'I wear a necklace so I can tell when I'm upside down!'

I began, albeit reluctantly, playing badminton when I was in rehab in Milton House. It was the first sporting activity I had undertaken since  was a child and I quickly grew to love it. On returning home to North Kensington I continued to attend my local drop in at the Portobello Project, and most uncharacteristically decided to continue with my newfound enthusiasm for sport.

I and my friend Terry (see picture) began to play regularly with whoever we could persuade into joining us; my peers from rehab, clients of the Portobello Project and our mates. Doubles was essential, since we were both so unfit I always fretted that any genuine attempt at a game of singles might see one or both of us being taken to the local hospital. Two or three times a week we would stagger around a badminton court, puffing and laughing in equal measure while we battled away in our close fought games.

In 2005, service user involvement was becoming a big thing in London, and local authorities were under pressure from the NTA (National Treatment Agency) to demonstrate they were taking it seriously. Like every other London borough, Kensington and Chelsea were supposed to show they had service users involved in their commissioned services,  but were rather stymied by the fact that the local treatment population weren't in a mood to come out and play, and the few that were willing to be involved were only a step away from the proverbial box of frogs. Bless.

The manager of the Portobello Project, presumably under some pressure from the commissioner, decided that I and Tel were it, her representatives at the local service user meeting. Not unlike two grumpy teenagers who had been caught sneaking out of a maths class and were returned forthwith, we allowed ourselves to be coerced into attending the aforesaid meeting at the local Alcohol Treatment Service. It was 9th May 2005.

The Commissioner was a woman with kind eyes, a soft voice with a slight Welsh lilt, and fearsome reputation. She welcomed us into the drop-in, where four or five other men already sat, two of them clearly stoned. We drank coffee, munched biscuits and listened, in my case with increasing impatience.

I remember only two things about that meeting. Firstly, my peers seemed to be living on a different planet to the rest of us, resulting in long circular conversations steered unsuccessfully by a weary Commissioner trying to give them both a free voice and keep them on track, an obvious impossibility from the word ‘go’. When the meeting stopped for a cigarette break, there was a conspiratorial huddle on the pavement outside the project while my peers hurriedly tried to smoke two cigarettes in five minutes, while discussing their plans for separating the Commissioner from her funding. Not only did they sound alarmingly like men working out the safest way to rob their local dealer, but the earlier twenty minutes has made it abundantly plain, that despite her clear empathy and obvious patience, there was steel behind those eyes. In my opinion, they stood more chance of meeting the Pope, and a sly roll of the eyes from Tel, let me know that he agreed. Manfully resisting the temptation to just run away, we returned for the second half of the meeting.

We tried to sneak off as soon as the meeting had finished, but Commissioner was too quick for us, and clearly expecting such a move, made sure we couldn’t get out of the building without walking past her first. I never could resist good manners and a kind word, and we stood there, nicotine deprived and shifting from foot to foot, while she asked us about ourselves and our experiences of treatment at the Portobello Project. When finally, we found ourselves back in the sunshine, we discovered that we had somehow agreed to attend the next meeting a month later at the Town Hall.

I had for the first time, met Gaynor Driscoll, the then Substance Misuse Commissioner for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and she was to play a large part in mine and Tel's lives for the next five years or so. People working in the field seemed to be terrified of her, but I don’t think I ever really understood why, short of the fact that she held the purse strings. I liked her from the beginning, and besides, she made me laugh. When years later I asked her to pick an animal to describe herself, she chose a tortoise, hard on the outside but soft in the middle. A good analogy if you ask me.

Unlike a great many modern Commissioners, she understood addicts well and knew how to talk to them. She wasn’t scared of stoned or angry people, and was good at both listening to their concerns and taking them seriously, not something I can say of some other Commissioners I have met over the years. She understood that failure is sometimes the price of success, a rare thing in general, let alone in Public Health Commissioners. She was also capable of being devious, subtle, occasionally manipulative, and when necessary, brutally forthright. Better yet, she was neither afraid to take a risk, nor take a decision and stand by it. I l warmed to her very quickly. Although it would be a few years before I realised it, I had met both the first of my three mentors, and my match. Enter the Dragon.

A month passed, and true to our word, I and Tel had rolled up for the next service user meeting at the Town Hall. It felt very strange walking up those stairs and along those corridors, reminding me of nothing so much as that feeling you got creeping into your parent’s bedroom as a child for a quick look around while they were in the kitchen. That feeling of, ‘I shouldn’t be in here.’ Odd to think that a few years later I was bounding in and out of the place as if I owned it.

 I think the three of us might have been the only people in that meeting, I’m not sure. Perhaps the Manager of the Portobello Project as well. I’m reasonably certain the wild bunch from the earlier meeting had taken a rain check.  I know Gaynor would have been wheedling us for information in that slippery, vaguely ‘mumsy’ fashion she pulls out of the hat now and again, and somehow, we got around to the subject of badminton.  Neither I nor Tel can remember who first bought up the subject of funding a badminton club; who knows it might have been Gaynor herself. I know that neither myself nor Tel showed the slightest interest in becoming involved in the interview panels, needs assessments and endless meetings that so often fall on service user leads like a wheel-barrow full of bricks. 

The meeting we had attended was grandly titled, ‘The Service Users Drug Reference Group’. Everything seemed to be a ‘Reference Group’ in those days. The drug and alcohol treatment system could be happily subtitled, ‘anagrams are us’, there are so many of the bloody things floating around. Before the end of the year, I and Tel appropriated the group for ourselves, and the initials SUDRG would not only become widely known in London, but would irritate hundreds of people, who could never find a quick or sensible way to pronounce it. As an aside, a dyslexic service user would point out to me a couple of years later that it is also an anagram of drugs. I have always wanted that to be sly commissioners joke, but I suspect it was simply coincidence.

In the meeting, I and Tel got around to discussing our passion for badminton, and the fact that our peers resolutely insisted they couldn't afford to pay toward the court hire, but nevertheless wanted to join us in lurching around the courts at the local sports centre.

Somewhere in that meeting, it was agreed that we would formalize our little badminton club, and  Gaynor would fund it, on the sole proviso that it was open for anyone to attend. I and Tel happily agreed, and the Wednesday Badminton Club was born.

I have never been entirely sure why Gaynor agreed to fund us. If she saw something in our unlikely pairing, it was something we could not see in ourselves. Perhaps we were simply all that was left from a very poor hand of cards. I suspect that it might actually have been the fact that we had already made a start with our project, however shaky and ramshackle it was. I have seen a lot of potential service user projects fail because those concerned insist on telling you what they will do after you have stumped up the cash, rather than showing you what they can do first before naming a price. If nothing else, we had shown some initiative, however selfish its original motivation.

 Perhaps, as ex-junkies and crackheads, we are so used to hustling our way through the turbid world of street dealers and criminality, we forget that, by and large, the real world operates by a different set of rules.  Whatever Gaynor’s reasoning, it was a clever and calculated bank shot: two hundred pounds up front and twenty quid a week for the running costs. It barely even qualified as chicken feed.

I have a confession to make here. A lot of people over the years, the great majority service users, have shaken my hand and thanked me, often with a real and urgent sincerity, for my part in creating the fulcrum the SUDRG would become, and later the charity, Build on Belief; for proving that service users could design, implement and run their own projects; for giving them a sanctuary where it was alright to simply ‘’be who they were’.  I am genuinely proud of the fact, intellectually if not emotionally, that I have been a part in changing so many people’s lives, of being instrumental in creating an organisation that does it best to take each person for what they are, support them for a while, and do nothing more than try to help them be whatever it is they want to be, minus the addiction of course.

However, I did not do this out of some altruistic streak in my nature, or because I wanted to change the world, or because I am a good person. I did it because I was bored, was quick enough to sense an opportunity, even if I couldn’t see the shape of it, and because it meant I could now play badminton once a week for free. I just thought I’d mention it. I am as self-centred as everyone else. Tel got it before I did.

Within a couple of months, we had a regular little group of attendees at our club. Normally, I and Tel would play a game or two, then open the fire doors at the sports-centre and lie on the grass bank outside, while we had a cigarette.

             ‘Jimmy’s up for it today,’ Tel remarked between puffs.

‘Looks like a frog on a hotplate to me.’ Tel chokes on his cigarette smoke and coughs, trying not to laugh, my intention all along.

             ‘Yeah, I suppose he does, but they’re having fun. Look at them. We did that.’

I remember the moment because I had one of those sudden changes in perspective where you unexpectedly see something from another person’s point of view. Tel was right. Our little badminton club was of real importance to our small band of devotees. It gave them a chance to get out of the house, have some fun and socialise like normal people, to take a step back into the world. We had done this, and it begged an immediate question. ‘What else could we do?’

The arrangement we agreed with Gaynor, was thus. There was no way we were getting our hands on the money, and to be frank, I can’t say I blame her. I wouldn’t have trusted either of us further than I could spit.  Instead, the Portobello Project would act as our bankers. Once a week they would give us the petty cash necessary to pay for the courts and buy everyone a cup of coffee afterwards, and we would return the change along with the necessary receipts. The money would come from the budget set aside for service user involvement in respect of the drug and alcohol treatment system in Kensington and Chelsea. We agreed, but Gaynor wanted us to write a business plan. We must have been enthusiastic. My diary says that we wrote in the next day. I can’t find a copy of the original document, but I remember it being amateur, overwritten and badly structured. To be fair, neither I nor Tel had the faintest idea what a business plan was, but bless her, she accepted it anyway.

Within a week we had been on a trip to the West End to buy racquets, shorts and towels. I and Tel had carefully created a huge sign to be hung up in the Portobello Project advertising this new service. Interestingly, from the kick-off we had been clear to negotiate an agreement that this was an independent service. We operated from their building, and with their support, but this was an SUDRG initiative and it would be advertised as such. Our service and our rules.  We were more than happy to take advice on the best way of running things, but it was made clear that ultimately, we called the shot. Clever move, if you ask me. Without meaning to, we managed to circumvent that trap that has destroyed so many peer-led projects over the years, namely micro-management by the professional treatment providers, and the refusal to let anyone take a risk under any circumstances.

It is worth taking a moment to recognise how bold a move it was by both Gaynor, as the Commissioner, and the management of the Portobello Project, to allow us to function independently; not only in deciding how the funding would be spent, but also in the design and management of our little service. As long as we didn’t do anything illegal or monumentally stupid, we had complete control. It was almost unheard of at the time. Although a similar peer-led project, the FIRM, had been running in the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for five years, their service was abstinent-on-the-day based. Ours was not. We welcomed everyone. The potential for it to go spectacularly wrong was enormous, but they ran with it anyway. Someone should give them a medal.

Their willingness to allow us to control the design and running of the project, to manage the budget, and to slowly, sometimes very slowly, work out for ourselves what our ground rules would be was hugely empowering. We felt a sense of ownership and responsibility for our tiny little club and it’s impossible to overestimate how happy and legitimized we felt. At that time, the creation of the Wednesday Badminton Club felt like one of the greatest achievements of my life and it set me afire with the possibilities of what I could do next.

I and Tel were delighted. It felt like a tremendous achievement and we proudly bowled into the Portobello Project the following Wednesday afternoon, having put our large sign up in the most prominent place we could find, and turned to talk to the denizens of the drop-in. Grandly we announced the creation of the SUDRG Wednesday Badminton Club, explained that it was free to access; equipment and clothing if needed was provided, and we would be taking everyone for a cup of coffee afterwards on Portobello Road.

             ‘So, who fancies a game of badminton?’ Tel asked.

‘Nah, not really in the mood. Maybe next week.’

             ‘Oh, come on man, it’s free!’ I interrupted enthusiastically.

‘Sorry, but I’m just not feeling it today.’

Not a single person wanted to come and play. It was an important lesson, a reminder of the fickle nature of the human condition. Success is, by and large, a slow-burn process compromising many small steps, and quick wins are few and very far between. Also, as if I needed reminding, it was an example of the crippling ambivalence of so many of the people in treatment for their substance use. As a cohort of our wider society, we seem to suffer badly from the malaise of ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’ It’s endemic with us. In many ways, such thinking is central to the process of addiction itself.

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times in the past when I knew it was time to rein in my drug use and change my behaviour before I got myself into trouble severe enough that escape might prove impossible, but invariably such thinking would result in a final binge before I ‘did it tomorrow.’ Again, and again, I repeated this pattern. After that, I did it again. Consequently, tomorrow took nearly three decades to arrive. On the other hand, when it did come, it came with trumpets.

Tim Sampey