Recovery, Education and Capability
This was the first seminar to be held in Maynooth University since 2019, and I could certainly identify with and echo the words of Dr Derek Barter, that this event was an antidote to the fear we have been feeling over the last 2 years. The sense that some fragment of normalcy was returning was evident, the atmosphere outside the lecture hall beforehand was buzzing with relaxed chat. I must say it was nice to be at an event where the main topic was not Covid, no, today belonged to recovery. This ALL Institute and the Dept of Adult and Community Education (DACE), joint Addiction Studies/Psychology seminar did not disappoint as Dr Barter introduced Dr Mark Richardson from Growing Space.
The story that unfolded as Mark began his presentation was one of true humanity, inclusion, caring and respect. Dr Richardson was joined by co-worker Nicola Vaile, and two participants from Growing Space, Michele and Marette. It was obvious from the beginning that the relationship between all four people was very special, you could feel the deep connection between them. Marks passion for what he does, and for what he has helped create in Growing Space was evident in his presentation. It flowed from him naturally because he deeply believes in it. Growing Space has been providing a space in Wales since 1992, in a place called Nant Bran (such a lovely name), where they continue to approach mental health issues through transformational education, community engagement, situationist practice, and emancipatory participation. All of this in the hope that those who suffer mental health issues might find that spark that ignites their journey of recovery. In Mark Richardson’s own words, “education is the bedrock of recovery”.
Dr Richardson continued as he explained, in detail, the support they provide at Growing Space for the community. All the time connecting the theories and practices to the real-life experiences of Michele and Marette. This is not a medical, symptom management approach to mental health, although the medical approach is also important, as Dr Mary Ryan (Head of Dept of Adult and Community Education) alluded to. I found it refreshing to hear someone speak about people who can sometimes be forgotten about within society because of mental health issues and the stigma that surrounds it. One of the first things Mark done when he arrived at Growing Space was to paint the old building bright yellow, so as to let people know we are here and this is what we do, no more hiding. A simple but powerful statement, if we refuse to acknowledge or speak about serious social issues and the structures that support these beliefs, we give them the power to oppress. One of the first questions Mark asks anyone who comes to Growing Space is, what can you do, what do you want to do? Instead of, what’s wrong with you? Growing Space joins a person’s recovery journey and supports them by focusing on a person’s strengths. Mark goes on to tell us that Growing Space is there to “inspire learning”, and to “help people find their own recovery”.
Dr Richardson kept referring back to both Michele and Marette’s stories throughout his presentation, so as to give the audience a sense of their mental health issues, their pathways to recovery and their experiences within Growing Space. I for one found this approach very inclusive, a clever way of keeping both Michele and Marette involved in the presentation, as there were some serious anxiety issues, in particular with Marette, as we were to find out later. Somehow they found the strength to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and tell their very personal stories. Upon reflection I can see that it was only because of the relationship that Mark Richardson and his team have with the participants at Growing Space, that Marette and Michele had the confidence to share with us their experiences.
Michele’s story was harrowing to hear at times, and by the end of it I had tears in my eyes, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. What Michele endured throughout her childhood was nothing short of horrific, at one point she did say, matter-of-factly, that she blamed her mother for her mental illness. When Michele first came to Growing Space she had literacy issues, but here Michele was, more than a stone’s throw away from home, standing in a very large lecture hall reading from her life story which she wrote herself – here was the power of adult education. This is what can happen when the barriers of stigma, language, and ignorance are removed, and replaced with humanity, cooperation, openness and exploration. The support from Nicola during the time Michele spent at the podium was visible, solid as a rock. The round of applause Michele received when she finished was emotional to say the least, it was in appreciation for her honesty and vulnerability; it’s true when Brene Brown says, there is power in vulnerability . It was not only for Michele’s honesty that such appreciation was shown, but the fact that she came through what she did, not unscathed by any means, but still standing none the less, how dare anyone stigmatise, exclude, or at the very least not strive to understand a powerful soul like Michele, is beyond me.
When Marette made her way to the podium, the moral support of Nicola was ever present. Two very different stories in ways, but ultimately having similar outcomes, ill mental health. What did come through in Marette’s story was how important Growing Space and building a trusting relationship with Mark was in her journey of recovery. From speaking with Mark later in the day I can say that some of the obstacles that Marette has overcome is astonishing. I can only speculate that the occasion become too much for Marette during her talk and she couldn’t finish what she had written; without missing a beat in jumped Nicola to make sure that what Marette had written was heard. I can only liken it to a secret service agent jumping in front of a bullet for her president, marvellous. It was in this moment that I looked from Marette to Mark to Nicola, and what I saw will stay with me for a long time to come. What I saw was love, the type of love you see between a parent and a child or between siblings. They felt and acted with Marette in the moment, and I only hope that when they had time to reflect that they looked for the lesson in the experience.
I really enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in the company of Mark, Nicola, Michele and Marette. It was a privilege to hear their stories and I hope I have done them justice in this piece. There is so much more to Dr Mark Richardson’s work and Growing Space. I was glad to have the chance to talk with Mark afterwards, and I asked him how he would approach stigma within people who were in recovery from addiction. His reply was, change the language you use. Now, I have to say, I was expecting more but, what I wasn’t expecting was that I would be still thinking about his answer a week later. I have been engaged in those five words ever since and thinking of different ways to put them into action. Mark didn’t give me the answer I was looking for, he joined me on my journey to finding the answer for myself. Thank you Mark.
Glen Patrick Smith began his journey through Maynooth University in 2018, when he completed the certificate in Addictions Studies. From there he progressed on to the part-time evening degree in Community Studies, which he will complete in the summer of 2023. Returning to education, in particular the Adult and Community Education Department in Maynooth, has been the most important decision of his life thus far. It has given him a confidence to express himself, and it has afforded him opportunities he never though possible. As a result of his studies and the passion it has instilled in him for adult and community education, Glen has recently been employed by the local Family Resource Centre in Newbridge as a family support/community development worker. Glen intends to continue his studies in the near future.