July 2013 was a strange month for me particularly the unbearably hot day I visited our Blenheim alcohol services in Islington, near the Angel. Suddenly I was transported back 30 years to 1983 another unbearably hot day when I finished a 6 week social work placement at City Roads. City Roads then used to take young people with chaotic drug use in crisis directly off the streets of London using a rolling triage system to decide who would be admitted. Basically the question was who was most in need and able to benefit from the organisations intensive three week crisis intervention package?
It was these 6 weeks in 1983 to the sound of Paul Youngs “where ever I lay my hat that’s my home” and KC and the Sunshine Bands “Give it up” that I was to begin a life long passion to help people deal with their problematic drug use and addiction. At 23 years old I was convinced I knew it all but was also very shy and nervous. Half way through a social work course I knew a lot of theory but soon discovered I knew nothing about how to put it into practice. I was blown away by the professionalism of the staff and the amazing efforts they went to support people. I was also overwhelmed by the level of need and the fragility of the lives of people we were working with. I learnt so much, not from the staff but from the people trying to change their lives for the better, their bravery, wisdom and resourcefulness against sometimes unimaginable odds left me humbled. A 27 year old woman said to me “you will never understand”. Perhaps I never will but I will but I have spent all my adult life trying. One thing I learnt quickly is that problematic drug and alcohol use is never just about the drugs and alcohol.
The drugs field in 1983 was very small and almost everyone was a qualified nurse, doctor or social worker. City Roads was then seen as an alternative organisation operating in a highly innovative way. Foot reflexology was the big alternative therapy at the centre. The heroin epidemic was just taking off and staff at City Roads were relieved that barbiturate addiction had fallen off over the previous couple of years. Blenheim, CDP, the Hungerford and Release were the key London street agencies. These in my eyes were iconic organisations it has been an honour over the last 30 years to lead first Release, and then Blenheim and CDP. I am always humbled and never feel I know enough, at school we used to hear the saying “I complained because I had no shoes until I saw the man with no feet”. I still feel I do not know enough and need to learn but just occasionally I feel “I complained I did not know enough until I saw the “experts” who didn’t”.
I am seriously worried when one London borough identifies syphilis as a major health issue but makes no reference to drug or alcohols effect on the health of its population.