“They’re not change-resistant, they’re change-terrified!”

October 2023 | 9 minutes

A new handbook, jointly published by Alcohol Change UK and Recovery Cymru, shows how peer support can make all the difference for people who are struggling to escape an alcohol problem.

There’s a very simple way to sum up Recovery Cymru: we’re a group of people in recovery helping themselves and one another. We’ve evolved since 2008 from a single support group in Cardiff. Aftercare following treatment was limited at the time. The UK recovery movement was in its infancy. And peer support was largely provided by the fellowships such AA and NA – who we’ve got a ton of respect for, but we wanted to offer something different. Our aim was simple: create a space where we could meet, feel safe to be ourselves, and support one another to make and sustain changes to our lives.

There was no ‘game plan’ to develop an organisation, run contracts, become an employer, lease buildings. We simply came together with a fundamental belief in the power of connection, mutual support and finding meaning through activity and friendship. That single group became a movement and Recovery Cymru was formally founded in 2010. Thirteen years later we are a thriving recovery community. We provide support, activities, hope and inspiration for people pre-, during and post-treatment; as well as offering alternatives for those for whom treatment is not the best or realistic option. We support people to redefine or rediscover themselves – to build a sustainable and enjoyable life in the community. After all, no one wants to be a “service user” forever.

The basis of our growth has been our peer-led philosophy, self-defined recovery, and a flat hierarchy where everyone has equal value, regardless of position or time in recovery. We also have a focus on activity – support groups, co-produced structured programmes, social activities, volunteering, and community engagement.

We are immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in supporting each other to sustain change. But one thing we noticed was how many of our members kept saying things like “If only I knew about Recovery Cymru earlier”, “I never met anybody else in recovery when I was at my worst’”. This led to a lot of “what about” questions:

  • What about offering hope, humanity and connection for people who are still in the chaos?
  • What about caring for people when they, their families, and professionals are losing hope?
  • What about sharing stories that show what’s possible?
  • What about the power of meeting someone where they’re at – no advice, no pressure, just being there?

Fortunately, we also had a passionate substance use liaison team in our local hospital, who saw the need for peer support for people who were not yet ready to enter treatment. Together we started asking a lot of “why don’t we” questions:

  • Why don’t we try offering peer support to people earlier?
  • Why don’t we go to them, instead of waiting for them to show up in a crisis?
  • Why don’t we meet them in their worst moments?

And that’s how our First Steps programme was born – aiming to offer connection and peer support to people who are often called “change-resistant” but who (in the words of one of our peers) are often not “change-resistant” but “change-terrified”. We planned to meet those people in A&E or at their hospital bedside. And we were just getting off the ground when Covid-19 hit. But rather than throwing the in towel, our peers said, “Let’s just do it via text and phone”. The rest, as they say, is history, and we now offer support face-to-face or remotely as needed.

We call it our First Steps programme because we are supporting people to take their first steps towards getting back some control and connection in life. For our “first steppers”, meeting a peer as an equal, building rapport and having a stable point of contact can be the start of a longer journey of engaging with other support services and making changes.

As well as the expertise of our peers, we’ve also drawn on Alcohol Change UK’s Blue Light Manual, with its message of hope that anyone can change. We’ve been proud to work with Mike Ward – one of the authors of the original Blue Light Manual – and Alcohol Change UK to joint develop our First Steps Good Practice Guide, all about working with peer supporters to build motivation in people who are ambivalent about engaging with alcohol treatment and support. We are also working with Alcohol Change UK to offer training for professionals in setting a peer support programme. Our aim is to share our learning to help more people around the UK have access to peer support at earlier stages in their journey.

It is hard to describe the spirit of a peer recovery community. It’s something you feel. Our members often tell us, it is not what we do but how we do it that makes all the difference. The culture of the “Recovery Cymru Family” is the magic. We don’t wish to sugar coat the work. It can be challenging, but it is so worthwhile.

You can visit the Recovery Cymru website to find out more about their work.

Download the First Steps Good Practice Guide in English

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Download the First Steps Good Practice Guide in Welsh

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Find out more about First Steps training

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