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More than one hundred people came together to celebrate visible recovery last month, in the Lancashire User Forum’s first county-wide in-person meeting since 2019.

A diverse range of attendees, including people with lived experience of drug and alcohol misuse; social enterprises, charities and community groups; and representatives from the health, social care, education and criminal justice sectors, gathered with the shared aim of identifying positive solutions to the challenges faced by those struggling with addiction – including criminalisation; difficulties accessing healthcare, housing and employment; and the traumatic effects of discrimination and stigma.

LUF meetings have become a key event in the recovery community’s calendar since the inauguration of the forum in 2007. But after almost two years during which in-person meetings were either severely restricted or prohibited entirely due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the December 2021 event perhaps carried even greater significance than usual. As event host Sarah O’Mara, North Locality Team Leader for Red Rose Recovery, put it: “I don’t think the impact of being able to create this space face-to-face can be underestimated. Addiction and adverse mental health breed in isolation, behind closed doors. We need each other – each other’s experience, each other’s compassion, each other’s support.”

The arrival of the pandemic and the prohibition of most forms of social mixing was greeted with concern by many in recovery, since connection with others is so vitally integral to getting well. Yet it also provoked innovation, culminating in the idea of a weekly virtual forum, to be streamed live on Facebook and then posted to YouTube. The ‘LUF Lounge Live’ has become a vital means of sustaining often life-saving connections between members of the recovery community.

Nevertheless, the resumption of in-person events was long awaited by LUF members. On December 14th 2021, with Covid-compliant measures in place to keep participants safe, the Lancashire User Forum (LUF) was finally able to come together once again in Preston’s Masonic Hall.

Following a theme of Inclusion and Diversity, the agenda was as uplifting as it was wide-ranging. Powerful personal accounts from Jason Heys and Gary Flynn brought many audience members to tears as both men spoke of the early life traumas, mental health struggles, and experiences of the criminal justice system that led them to seek solace in drugs and alcohol, before finding hope and change in recovery.

Jason Speaking at the LUF

Recalling his struggles with substance misuse, Jason spoke of how his addictive and destructive behaviours became a mask for his vulnerability: “I just wanted to be loved; I wanted to be helped like a human being.” Both Jason and Gary are determined to give back to those who have helped them turn their lives around – as Jason put it, “maybe I can stick my head above the parapet; maybe I can go out there and make a difference.”

More stories of transformation were shared by professionals from the many partner organisations that work with LUF. These included Emerging Futures, which empowers individuals in recovery in a variety of ways, from supported housing to workshops focused on positive behavioural change; Out in the Bay, a pro-recovery charity with a focus on the LGBTQ+ community; Lancashire Adult Learning, which has worked closely with the LUF to delivery training and education to members; and the Families Matter group, which offers support to the loved ones of those with past or present struggles with addiction.

The event also celebrated what can be achieved when individuals’ horizons are broadened by the possibilities of recovery. Shelley Nixon, training and development lead with Red Rose Recovery, presented certificates to members who had successfully completed the Leadership Programme – recently accredited as a CPD level 2 qualification – and the Speaker Bootcamp.

Red Rose Recovery’s founder and director of engagement, Pete Yarwood, whose early leadership helped grow the LUF from humble beginnings to the nationally-recognised force it is today, said the LUF was focused on giving individuals a sense of purpose and value in a system that often demeans them.

Pete explained: “What we’ve got in the Lancashire User Forum is a space that nobody owns but which everybody profits from. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what matters is that you belong. In this space we are all equal, we are all worthy, we are all important. Instead of diagnosing our deficits, we focus on what’s strong – not what’s wrong.”

Story by Jennie Chapman – Community Engager, North Team – Red Rose Recovery