Courageous, strong, brave, committed, supportive and kind. These are the words I most associate with the service users I have been working with over the past four weeks.
Perhaps when reading these words, your first thought is that my patients are children, elderly or terminally ill, all of whom would fulfil the above description. But my patients are in fact people who have misused and become addicted to substances.
Words more commonly associated with the public perception of addicts are not attractive: scumbag, junkie, user, alkie, drunk and piss head, are words used on a regular basis to describe this group.
But when I look at service users, this is not what I see, because this isn’t who they are. The goal of almost every service user I have met is to be a contributing member of society, to get a job, to parent well, to care for relatives, to make their family proud. It is undeniable that addicts will steal for a fix or for a bottle. But the people who step through the doors of detox unit are looking for help to escape this way of life.
Everyone on the detox unit has a common goal: to be free of a substance that has altered their life beyond their control. I am yet to meet an addict who took their first drink or first drug with the intention of becoming dependant or for it to take over their life.
The support service users give each other is invaluable; from listening to each other in their darkest times, to laughing together through the tears and the good times. This group will never see their fellow comrades go without. I have seen service users helping others up and down the stairs, rolling cigarettes for those whose hands are too shaky to roll their own, and a barber who gave his peers a makeover, which made them feel so much better. It is common for service users to give away their own belongings to make sure others have what they need. I have not seen or heard of anyone stealing, and a common phrase among the group is that you get what you give out of life.
Telling a service user that this is their last dose of medication and that their detox is complete is always a proud moment, but the detox is not completed by the staff. It is facilitated and supported by staff but it is the service user who has been through the hellish symptoms to become physically free of a substance.
In the detox unit, there are 10 empty beds. This is not because of a lack of addicts in need of the service, but a lack of funding to support the staffing levels and overheads needed to accommodate them.
One in three of the service users admitted complete the detox and are still free of substances six months later. This increase in the number of people free of substances actively decreases the number of people committing crime and means there are more people able to contribute to society by either volunteering or working.
Substance misusers are not a lost cause. They are not scum. They are not bad people. They are simply people who made a choice to use a drug without comprehending the hold it would take over their life. When anyone seeks help, they deserve the chance to receive it.
Anna Price is in her second year studying mental health nursing at the University of Salford