'Set a goal so big that you can't achieve it until you grow into the person that can.'

I and Tel had broached our idea for a Saturday Social Club with Gaynor, and she had agreed to back it in principal. Of course, she wanted another business plan, along with a volunteer agreement, financial costings and a range of colourful posters. I think we’d have agreed if she’d asked for a three quarters scale model of the town hall made from matchsticks. We’d certainly have given it a go. Sadly, she didn’t. Instead, she wanted us to attend the DAAT (Drug & Alcohol Action Team) meetings as the service user leads for the borough.

I’d be lying if I said we were overwhelmed with enthusiasm, but we agreed nevertheless. After all, business is business. I know a ‘quid pro quo’ agreement when I see one. These meetings were attended by the senior staff from the various sectors of the local treatment system, the police, the big guns from the from the local authority and occasionally, housing providers. Held at the Town Hall, it was an intimidating environment and walking into the chamber for the first time, I could not help but think of the story of Daniel entering the lion’s den.

We had been given copies of earlier minutes and the agenda, but to be frank, they could have been in Russian for all the sense they made to us. We had no idea about funding streams, treatment pathways, numbers in treatment or any of the other building blocks considered so essential to the provision of services for people with drug and alcohol problems. I remember these early meetings principally for three reasons.

To begin with, you could feel the ambivalence of some of the people in the room in having us foisted on them. It was almost as if they saw it as some form of devious and personal slight. I and Tel played up to it by introducing ourselves as ‘ex-junkies from the ‘Grove.’’ What I was not to understand for a while, was we had strolled into the room with the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding shotgun.

 The first was Gaynor, who was clearly protective of us and made no bones about it. The second turned out to be a lovely woman called Jean Daintith, who was the Head of Adult Social Care for Kensington and Chelsea, and whose responsibility it was to chair the meeting.  If some people in the room were guarded around Gaynor, they were terrified of Jean. I’m only exaggerating a little if I say that a few poor souls spoke of her in whispers. You’d think Clint Eastwood had walked into the room.

 Jean was a sweetheart when it came to our participation in the meetings. We had to write a report on our activities, which fell to me to do as the ‘writer’ in our tiny team. Having never seen a report, let alone written one, my style of presentation was little different from that of a cheerful child writing a letter to their grandmother explaining what they had been up to for the past couple of months. Jean took them seriously, and insisted on a verbal presentation, all but daring anyone to cross the line with a sarcastic aside. The ante was often upped by Tel, who was free and frank with his opinions in these meetings, and whose body language signalled a willingness to step outside the room with anyone who crossed him (barring Jean or Gaynor) and sort it out the old-fashioned way. I have a fond memory of Jean telling me that she really looked forward to reading my reports and would save them for last thing at night because they were frank and entertaining. Who knew that others omitted failures, bent the truth and shaded the outcomes? I always thought the idea was to tell the truth. As I said earlier, a simple world view.

The last of our out-riders was Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, a clinic psychologist specialising in addiction and working for the NHS. A small and dapper man, he was clearly whip-smart and often spoke with an authority that reminded me of Moses after he’d clambered back down the mountain. He made me very nervous for several years. Looking back, I think he fell into that weird place in my mental filing cabinet marked ‘authority figures’, right next to the police. From the first time we met he was polite, solicitous and took us seriously, even if it did take me five years to stop calling him ‘Doc’ and call him Owen instead, something he’d been insisting on from the get-go.

Gaynor, Jean and Owen; you couldn’t have bought protection like that. It is hard to over-estimate how important this visible support was, for it encouraged myself and Tel to take ourselves seriously, and for me, being seen as an equal fired up a determination to earn the accolade.

These early meetings were very confusing and short of reporting on the activities of the SUDRG we struggled to find our place in them. It’s always been one of the weak spots in service user involvement, being thrown into a highly professionalized environment whose interested are niche in the sense of wider society, surrounded by a roomful of people who have spent an entire professional career clambering their way up the ladder to get there. It’s no wonder so many service user leads have felt patronized over the years and given up. I’m a reasonably smart guy, but it confused the daylights out of me. Reports and conversations were awash with acronyms: DAAT, CJIP, CARAT, ACMD, DRR, ROB to name but a few. I think we stuck it out because our real focus was elsewhere, and because there were two of us. Besides, I could always rely on Tel to lighten the atmosphere.

            ‘So, you think there would be a real benefit to having a SPOC?’ A serious voice asked.

‘I know the costs are potentially prohibitive for a twenty-hour hour telephone line, but I think it prudent that we give some serious consideration to the idea, as a borough wide SPOC for the treatment system,’ came the reply.

            ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ a voice murmured in my ear. ‘They’re going to be talking about bloody Kirk’s and McCoy’s if they not careful.’

In case you are wondering, SPOC is an acronym for Single Point of Contact.

My last memory of these meetings, is a chance remark made by Gaynor, and in truth I’ve forgotten both the time and the context. I remember it because on one level, politically, she was correct, but also because it shines a frank light into the often self-interested, and poisonous world of politics, both local and national.

            ‘One more thing, Tim?’

‘Sure, Gaynor, what’s up?’

            ‘I don’t want you talking to any Councillors, not without speaking to me first.’

‘Ok. Any particular reason?’

            ‘Yes. You’re not supposed to say what you think.’

Tim Sampey