We do things differently here. We never set out to develop a new approach nor did we ever imagine, back when we first started working together in 2005, that Foundation for Change would develop to be what it is today. Looking back, the process seems almost too simple. Liz and I simply listened to what the people we were working with were telling us about their experiences of treatment. We got angry. We knew things could and should be done differently. And we responded, month by month, year by year, slowly crafting a way of working with people that harnessed the power of education as a force to change lives.

Crucially – we were simply teaching what we taught in an accessible way, unknowingly creating a nurturing space where people’s anxiety about learning decreased as they realised they were able to take in - and take part - in what was being taught. We gently encouraged people to apply what they learnt, experimenting with new behaviours within the safe space of the group which they could then take outwards into their lives. They were the ones making the changes in their lives. Or not. Both options respected each person’s agency and emphasised personal responsibility – things we repeatedly saw were being diminished in treatment rather than cultivated.

Our approach is multi-faceted and deserves a series of posts. This first one is about the power of teaching 'theory'.

It’s often useful to get a sense of something by understanding what it is not. Our groups may look like therapy groups in that people sit in a circle, not behind desks; they’re not hiding behind notebooks and frantically scribbling pens. Our groups are therapeutic in that they engender change, but they are not therapy. I’ll illustrate with an example.

Several years ago we worked with someone who – like many of the women we work with – had experienced significant sexual abuse as a child, and abusive, controlling and violent relationships as a teen and later an adult. She had never explicitly made the link between the trauma of the abuse and her life experiences and had never spoken about them. Not to an individual, definitely not in a group. And definitely not in a mixed gender group.

She entered rehab having detoxed the substances out of her system and began having to attend therapy groups as part of her schedule of learning to live again. One of these was an hour long, weekly ‘trauma group’ where the therapist in attendance encouraged each person to talk about their traumatic life experiences together as a way of processing the experiences and ‘getting them out of the system’. She dreaded the groups, dreaded being overwhelmed by the visceral responses she experienced each time she heard the experiences of others and had to talk about her own. Whether she knew it was happening or not, she dreaded being re-traumatised. In her own words, rather than healing her, the groups just made her want to run screaming out of the rehab and score some heroin.

That’s not the way our groups work. We believe people need to make sense of their pasts and understand just what it is they’re recovering from to help them move forwards. This is a significant part of the healing process yet incredibly difficult to do when people have experienced significant trauma which massively affects their ability to process information; memories are fragmented, loaded with pain and are emotionally distressing. Language plays a crucial part in being able to process the past but this is difficult if the language to do so doesn’t exist or isn’t quite ready for the job. Our approach provides a framework and gives people a vocabulary to do just that; using theory allows people to adopt parameters or boundaries that provide a structure of safety in which people can be held while they begin a process of healing.

This process takes time and we devote whole days to subjects rather than just an hour or 90 minutes. We believe that given access to information, theories and ideas, in an environment that respects each individual’s ability to make changes in their lives, people join the dots themselves. Importantly, they do so at a pace they are comfortable with, and in a way that gives them choice about what they want to then do with that. It is a way of learning about and making sense of the past whilst simultaneously waking up the brain and changing the negative core beliefs most of the people we work with have about their ability to learn.

There is something incredibly liberating in learning about something that correlates directly with our own personal experiences of it. That moment when “I thought it was just me” becomes “Oh right, this is actually a thing, that has been studied. A lot.”  There is an idea that the opposite to ‘addiction’ is ‘connection’ – it is the thing people are seeking and crave and not the drugs themselves. Through encountering theory and people realising they’re not alone, they encounter connection. This is where true healing begins.

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