need a clean break
Chip Somers, a former drug addict turned government adviser who got Russell Brand off heroin says abstinence is the only cure.
By: James Legge guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 June 2012 07.30 EDT
Chip Somers: “Not one single professional has said to me: ‘How did you get clean? What did you do?’And I find that staggering.” Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian.
Chip Somers used to stand in the dole queue with shoes held together by gaffer tape, blood covering the only pair of trousers he owned and scabs in his hair. Looking at the rest of the queue, he thought: “Thank fuck I’m not like these people.”
He says: “I’d stand up on Holland Park watching them all go to work, saying “You fucking idiots” and really thinking that I was on the forefront of an adventurous, risky way of life that these dull, boring nine-to-fivers didn’t do.”
Now the 64-year-old former drug addict and ex-offender runs a charity providing treatment for alcohol and substance misuse, and advises the government on drug rehabilitation. In April, he appeared before the Commons home affairs select committee alongside an ex-client, comedian Russell Brand, to discuss drug addiction and treatment.
Brand summed up Somers’s philosophy when he told the committee: “If you have the disease or the illness of addiction or alcoholism, the best way to tackle it is to not use drugs in any form, whether it is state-sponsored opiates, like methadone, or illegal street drugs, or a legal substance like alcohol. What we believe in is that abstinence-based recovery is the best solution, for people suffering from this condition.”
‘Ideological’ The next day, a group of charities denounced this approach as “ideological” and “dangerous” and claimed that the withdrawal of long-term methadone prescriptions would lead to relapses, with a greater risk of deaths from overdose.
Somers, who was himself on methadone for 12 years, says: “Why would you object to somebody being abstinent? The objections they put up are that if you are abstinent you relapse. Some people relapse, yes, of course they do. Some people who give up smoking start smoking again. I just don’t see why people say you shouldn’t be abstinent. That’s just crazy.”
There is a baffling, almost tribal division among people who work with addicts, between those who swear by long-term prescriptions of replacement opiates – who had the ear of governments from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown – and the newly influential proponents of an abstinence-style approach who believe in a full release from any kind of dependency.
The treatment practised at Focus 12, the Suffolk-based rehabilitation clinic that Somers founded and runs, uses a managed opiate reduction, from which clients normally graduate dependency-free after four to 10 weeks. Yet, of the 850 odd clients who have passed through its doors, only around 30% stay drug free, admits Somers. But he is sceptical about any rehabilitation centre that claims a higher long-term recovery rate. “I think you’re looking at a failure rate of at least 65% the first time,” he says.
In the year to March 2011, 153,733 addicts were given methadone and other replacement drugs, while only 9,273 went to a rehab clinic. This is one of Somers’s main gripes: that people aren’t getting the chance to try abstinence.
“To me, methadone was free drugs,” he says, drawing on 17 years’ experience of using every kind of drug. In 1967, after leaving public school in Oxfordshire, he made his way to London. When the revolutionary energy dissipated, Somers sank into a nomadic life of hard drugs and daily burglaries. After years of scraping past magistrates using what he calls the “public-schoolboy-gone-wrong routine”, and, with a pile of probation orders and suspended sentences to his name, he spent 15 months in Wandsworth prison for robbery, burglary and theft.
He says prison saved his life because it removed him from the circles he was moving in. “I was really getting on the edge before I went to prison. My behaviour was really getting out of hand,” he recalls.
After his release in 1983, he started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The following year, he checked himself into a rehab clinic and became drugs-free. He trained as an addictions counsellor at a pioneering rehabilitation centre, Clouds House, in Wiltshire, and, after more than a decade working at various centres across the country, he opened his own abstinence-based clinic on the edge of Bury St Edmunds town centre.
Inside an unassuming and deceptively big converted terrace house is a clinical team with rooms for lectures, group activities and therapy. Focus 12 clients can be referred by social workers or pay privately. They stay independently in four nearby houses, in groups of three to five. The centre prides itself on challenging its clients in a way that reflects Somers’s own experiences with denial.
He says: “I hurt people. And it was only when I was in a treatment centre, and somebody asked me to look at the truth of my using, and I started to get beyond that ‘Oh no, it’s really cool man. It’s risky and adventurous’. No, it’s not, actually. You’re a bloody nuisance.”
Somers describes the prevalence of methadone prescriptions for the nation’s addicts as “offensive” and “criminal”, and has little respect for the methods of many other clinics, who he sees as needlessly discounting full recovery as an achievable aim.
“My medical history is so full of people who wrote me off as a lost cause. But I wasn’t. I was written off by psychiatrists, psychologists, health workers, doctors. A lost, hopeless case.
“Not one single professional has said to me: ‘How did you get clean? What did you do?’ And I find that staggering. I’m amazed by how little interest and almost animosity there is from drug workers to people who’ve got clean. And that is why you then have people parked on methadone for 10 years plus, because they haven’t got enough workers to engage with them in a way that might start motivating them to stop taking methadone.”
He says that life functions at a low level if you are on methadone. “You are drug dependent, have withdrawal hanging over your head all day, and for part of the day are unable to function properly.”
“But,” he adds, “the question I would ask of all drug workers is: if your daughter was on heroin, what would you want for her? Would you want her to be abstinent, or would you want her to be on methadone? And the answer, of course, is: ‘I would want her to be abstinent’. And if you are holding that view, you’ve got a right to encourage that view in every single client you come across. And that is not happening.”
So is he optimistic that this will change now that he sits on the expert panel on rehabilitation that meets every six weeks and is chaired by Conservative MP David Burrowes, the architect of the coalition’s more abstinence-driven approach to drugs recovery?
“I think this government would like to see more people pushed toward abstinence,” says Somers. “The problem is that however well intentioned they might be, we still have an infrastructure that dishes out the methadone and is hugely populated by drug workers who don’t really know about drugs and are probably just social workers doing secondment to the drugs service who don’t really want to be getting too engaged with the clients.”
“So I’m encouraged that this government thinks that abstinence is a good idea but I think it’s going to cost money. Rehab costs money. Putting somebody on methadone doesn’t cost as much. I do think this government does at its heart want to try to get more people drug free.” But one thing Somers says he knows for sure is: “You’ll never find anybody who was dependent who’s got clean advocating methadone.”
Lives Bury St Edmunds.
Status Married four times. Since 2004, happily to Heidi. Two grown-up children.
Education Radley College public school, near Oxford.
Career 1997-present: founder and chief executive, Focus 12; 1996-97: addiction manager, the Priory hospital group, Jersey; 1994-96: addiction treatment manager, Dukes Priory hospital, Chelmsford, also led a family support group, London borough of Richmond upon Thames; 1987-94: co-manager, Thurston House, residential unit for the charity, Action on Addiction; 1986-87: trained and worked as an addictions counsellor, Clouds House, Wiltshire.
Public life Member, the government’s rehabilitation expert panel; 2007-11: trustee of the European Association for Treatment of Addiction; 2007: Suffolk county citizen award.