One Day at a Time is a 63 minute documentary about the residents of Damien John Kelly House, an abstinence based recovery house for adult males in Liverpool. The film charts the rocky road to recovery for a group of men and the role that creativity and physical activity play in their reintegration with themselves and into society. My friend PJ Smith is the recovery community lead at DJKH and sent me a link to watch a preview web screening.
I met PJ years ago at a meeting in Rodney Street. We’re the same age and have been in recovery for the same amount of time. We’re both strong advocates of 12 Step principles – and we both support Everton. PJ’s a recovery worker in the community, I perform the same role in prison, where I spend a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of the construction of new self and social identities, namely that of a non-user. Watching the documentary, I was struck by the fact that my friend has also clearly spent a lot of time considering the most effective methods in terms of helping men to live drug-free lives of purpose. I count myself fortunate in my own recovery that when I hit bottom with the drink and drugs at the age of twenty-six, I already had a wide variety of interests, including travel, literature, sport, music and religion. When I complete assessment outcome stars with men in prison, if ‘watching TV and playing cards’ are the only items in the ‘Meaningful Use of Time’ category, then I know that the men will find life heavy-going on their release – and will likely return to active addiction. Intellectual curiosity is a person’s willingness and desire to learn new things and move beyond the superficial. Intellectual curiosity makes learning a much more natural process, instead of a resented, obligatory task. And whilst addiction is certainly an equal opportunity destroyer of lives, this lack of epistemic curiosity is often more pronounced and prevalent amongst working class boys and men.
Your old identity, even though it’s not a great one, or one you’re proud of, it is an identity. Whether it’s ‘that lunatic’ or ‘that madman’, whatever it is – you shed that – and you don’t quite form a new one yet because it takes a bit of time. So you’re just left in this state of non-existence. You’ve got no idea who you are or what you’re about. And in a lot of cases people just go ‘I’m going back’ but if you just see that through and start to form a new identity where you’re known as someone who’s reliable, who’s calm, who’s helpful – you start to feel more comfortable in yourself and that’s your new identity. You can’t go from your old one to your new one without the sticky bit in the middle. But that sticky bit in the middle is where a lot of people relapse – because they don’t know who they are and it feels worse than being in active addiction. So they go back to active addiction.
The recovery literature supports PJ’s hypothesis. From The Matrix Model Relapse Prevention handouts produced by Hazelden Foundation: ‘Research shows that the reasons people stop using have little bearing on whether they will be able to successfully maintain a lifestyle free of alcohol and other drugs. What does make a difference is whether they can stay free of alcohol and other drugs long enough to appreciate the benefits of a different lifestyle. Over time, most people’s lives start to improve in recovery. When debts are not overwhelming, when relationships are rewarding, when work is going well, and when health is good, the recovering person wants to stay substance-free.’ Or, as one DJKH resident states: ‘Doing the next right thing is the willingness to fucking keep going. Because every day you get, you’re moving further away from all the shit that we’ve been talking about earlier.’
PJ’s mother, Jacquie Johnston-Lynch, spoke about her life’s purpose and current mission as Service Manager at Vitality Homes: ‘Everyone in Liverpool knows someone in active addiction. I wanted to make sure that everyone in Liverpool knows someone in recovery.’
For me, working in the field of recovery, I personally get a real sense of purpose that my pain of losing my brother (to a drink driver) and coming from a family with a history of alcoholism and domestic violence is actually turned into purpose. The men are doing something very, very different. They’re transforming their own lives and actually giving other men a message about: What does a real man look like? How can real men effect change in the world? How can they step up in their relationships? How can they step up in their community? And for me that’s a very powerful experience.
Whilst the documentary does not address the inner work, self-examination and moral development vital to permanent recovery, the necessity of radical change and improved personal conduct is alluded to in the testimonies of members of the DJKH community. The film instead chooses to focuses on the ‘learning to live’ aspect of early recovery. There was something extremely moving about watching grown men share their reluctance to even try painting or photography – and joyful to watch them perform tentative star jumps before plunging into northern waters like schoolchildren taken to Crosby baths for the first time.
The documentary is about recovery, although an acted segment (Sam Batley’s ‘Three Bull-mastiffs in a Corner Kitchen‘) accurately depicts the dull, joyless futility of addiction. Admirably, the film’s makers and contributors refrain from political pronouncements or social commentary. Societal factors such as poverty, male lack of purpose and absent fathers (‘lads without dads’) are also unaddressed. This is all to the good, as the story is about the men, their community and the path that they are on.
The residents are a transient population. They come from different places and they will eventually move on. Move on into the world of work, move on back to their families. And so because the community is transient, what we try and do is make sure that the culture of DJKH is absolutely solid. So no matter who comes in, they’re meeting the same culture all the time. And the way in which we do that is to try and instill hope into every man that walks through the doors, in the hope that they pass that installation of hope on to the next one who comes in. And for us, that is the essence of what we are doing here. That’s the culture that we’ve put in place.
The above quote from Jacquie reminds me of the term ‘culture carrier’, a concept I was introduced to whilst working at HMP Grendon, a therapeutic community. For prisoners used to the general prison population, it can be extremely unsettling to adapt to life in a therapeutic community and the culture of enquiry (as opposed to hierarchy) supported by the four pillars of democracy, tolerance, community and reality confrontation.
I recently re-watched The Full Monty and was struck by how Lomper (pictured above) was brought from the brink of suicide to something approaching a life full of meaning and purpose. After being dragged from his carbon monoxide filled car by Dave, Lomper is essentially loved back to life by Dave and Gaz, who decide to like Lomper (yes, we can just make a decision to like other humans – that is a learned behaviour) and thereafter involve him in their activities. Lomper is supported by his new group of friends when his mother dies – and he forms a romantic relationship with Guy. He is also a member of the Steelworks Brass Band. I was reminded of Lomper’s therapeutic journey whilst observing the simple camaraderie present throughout One Day At A Time, which, like The Full Monty, Trainspotting and This is England, is also a snapshot of British life.
I actually had the privilege of sharing my experience, strength and hope with the residents of DJKH back in January 2021 – and I hope to be able to visit the house again soon. I also plan on contacting the film’s director to ask if I can screen the documentary at the prison where I work, or even provide some of the clients on my caseload with DVDs to watch. It would also be excellent content to watch during a relapse prevention course. One Day at a Time provides hope, a reality check and a vision of conviviality, companionship and creativity. As the AA Big Book says: ‘These men had found something brand new in life’.
One Day at a Time is directed by Paul Chambers and produced by Sam Batley.