were then able to transfer into this role.
It’s dead important that when people identify with the situation that somebody is in they are able to show a wee bit of empathy if they have been there themselves, isn’t it? It builds that relationship.
I would say the stuff I do a lot is on peer education. We provide that to individuals so the whole ethos behind the peer education is about those individuals going out into their communities and delivering brief interventions to people at risk of opiate overdose or families and then the peer education is solely about targeting the hard to reach groups who don’t engage with services. they are not hard to find, we know where they are but they just don’t engage with any of your traditional services and they are the most high risk group in Scotland for dying so the whole peer programme is about them delivering in their community to people they already know and trying to reduce that death.
I had lots of experiences with people in my personal life, family members as well, dying drug-related deaths and they had been no intervention there to prevent that so this was an ideal opportunity that allowed me to not only give a wee bit back to society, but also maybe prevent other families having that kind of chap at the door.
It was that experience and maybe a few individuals that I had contact with at the time who said, ‘You should focus your energies on this, Jason, you would be good for this.’ They were kind of in support roles at that time but I knew them from – they had lived similar types of lives to me – and they had just moved on and they encouraged me to move away from that sort of life of addiction, so to speak, and follow a similar path. Unfortunately that decision was made on the back of tragedy. It was Christmas day 2005 and I went to Glasgow Royal Infirmary with my sister to identify my brother-in-law who died that morning of a drug related death and during that process I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do something here about this because it isn’t right’. Within the next two or three months I was already beginning the process of being involved in this role.
So it was just simply about being ready, having someone there who was positive and who was supportive and encouraging to say, ‘You could make a difference here.’
The first steps I took was the Scottish Drug Forum. I knew, from doing a bit of research, that they had a National User Involvement Group so I made contact with them, asked them how do you go about being involved in that, what’s the sort of requirements, what do you need to meet to be involved. So they explained that and invited me in for an informal interview to say this is what the service does, this is what we could offer you. I had a wee bit of time to think about that, then maybe a week or two later I gave them the application to join as a volunteer, went through the whole disclosure checks and stuff and that was the beginning of the process.
I had lots of good skills that I took into that with me, right, but the one thing I never ever had and I always regretted through my whole life – I spent 20 plus years in addiction – was never having a proper education, so never actually having any formal academic qualifications. So during that voluntary role I managed to be involved in lots of good quality accredited training stuff and between then and now I have managed to get a few qualifications, SVQs in Health and Social Care, Learning and Development.
The whole process of volunteering gave you a good solid foundation for structure, positive structure in your day, but for most individuals like myself they would have arrived there in the same condition, poor self-esteem, low confidence, low self-worth and through being involved in that and other people, I suppose, start to believe in you, it allows you to start believing in yourself doesn’t it?
That sort of positivity, that no you can do it, you are worth it, you have got something to offer.
We were constantly involved in training because the volunteer role was a national role it meant you would be involved in maybe looking at doing service evaluations of addiction services, it might be mental health, you might be doing some focus study work on welfare benefits. So you were constantly involved in training, like all your overdose awareness, drug awareness, mental health, safeTALK and ASIST Training, even the boring stuff like data entry and stuff. Because as a volunteer they wanted to give you the whole experience, not just going out and delivering focus groups or questionnaires, they wanted you to see the whole process through, here’s what we do with the data and the research at the end and produce reports and deliver them.
I have been in recovery a long time now, so the nature of it is I still, on a daily basis, come into contact with people who are still homeless, roofless, living chaotic lifestyles and the beauty of it is you are able to apply that safeTALK and ASIST Training , a wee bit of motivational interviewing, so it’s all good because what you are getting helps you become a wee bit more professional but in your personal life it helps you support other people who might have been in a similar position.
People don’t need to know everything about you. I don’t introduce myself and say, “How are you? I’m Jason and I’ve got a history of addiction, I’ve done this”. People don’t need to know all that.
If they figure that out during the conversation so be it, if they ask me directly I wouldn’t lie to them, I would be honest with them, but it’s not something that I would offer up when I first met somebody because that isn’t about being professional. That’s something you might do in your personal life if you attend a 12-step fellowship where you are identifying yourself as an addict or an alcoholic because that’s just the nature of what you do in them.
I’ve certainly had experience of when I have been working in services, I worked down in Glasgow Drug Crisis Centre for a wee while and a lot of the client group we got in there knew me from my past life so they never had any boundaries just about where they were, so it was about me applying my boundaries because I was there as a professional and not as a service user. I certainly wasn’t there as their pal that they knew from 10 or 15 years ago. But it’s always a learning experience.
Now I am far more open minded. I probably have far more empathy and compassion for people and one of the reasons for that is because when I started volunteering I probably wasn’t aware of all the different recovery models and different experiences that people might end up being homeless or in addiction or have mental health issues. Very much you are limited to your own experience until you start engaging with voluntary work like this and it opens your mind to all the different aspects.
So definitely I would say I’ve far more compassion, empathy and open mindedness towards people and their situation.
Living not surviving
I am living a more settled way of life now. In terms of having my own tenancy, which was the first tenancy I’ve ever had in my life. So being able to have my own tenancy and maintain that. Being able to hold down a full time job which is quite stressful and just, in general, being able to build more sort of meaningful, caring relationships with family, partner, friends, as a whole. Whereas before I wasn’t able to do that because I was missing the fundamental ingredient and that was having a foundation to build it on because when I was homeless and stuff it was very much just about surviving day to day.
It was never about thinking about what might happen in a week or a month or a year’s time. It was about what’s going to happen between now and tomorrow morning and how am I going to survive.
I was 35 years old by the time I got my first tenancy. So it’s a long time isn’t it? And that was simply due to the type of life that I lived that I was probably never in a position where I was ready to step up and take responsibility for something like that. And then I need to be honest and say that because of the type of life I led, which meant I spent lots of times in prison and institutions, there probably wasn’t any Housing Association that was willing to step up and take a chance with me. It was kind of, ‘no, he’s going to be problems for us so let’s just say no for now’, which is quite sad but unfortunately it’s the reality.
I’m always careful to listen to what people are actually saying to me because I discovered through a lot of the work that I do at the moment, a lot of the stuff that I do in Fellowships and that is when people tell you stuff they are not always looking for an answer from you. Sometimes they are just looking for someone to listen and say, ‘Ok.’ And that’s it. So I always listen to what people are saying and I’ll always check with them, ‘are you telling me that because you want me to help you or you think I can help you or are you just telling me it because you need somebody to talk to?’
I realised that people don’t make a choice to become homeless or in addiction and previous to that I probably thought people did make that choice. I probably felt that I made that choice somewhere along the line but I realised that isn’t really what happened.
There is a series of events that happen in people’s lives, for one reason or another, and they are not able to cope with them at that moment in time and becoming homeless might be a coping mechanism for them because it means they don’t need to endure whatever is going on in that environment, in a household or using substances is sometimes the solution for people, to medicate how they feel.
I learned through leaving that type of life myself and exploring the aspects of my own addiction, coupled with getting involved with counselling, therapy and doing numerous different types of training. But more importantly looking at what the evidence was actually telling me. Instead of having a personal opinion on this happened because of A, B or C – actually looking at what does the evidence say about that and reading lots of research and evidence about addiction and how the impact of childhood trauma can then lead on to people having quite prolonged periods in addiction.
What drives me is the development and the support of others who have been in similar situations as myself. I manage the Peer Network and the initial driver was to try and reduce the drug related deaths, and that’s still there, but a big driver for me is being able to train people who are coming from a total chaotic life and, by embedding a few basic skills, improving their confidence, self-esteem, self-worth. Getting a wee bit of motivation with them. You are able to watch a total transformation in people in the space of maybe, well I have no limit to the length of time I work with groups, but I sometimes see boys and lassies coming into my Peer Network totally shut down, barely able to lift their head and look you in the eye and maybe a year or two later they are ready to going and get employment with SAMH or the Addiction Worker Training Program. And that’s what drives me, just being able to support and develop and teach the individuals.
Lots of times stuff is geared around the more extreme end of the scale about teaching people how to cope with trauma and all this and for me that isn’t always what’s required.
Sometimes it’s just the basics – how do you improve your communication, your self-esteem, your self-confidence, your self-worth?
Because if you improve all that you are less likely to go back the way and continue to use substances if you feel good about yourself because it’s recognised that people use substances to change how they feel. So if you feel good about yourself and worth, you feel you are worth something and you can actually see, and what we do as well is record it all, so I’m able to sit down with the peers when I’m supporting them and supervisions and say, “Look what you were doing a year ago and look where you are now”, and when they are able to see that actual journey that just builds hope and confidence in people. That’s what drives me.
I tend to treat everybody, not the same, but I tend to be professional and treat people with the same dignity and respect whether they work with the NHS or they are in a chaotic life. The language I use might be a wee bit different simply because NHS might not understand what I’m talking about if I was to use some of the street language that the guys and lassies will use.
If you are delivering training, the people attending expect you to know everything. That doesn’t really worry me. I’m probably fortunate that I have been involved in this particular subject since the very beginning of it in Scotland so I don’t have lots of times that stuff comes up that I don’t know. But if I don’t know I’m not shy in saying, ‘listen, good question, don’t know that but I will find it out for you by the end of the session.’
With the hard to reach group, some of the barriers and challenges you have will be the same right across the board with any services – they don’t want to engage with you because there is a fear that the police will be there or in about the vicinity. Social work definitely is becoming a bigger problem in Scotland, certainly, and Greater Glasgow and Clyde at the moment.
It might just be Glasgow is possibly the worst example of it but totally territorial stuff where you might be delivering a training session on this side of the main road and they live on this side and they can’t come because that’s a different gang.
It’s dead important that you have somebody there who understands what the problem is. So there is a difference from somebody saying to you, ‘this is my problem’ and you going, ‘I understand the problem’, then them saying, ‘this is my problem’, and you saying, ‘I understand how that makes you feel’. So there is a clear difference knowing what the emotions that individual will be feeling, if their benefits got cut or they are getting threatened that their tenancy is getting cut or anything like that and that’s what makes the connections with people and that’s the best individual to have fighting your corner. Because for individuals in homelessness and addiction that’s probably the most vulnerable time in their life and they don’t always have the communication skills to be able to advocate for themselves so it’s important that you have that buffer between them and NHS or their GP or the benefits system. It’s important someone there with a clear mind saying, ‘No, this isn’t right, this is what they are entitled to.’
If you had maybe asked me to go and help you out with something at the early stages of voluntary work I would have just said ‘aye’ and I would have just steamed in there and fought your case no matter what, whether you were right or wrong, I would have just fought the case whether you knew you were winning it or not. If you ask me today I would go and sit down and do a bit of research, get together evidence that supported the view that we were arguing… stick with the evidence. There is no arguing back against you.
We need investment in service user involvement. You need to have them involved in your strategic planning groups right at the very start. It needs to be grass roots up instead of like most organisations, and our own I might add to an extent, it’s top down. That doesn’t work. That suits the service and you meet all the outcomes that you need to meet for the service, you don’t meet any outcomes for the individual when you have that model. How you do meet that is by building it from the ground up, with their involvement from the very start.
I’ll continue to do this, maybe not in this role, maybe in a different capacity, but I will continue to work with people in addiction and homelessness so one of the big things that we are trying to promote at the moment is, especially in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, we need to have a supervised injecting facility for people. It’s unacceptable that we give out all the paraphernalia for people to use substances safely, but we still let them go up a lane and do it in unhygienic, unsafe, often violent, conditions. So it’s time that we realised that if we are going to provide all the equipment that the least we do is
provide them with a safe environment to take that in. We’ve got 30 years of evidence, we’ve got 90 drug consumption rooms throughout Europe. The thing for me is, in those 90 there has never been a drug related death, not one in 30 years. No one has ever died and that’s exactly what we are trying to achieve. The fact that you choose to use drugs doesn’t mean you choose to die. Everybody has a right to survive an overdose no matter where they are at in their life, you know? So I know it will be a big task but we will get there, I’m confident of it. In two years’ time I’m confident, if you are talking to me in two years’ time we will be on the cusp if we haven’t already got one opened. That’s how confident I am, based solely on the evidence that we have from all over the world to prove that it doesn’t only reduce drug related deaths, it reduces blood born viruses, improves quality of life, engages the hard to reach groups that we talked about and ultimately people then move on with their life and get a far better way of life.