People recovering from alcohol and drug addictions in Leeds are transforming their lives - and those of others - through guitar lessons, yoga and pizza-making. Chris Burn reports.
For 42-year-old Ben, the importance of drug and alcohol recovery service 5 Ways to Wellbeing in Leeds can be summed up in a single sentence. “It has saved my life,” he says.
Ben, who has asked for his full name not to be used, started at 5 Ways earlier this year after relapsing following a spell of rehabilitation and residential detoxing for his alcohol addiction. He says the after-care service for multi-agency project Forward Leeds has given his life a new sense of purpose after being warned by doctors if he continued drinking he may not have long to live.
“I was having seizures and fits and I was told I had two years to 18 months before I died,” he explains. “That didn’t even scare me because I was still drinking.”
He says that after being initially unsure about whether the service, which organises a wide range of different activities from guitar lessons and gardening to craft skills and yoga in addition to group therapy sessions, would work for him.
“I thought this wouldn’t work for me but that changed as soon as I walked in,” he says. “It is the loveliest place ever, you feel so at home. Everyone from Jo the manager, all the staff to the receptionist and the cleaner are all so lovely.
“With everyone who comes here, it feels like they have magically been picked because everyone fits in so well.”
Ben says attending sessions and opening up about his experiences in life has changed his outlook on life and helped him maintain sobriety.
“My medication has changed and that helps but you still have to work on it and go to groups. You have to keep busy and not isolate yourself and get involved,” he says. “Everybody helps each other out. If somebody is having a down day, but the time they have left that will have changed.”
When The Yorkshire Post visits 5 Ways last week, the centre is hosting a pizza evening that Ben has been central in helping to organise in the past couple of months. After hearing staff discuss the idea of potentially putting something on, Ben hand-painted and helped sell dozens of plant pots to raise money to buy a pizza oven for use at the centre’s terrace.
No two of his pots are painted the same; something designed to reflect how every individual’s recovery journey is different and requires effort before the benefits become apparent.
His efforts, along with those of others, helped to raise more than £600 which went towards buying two pizza ovens, decorating the roof terrace and paying for food.
More than 50 people attended the event on the roof terrace, which was renamed “Benito’s Pizzeria” for the evening.
“I wanted to do this so we could all socialise together, somewhere away from alcohol,” Ben explains. “There aren’t many options in Leeds for a night out that is completely free from drink. This gives all of us who come to 5 Ways a way to have a night out together.”
Another service user to assist with putting on the evening was 40-year-old Christian Jobling, who has also been coming to 5 Ways since earlier this year and has gone on to set up a regular brunch club at the centre on Westfield Road. He took a health and hygiene course to help out with the pizza evening so he could cook some of the food that was being served on the night to those who attended..
Christian says he had issues with drugs and alcohol for around 25 years but decided to get clean before his 40th birthday as his young son became increasingly aware of his problems.
“I just wanted to stop using, I promised myself by the age of 40, I would be sober,” he says. “I couldn’t hold down a job. I have always worked but would go from job to job. I have got one boy and when he started realising I was wrecked all the time, it gave me the kick I needed.
He says after being referred to 5 Ways, he has been particularly helped by attending the group therapy sessions, which aim to provide attendees with the tools to achieve recovery and go on to lead meaningful and satisfying lives.
“I kept my head down at first. I just sat and listened and bit by bit, it brought me out of my shell. I’m feeling on top of the world now, I’m back at college doing social sciences as I want to be a youth worker and help kids that don’t have any opportunities.”
Christian says the sense of community at 5 Ways has been a great inspiration to him. “It has given me everything I needed. It is not one person who has helped me, it is different people offering different things. If you are upset, other people know and understand if you want five minutes alone.”
He has now put in an application to formally volunteer at the service. “I want them to help them help others.”
The fundraising efforts were also assisted by volunteer Lucy Butcher, a 20-year-old university student from Dewsbury, who worked closely with Ben on selling the pots and finding sponsorship and materials.
Lucy, who has been working at 5 Ways while on holiday from her politics and sociology degree in Newcastle, says the idea of the evening was to offer the chance for people to socialise outside the normal opening hours of the service.
“People underestimate the social side of it when it comes to successfully coming off drugs or alcohol,” she says. “Here it is really important, a lot of people who have been sober say it is the support and social networks you make afterwards that helps. You lose lots of friends coming into recovery; you can already be cut off from your family, then you lose friends who are still drinking or taking drugs.
“You can come here and have a coffee and a chat with people who understand. If you are feeling like you are struggling, talking to other service users are obviously people who can relate.”
Service manager Jo Byrden explains that the unique service, which has been running for a couple of years after funding was secured from Public Health England, deals with about 250 people per week. Among its eight volunteers who run different sessions, six have undergone treatment at the centre themselves.
“A lot of people want to give something back and do volunteer work,” she says. “There are a number of people that are still coming two years on since we first opened.”
She says it is greatly rewarding to work in such a supportive environment and it is particularly meaningful when service users take it upon themselves to get involved and offer their skills.
“Some of the staff are in recovery themselves, there are no cliques and we are really fortunate that people help each other out,” she says. “We really encourage people to get involved. The buzzwords about services like this are ‘co-produced’ and ‘service-user led’ and you really see it here. We are doing it and it is working. People call this place their second home.”
Praise for service members and local companies
Service members who worked together to put on the pizza evening have been praised by 5 Ways’s lead practitioner Helen Mason.
“This is all due to the members of 5 Ways and Ben in particular,” she says. “What they have achieved in raising funds off their own back to put on this event is amazing.
“They decided that they were going to do this and then worked together to organise the evening.”
Support for the evening was provided by the B&Q stores in Killingbeck and Beeston, as well as Amber Country Crafts and Fred Aldous art and craft supply shop in Leeds.
For more information about the work of 5 Ways and Forward Leeds, visit www.forwardleeds.co.uk or call 0113 887 2477.