'Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.'

Having seen us leap at the chance of formalizing our little Badminton Club, and suffered our amateurish attempts at writing a business plan, Gaynor was quick to steer us toward the wider service user involvement agenda, and I and Tel were happy to go along with her. It was something new and positive to do, and we were becoming really tight as a team, albeit only two strong. ‘Got your back, pal’ was our creed, and we were confident that the two of us would prove more than a match for anyone unwary enough to cross us. There was, perhaps, a little ‘old behaviour’ in our attitude toward the rest of the world. The old-fashioned creed that Tel had learned from his criminal associates, and I from my biker friends was simple; to mess with one of us, was to mess with both of us, and woe betide anyone who made that mistake.

It helped that we were such an unlikely combination of people. Several years down the line from here, after our weekend service and been launched and was beginning to really fly, I interviewed a lovely man named Adam Lewis, who until his sudden and premature death, had become a dear friend of mine. Once, on a holiday in Cyprus, we talked about Adam’s interview as a volunteer for the SUDRG weekend service.

            ‘I couldn’t work you two out’ he told me. ‘You were the most unlikely pair I had ever seen, and I thought ‘yes’, I want to be a part of this. I just couldn’t work it out, this bizarre tag-team.’

Adam, God rest his soul, was right. It was perfect and at times, damn nearly lethal. People would make the mistake of focusing on just one of us to try a steer us toward their personal agenda or manipulate our plans for the future, only to be sandbagged by the other when they weren’t looking. People couldn’t read us at all as a team, and often made the mistake of underestimating our determination and bloody-mindedness. I and Tel didn’t care a jot. We were solid and confident in ourselves, and with that attitude we attended our first London-wide service user meeting.

The National Treatment Agency had been driving the service user agenda forward in the drug and alcohol field, and hosted a series of regular open meetings at Conway Hall in Holborn for all thirty-odd London Boroughs. I and Tel were encouraged to attend as the new service user leads for Kensington and Chelsea.

The meetings were a riot. It was a rare gathering indeed if someone wasn’t asked to leave for being overly free and excessively colourful with their observations inside of the first hour, usually delivered from the back of the room in a sudden and explosive rant. People would turn up from all over London, many clearly worse the wear for having loaded up on their favourite chemicals prior to arrival, to take the first possible opportunity to open up with all guns at either the chair, or whichever brave soul had agreed to be a guest speaker. It was wonderfully entertaining, if a little short on either progress or lasting achievement. You have to give them credit for trying, but I think that on the most practical of levels, the folk at the NTA didn’t really understand who they were dealing with. I and Tel did, and we felt right at home. Addicts and addiction were rooted in our respective souls.

The meetings often began with what was called a ‘borough check-in’ where the nominated leads would solemnly inform the room of the progress they had made on their own turf in embedding their version of service user involvement in either the local authority, the local treatment providers, or both. You can see the logic behind the idea, but in truth it quickly evolved into a pissing contest, occasionally of monumental proportions. I and Tel joined in enthusiastically. It only took one meeting to work out who we thought the competition was, and which way around the room the dialogue would move. The process was simple. All you needed to do was ‘top’ what the person on your left had said. It didn’t take long to agree that the loudest voices in the room were the recently deceased, and much-lamented Robert Hickson, and the talkative Stephen King. I and Tel would make sure, where possible, that we spoke after them, taking note of all the bits and pieces we could reasonably pinch to weave into our own narrative, along with whatever we had hastily prepared. What should have been a quick fifteen minutes process, reached the hour mark and then further.

My hazy memory remembers one of these borough check-ins peaking at around an hour and a half as we all grandstanded enthusiastically, seeking to outbid each other like a group of drunken millionaires chasing a second-rate Jackson Pollock painting around an action room, only to discover in the cold light of the following morning they had bought a dull and un-prepossessing mess. The session finished with a weary voice from the back of the room, announcing, ‘Fine. Nobody can compete with Kensington and Chelsea. Can we move on now?’

I and Tel beamed at each other and shook hands. Job done.

The real players in the room back then were the Methadone Alliance, later to become simply the Alliance. They usually chaired the meetings, and clearly held the centre ground where service user involvement was concerned. In later years, I came to admire, to a point at least, what they had achieved. Having recognised the potential in embedding service user involvement into the treatment system, they had been quick to organise nationally and having scooped up some heavy funding, had drawn their battle lines. They advocated fiercely, sometimes erratically, but always with passion not only for the right to quick and easy access to OST (Opioid Substitution Therapy) but also sensible levels of titration. Many prescribers in the treatment system had habitually insisted on the lowest possible doses of methadone, a waste of everyone’s time since it guaranteed the client using other drugs on top of the prescription, increasing both the risk of overdose and potentially nullifying any attempt to halt the spread of blood-borne viruses through injecting heroin. They also set up a national helpline for service users who were denied quick and effective access to treatment, an achievement I have always admired. They could be quite relentless in their advocacy on behalf of others, and effective treatment had always been patchy nationally, veering wildly between the very good and the non-existent, depending on where you lived.

Unfortunately, their Achilles heel was so large, you could have hit it with a football at fifty feet and with your eyes closed. They were dogmatic and unwilling to compromise; sometimes stoned and often angry. I wonder whether or not their early success far outweighed their expectations to such a degree that they panicked, much like a small child who receives a birthday present so unexpected they insist on sleeping with it, fearful that otherwise it might had vanished when they awake. For many of their membership you either agreed with them or became the enemy. There was no compromise. We didn’t even think about. We were the enemy.

On the day of our first meeting, we bumped into Beryl Poole, a fierce and prickly woman several years my senior, that in later years I would come to both like and admire very much. We have been running into each other for years now, often at the annual national DDN service user conference, and I have enormous respect for the years of her life she has poured into advocating for others. It's one of my highlights of the conference, bumping into Beryl. However, our first meeting was not auspicious.

            ‘So, where are you from?’ She asked.

‘Kensington and Chelsea.’

            ‘What have you done?’

‘We’ve set up a badminton club,’ I answered with some pride.

            ‘That’s not service user involvement.’

‘Fuck off, you old witch!’ Tel hadn’t even drawn a breath, he just opened fire.

I loved him in that moment for saying what I was thinking, but was far too middle-class to ever do. Hardly subtle, but on the money. As far as we were concerned, service user involvement was what we said it was too, and our opinion was as valid and equal as theirs. We were determined to follow our own path, fighting or ignoring anyone that got in our way. It’s a shame really. Had the Methadone Alliance been clever and flexible enough to absorb and accommodate other’s opinions, ideas and perspectives, there is a good chance they would have been a national agency by now. They 

weren’t. They stuck to their dogma like aging communists before a tattered flag, and in the end, went down with the ship.

I and Tel had been very clear from the beginning, service user involvement was what we declared it to be, on the simple grounds that we were service users. No argument and full stop. I was to espouse that principle publicly, often, loudly, and with an attitude that dared anyone to contradict me, across London for the next five years. It worked beautifully, but then I and Tel were in a position from the word go, to put our money where our mouths were. I had learned.

To be fair, we were as stubborn, and in our own way, as dogmatic as the Methadone Alliance in the early days, but we learned quickly to adapt to changing ground and encompass viewpoints that were not ours. Gaynor could be a fierce mentor, but she was generous with her time and expertise, and more importantly was clever enough to plant a seed and back off, giving it time to germinate.

I think she worked me out early. It’s always been in my nature to come out fighting when my opinions or ideas are challenged, and to this day, I still struggle at times to keep my mouth shut. However, given time to reflect and confronted with a solid and logical argument, I am very good at moulding that into my world-view and then adapting to my changing environment. Looking back, I think Gaynor played on it ruthlessly, but easily as much to my benefit as hers. As I said earlier, ‘Enter the Dragon.’ 

I and Tel attended the Conway Hall meetings regularly, in large part for the fun of it and the childish delight we took in competing with our peers across London. Besides, it kept Gaynor happy, and we both acknowledged that we owed her. Nevertheless, from that first meeting onwards, we were determined above all about one thing. We had no intention of following the crowd, or the political agenda set by the NTA. We were only going to do that which we believed in and felt right. In part it was a matter of character. Neither myself nor Tel are people who either compromise for the sake of an easy life, or are overly susceptible to the influence of others, and I was born with a stubborn streak a mile wide. It runs in the family genes. To the mild amusement of both my parents their grand-daughter, my darling daughter, has it in spades. When Ella digs her feet in and drops her head slightly, eyes blazing, it’s like looking into a mirror. What can you do?

Outsiders to the last, the meetings nevertheless served some purpose. It was a great networking opportunity, and it helped us to cement our ideas into the foundation that we were unknowingly, laying for the future. We met Robert Hickson, Steve King, Lucinda Owen, and Beryl Poole to name but a few, and over the years I would learn a lot from them and the rest of my peers as I practised swimming in the murky waters of service user involvement.

The NTA dismissed us and our ideas as irrelevant to their agenda. It didn’t matter in the slightest to us. We were used to being rejected. Five years into the future, I would take a great deal of personal satisfaction from their climb-down. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tim Sampey