The Compass Project’s Staple Hill branch stands on the High Street, beyond the usual assortment of shops and supermarkets. An unassuming building, you could quite easily walk past and not realise what went on inside the low roofed warehouse, stuffed as it is with the furniture and fortunes of other peoples’ lives.
Outside chairs, the odd table and a chaise longue stand around on the pavement as if awaiting some curious alfresco dinner party. Upstairs in the workshop, curls of wood shavings litter the floor. Someone has been working on a pine dresser and the place smells like Christmas. Nails, screws and scraps of metal glitter and fidget in the light from three large windows on the far side of the room.
Inside the office the walls are plastered with photographs, things people of printed out for amusement and the achievements of volunteers, including Helen, an accomplished photographer and the lady I'm here to meet.
Greeted by a large, curly haired dog-affectionately known as Stan- I approached armed with croissants. Pastries always serve well to break the ice. Someone once said that amongst a mean of about sixty people, one of that group you will immediately be wary of. Within that same sixty, there will also be someone you instantaneously feel at ease with, thankfully Helen is the latter sort. Striking looking with a mane of thick dark hair; there is something Frida-esque both about her and her art. Helen's accent is hard to place: born in Greece, raised in Paris, as an adult she moved to New York and now finds herself in the deepest depths of Bristol.
Crouched around our coffees we get through subjects ranging from philosophy, cake, the philosophy of cake, poetry, favourite cities, street photography, pigeons and Weston-super-Mare, before Kevin arrives to help us with the serious business of the interview and a custard danish. Kevin is from London, not far from where my grandmother grew up, and we share an enthusiasm for Bristol and the oddity that it is amongst English cities. As we talk his mind flits between thoughts, marionetting around ideas like a moth caught between light bulbs, punctuating his sentences with ‘yeah?’ all the while to make sure you’re following. He’s good at what he does, they all are, they’re managing something here that not many organisations do and it’s important we understand why.
How did it all start? Was it born of frustration with what was out there or was there an existing project that inspired chrysalis and later the compass project?
K: We wanted to lift the lid off of addiction, so it’s not a secret that’s kept inside families. Alcoholism does exist, drug addiction does exist and it’s not just people that are living in ghettos or shitty housing estates. It exists right through society. It happens. People have lost children, mums. That’s a really dangerous thing. If you try to keep in-house it never works. You never have success. It’s zero. If we could represent it as more of a mainstream thing, which it undoubtedly is, it takes a lot of the power out of addiction.
- If you wanted to help out or buy from a charity there are the same old that been there forever: Oxfam, the RSPCA, various different cancer organisations and, you know, they do a wonderful job. Alcoholism has always been a massive problem and drug addiction is a growing phenomena, you start to think there must be an enormous number of people out there that want to support a project like this. They want to help a charity that’s important to them, not saying Oxfam isn’t but it’s been around, it’s established, they have the people that give to them for the reasons they give. If you know someone you’ve been to college with, or a brother or sister’s died of drug addiction and it is something dear to your heart, where do you go? There wasn’t an organisation like ours in Bristol, nothing that seemed relevant.
- A lot of celebrities - the new religion yeah - use the fact that they were drug addicts or alcoholics to relaunch their careers and everybody gives them a cheer and they’re revered. Ordinary people - they’re held back from saying ‘I was an alcoholic’. You’ve got this two tier system where it is okay if you’re a celebrity to go on and talk about your alcoholism but then if you’re an ordinary person it’s kind of ‘don’t mention it, don’t mention it’, and actually we believe it’s something to be incredibly proud of if you’ve had a substance problem and you’ve beaten that and you’re moving on with your life. We’re meeting people who have recovered from drug and alcohol addiction - setting up, tapping into, I hate to use the word, but that kind of market.
I assume the compass project was so named because it helps people find direction?
K: It was, it’s about individuals that have been through rehabilitation, accessed self help groups then setting their own compass - instead of it being something they’re given. A lot of the time you’re shell shocked, you’re devastated, someone comes along and hands you a new way to live and for a time, you grab that, it’s anything to stop - then afterwards, you may call it into question. Maybe it’s what you really think about life and how to lead it that's important. Even if it is a bit off the wall or left field, it’s okay - you don’t have to pretend - because you get a lot of rigidity if you’re given a solution.
H: I have to agree, of course there is a point where you have to set your own judgement aside, and listen to what other people are telling you, you have to do that because you’re ...well, you’re insane, you live in fear that if you cross over that line, you won’t get back again. At some point you need to define recovery for yourself and do the work beforehand that allows you to do that. The willingness, the wanting the help, the accepting the help - and I think that’s the part that most people fall at, it’s one thing to want to ask for help - it’s another to accept it.
How many times did you come to that wall and go back again?
H: Only once, still wanted treatment on my own terms, believed that I could overcome my alcoholism and still drink basically - at least in the short term, and then I went back and put my hands up and surrendered.
K: It’s the holy grail isn’t it - the holy grail of alcoholics and drug addicts, to be able to drink and take drugs and be clean.
H : It’s a big belief. People are searching for it still. Sometimes I still search for it. I find myself going ‘there must be a way’.
K: They get sober and they get clean, then they devise another plan of how to drink in moderation - and they fall over time and time again.
H: There’s a phrase isn’t there - madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We hear that a lot in treatment.
K: We put one on that - what we find is a case for advanced madness, A level madness and that’s doing the same thing over and over, and knowing that you’ll get the same result. They know what they’re just about to embark on and exactly what’s going to happen to them. They don’t want to, but they know they’re going to anyway, even if you ask them.
What is the most important thing for people that have got to the stage of accepting help?
K: Being given a chance really.
H: A chance. People can interpret that word in many different ways. It’s a chance to be able to...you’re going to need a bit of trial and error. Before I was talking about recovery and addiction being fear based.
- When you’ve finally reached that place where you’ve been clean, you’re so afraid of losing that. You’re so afraid of making any kind of mistake and the judgement that will come from those mistakes. From yourself, from other people, from family. Everyone has been so shell shocked by your behaviour in the past that you’re afraid if you misstep in any one direction that will create a ripple effect of, ‘oh, you’ve done it again, you’ve let me down, I’ve let myself down’
- People need recognition for their recovery and how amazing it is that they’ve reached that. Then they need time and space to go out there and experiment, and regain the joy of what life is. Not just going for the one prize - trying something, failing, trying something else and having success - living life but without all that really heavy stuff attached to it.
K: Without the gin - life without gin - does it work? it would be a good slogan, a load of grumpy people.
On top of that - practical things, a lot of what you do here is about practicality, you all understand where everyone else is coming from. What accompanies being given a chance and what could be provided or improved for people that are starting on the road to recovery?
K: It’s a difficult thing to measure practical support. We can quite easily roll off practical things we do: support people with their time keeping, encourage them to go on courses, help them with reading and writing. That stuff can be done by almost any agency.
- If we’re looking at what sets us aside, what is more important and I’m not sure if it comes under the banner of practical - but what we’re really big on is actually working with peoples’ anxieties, their fears and their concerns. Once you get those bits right, taking what we know is an incredibly serious issue to them, it may not be to everyone else but to them it’s debilitating, they’re really panicking. We bring them down, make them see it for what it is, get them to relax. If we’ve done anything, it’s to make them realise how ‘not intense’ it really all is. It takes an immense amount of humour.
- Anxiety is the main thing. Every single individual we come into contact with suffers from huge anxiety. Often they’re not aware of it, they have different words for it. They use different mechanisms to cover it but we pretty much know that it’s the overriding arc of the history of individuals accessing recovery. A big part of the project was understanding how that process works - we pick it apart - a lot of psychology, a lot of experience from individuals we’ve known over the years until something makes sense.
- What we know is you have massive anxiety and from that comes fear, from that fear you get angry because you’re fearful and you don’t know why. Then once they get angry they think ‘fuck this I’m not doing this anymore’, and they return back to a place which is relatively, in their world, safe, but incredibly damaging in reality. Yet, rather than go through that anxiety, that fear, because it seems too big they return to that place of safety - it’s damaging but they know it, it’s familiar. That way they don’t have to go through their unrealistic fears about the world.
- It’s a generalisation but it’s the process, and that’s the bit we work hard on. If you can get someone past their anxieties they won’t cash all their chips in and go back to this little world which is me and my drugs or my alcohol.
H: I believe that to be an addict is to wake up every morning believing the boogie man is out to get you. You don’t realise, I didn’t realise that’s the way I saw the world. Now, each day it’s about telling myself it’s a figment of my imagination and the opposite is true - life wants you to thrive. It’s actually, you need to jump into it. That’s not a default setting of mine. I’ve had to work really hard to think like that. It’s changing but I’ve had to do a lot of work. I think it’s what we do here, people will come here with fear and anxiety: like ‘I can’t be answering the phone’, ‘what if someone calls?’
K: ‘fucking hell, they can’t even go to the fucking bakers, so worried they’re going to fuck up the food’
H: A lot of other places they over medicalise and over analyse what people do. By doing that you make it more intense. Here we just ‘go and get me a sandwich’, we make fun of ourselves and each other because at the end of the day that individual will go and get some lunch...at the end of the day, which isn’t much good, everyone’s hungry, but they will do it instead of sitting in the corner all day talking about going to get lunch.
K: After a while - 12 months later, we’ve got lunch!
Do you believe, that all people, people who’ve suffered from addiction and people that haven’t essentially need the same things to be happy - that being a sense of purpose and place within a community, which is one of the things you’re providing here and it is the absence of these things that both causes and prolongs problems?
K: A hundred billion, billion percent.
H: Absolutely. You need a sense of humour, a lightness.
K: I read a book on this guys theory of happiness. A harvard professor, he did a ten year study on what happiness was. He went and he broke apart all the major religions and you’d be surprised at what he came up with. He did a lot of surveys, he did one about a guy who lived in California and had a big flat overlooking the ocean - he compared him with a black woman living in harlem - she had her family, she had her grandkids, she had her church, she was an active person in her community, yeah, and he was quite a lonely individual and his life was made up of superficial stuff. He worked out she was much happier, she had a sense of purpose everyday.
- His final analysis was, and I read a lot of his stuff and I agreed with some of it and disagreed with other bits, that he thought one of the major things - happiness in people - was meditation - the thread that ran through the history of people - all the way back through all the different religions, all the way up to today. I’m not a religious person myself, people find meditation in different ways, things like reading or music. People that access those things more than others were inclined to be happier.
H: I’ll agree with that and I’ll tell you my take on it - I agree with meditation part, I meditate, not connected with any religion - the practice of concentrating
- Letting go - letting go is important, but what I mean by that - you don’t have to be right all the time, you don’t have to be in control all the time - which I think is just presets for me and a lot of addicts, we have to control the situation and control what’s going on around us, or else that boogie man is going to get us. What meditation does for me is that when I’m sitting there and letting my emotions come to me - realising what my emotions are - I’m feeling anxious, sad, happy - and then letting those go to the side. I realise that I am not those feelings, that they are part of me, they pass.
- If you don’t sit back and understand your relationship to your emotions, then you think that’s all there is. When you feel anxiety and when you feel fear that is the state of you, of the world and how everything is.
K: Everyone is so different but addiction is so the same.
Who would you say is, if there is one, your standout success story?
I don’t know if you’re allowed to nominate yourself, is that cheating?
K: I honestly believe that. Because of how I am and how I’ve changed. Not in any egotistical way, but how I now conduct myself, mostly, from where I’ve come from. From the prison system, living a really squalid life.
Do you think about that often, the worst of it?
K: No, never. It was such a long time ago and so much has changed but what I like about the experience of recovery is the things that have happened along the way - I thrive off of that.
Is there anything that would make you think...and this is probably going to be a flat no...but you’ve surprised me with some of your answers, that you couldn’t help someone or that they weren’t ready?
H: That’s a definite yes. Are there things? Well, we’d always try to help. I personally believe that nothing will come without the willingness.
K: You get a lot of reasons that people ask for help - most of them related to the continuation of what they want to take, there’s a way of diffusing family situations by saying ‘now I’m going to get some help’. Then there are the individuals who want it purely for themselves.
- However, there are slight exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you can get someone who thinks they don’t need help, everyone else knows they have a problem but they’re not prepared to do anything about it. Then you introduce them to people who have been where they’re at and are now getting on with their lives. Then you can sometimes see a change.
- You have to be open minded about who wants support and what that looks like. It’s difficult. It’s kind of intuition but it’s also, someone could come in here thinking they’re going to go through the motions, not really intent on it, then something happens within that they weren’t expecting. Then there’s those who already understand they’re at the bottom of their life. I’ve seen thought ‘no fucking chance’, what’s coming out of that mouth, how they’re acting, they’re never going to get clean, never. Then all of a sudden... that’s why it’s really important that people aren’t sent here for a punishment.
H: It’s a sad thing but the reality is that sometimes not enough has happened. Unfortunately they’re going to have to loose their wife, loose their kids. I want to tell them but I know, it’s horrible but the only way they’re going to get out of it is when that happens to them.
K: You reach a marker, some people access alcohol or drugs for a short period and that might be enough. Then you might have someone who has been an alcoholic for thirty years and they haven’t reached those same set of feelings. Time has no bearing. What you can gauge is how they feel about their experience - some people are lucky enough to seek help quickly, others go down the ‘it’s not so bad’ route.
- Even after thirty years, longer, they can stop. We’ve got one here, living in shop doorways, police found him, thought he was dead, then he moved - you know that guy was drinking for maybe forty five years? Your body is so resilient. What we try to do with individuals who are older with a long period of addiction is try to explain to them, that maybe, even if they haven’t got fifty years left, that their best might still be ahead of them.
Does speaking as an ex-addict make people more likely to accept what you’re saying?
K: The problem that you’ve got with a lot of individuals, they’re pretty much institutionalised, not all, but most. Mental health hospitals, prisons, at some point they’ve come into contact with an institution, maybe from as young as the age of four or five. What they’re really aware of is what they have to do, how to play the game. What we try to do is cut through that. We’re changing the rules, if you’ve got a problem, if you’ve got an issue, if something’s up - don’t go through this convoluted process of trying to manipulate us. We want you to say what it is you need to say what it is you think, what it is we do. You’ve said it now, do you feel better?
- We’re not averse to using others who have not been addicts but can also add credence to the project. They’re not an elitist group - they’re definitely not an elitist group - but they’re not an un-elitist group of individuals - who are just acting this way. Actually, what you realise, people are people. You’ve not got all these problems and all these difficulties, no ‘I’m different and you don’t understand’, there’s people that struggle just as much and more so than you because they get no support - so grow up.
H: It makes a difference when ‘grow up’ comes from people who have had to ‘grow up’ themselves. Not someone in a suit and a tie.
K: But then of course there’s other individuals that they have respect for for different reasons, you can work out what it is.
What do you see as the future of the project?
K: The ambition is to get this model really polished, maybe attach housing to it, get work with other agencies, form partnerships with organisations. Something exportable, try and roll it out to different cities, different places. So we can see if what we believe is valid, if it works on a larger scale, and get councils and so on to take it up.
Are there other projects in other cities that you know of that are like the compass project?
K: No, well, in America there is. There’s similar here but not quite the same.
How can people help, other than buying furniture here obviously?
K: Join us on Facebook and Twitter, they can access the service, donate. We’re always open to ideas - ideas for fundraising, partnerships. It’s difficult to make it all happen, the more friends, members, champions of the project that can help and support us that would be enormous.
H: Once a month - because socialising is very important - we put on events for the volunteers. This weekend we’re going to the beach, if people in the local community might have the facilities or a way of hosting an event for us that would be a great help.
If you could say one thing to anyone out there in Bristol struggling alone with addiction, what would it be?
K: Some of the key things, not keeping it in the family, I mean - it’s impossible, you can’t. Everyone has come from different places, all around the world, different substances, different reasons for being there in the first place, but there are these common threads - like anxiety, like lack of acceptance, like trying to keep it hidden, like the manipulation.
H: I think from where we started, just to know there are so many people exactly like you, you’re not special, regardless of how you ended up here, and that’s a good thing. There’s hope in that.
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