Recovery positions

Award-winning ex-vendor Stuart Whaley says people getting over addictions have so much to teach others

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A former Big Issue North vendor has gained recognition for his work in overcoming drug addiction and helping others to do so. Stuart Whaley, who until recently sold the magazine in Sheffield, was commended at a recent ceremony in the town hall as part of Recovery Month in the city, which celebrates those who recover from substance misuse.

“Addicts are people. We have problems, but we are living our lives to the best of our abilities.”

Celebrating recovery is important, says Whaley. “As addicts, we have lived for years thinking we are nothing, a waste of space. But we are people. Yes, we have our faults, we have our problems, but we are living our lives to the best of our abilities. Most people in recovery are improving and that should be celebrated.”

Whaley, 44, was in and out of care as a child and has been an addict for over 30 years. “My life was such a mess because of my childhood and my mental health, I don’t think anything would have stopped me using heroin for the first time,” he says. “That warm blanket feeling – it took all my problems away. I loved it, so I carried on doing it.

“It helps you shut down what you’re thinking and feeling. Being clean means facing up to those emotions.”

Whaley won two awards at the Recovery Month event – one for his own recovery and another for helping others in similar circumstances. “Services need to have service users at the heart of them, people who have had experience of it,” he says.

“And it needs to be targeted locally. Just because one plan works in Manchester doesn’t mean it would work in Sheffield. Open a service and you might get 20 heroin addicts, but all of those are 20 different people with different problems.”

Every recovery is also different. “I’ve been learning over the last few years about my own recovery plan. I’ve made mistakes of course, but I think people in recovery are lucky because we’ve been taught so many tools to help us cope in everyday situations.”

One major help is a good support network, which might take years to build up.

“It’s your recovery but you can’t do it on your own – you need help.”

Among his own network he counts staff at Big Issue North office, who are still on hand if he needs it. He stopped selling the magazine after 20 years of doing it on and off, because he feels he no longer needs the support. But he’s grateful to the organisation. Not only did it help him earn an income, but also “the staff signposted me to other services and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for them”.

Recovery is not just about getting clean from drug use, says Whaley. “It’s about the way you think and wanting to take action to change.”

He is now on heroin substitute medication, though he’s keen to come off it as soon as possible as he is aware people can become “parked” on the medication for a long time. He’s living in supported accommodation where random drug tests ensure residents stay clean.

“I don’t have big plans about the future,” he says. But his ideal job would be to work in the drug service. He’d love to go into schools to talk about his experiences, though he wouldn’t repeat the old mantra of “don’t do drugs”.

“I’d tell them how it’s affected me and those around me, how it’s caused my health to deteriorate, for example, how my lungs are damaged and I’ve got COPD because I smoked so many drugs.”

One thing he is hopeful about though is staying clean. “I used to think I’d be in recovery for the rest of my life, but now I think I’ll be here for the next 10 years or so, then I’ll be done with it and I’ll just be living a normal life.”

Photo: Lee Brown

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