Being Better Than Well at Birmingham University

Luke Trainor is the Project Manager of Better Than Well, a Collegiate Recovery Programme launched at The University of Birmingham in July 2021. In this article, he reveals the journey of challenge, learning and dedication that took him there.

I have no experience of active addiction at university. When I arrived at The University of Birmingham to study Political Science and Social Policy for my undergad, I was in early recovery. My enrolment at university coincided almost exactly with my exit from residential treatment for deep and entrenched addiction to heroin, cocaine, alcohol and benzodiazepines.

My experience of education prior to that, bar primary school, had been almost entirely flavoured by my addiction. By the age of 14, I had been kicked out of my third secondary school in Birmingham and was already taking amphetamines, alcohol, and cannabis on a daily basis. The daily balancing act of getting that ‘Goldilocks’ combination of substances (that would get my feelings and emotions ‘just right’) was not conducive to the setting of the modern urban comprehensive school. I was simply deemed a ‘problem’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘odd’.

Thus began a long and winding road of fluctuating motivation to aspire to anything in particular. As my environment went from ‘countercultural’ to downright criminal, I almost lost my desire to be anything in this world other than a problem. And I want to highlight the word ‘almost’, here, because that flame never entirely went out - there was a yearning in me to understand, to learn, to adapt.

Acclimatising to the ever-changing me

It can be tempting when writing about your addiction to focus entirely on the internal drudgery of the mental and emotional states that surround being an addict, and the trials and tribulations of being (an) ‘other’ in the world.

Others around me also had to suffer all this as well. It was particularly cruel when hope was renewed at times when things looked like they were getting better, only for it to be repeatedly smashed over and over again. Eventually this can become too much to bear, and that’s exactly what happened with the people around me.

At my worst, I was chronically intravenously injecting cocaine and heroin in the most haphazard and dangerous way. I was estranged from my first child, who had been born in one of those periods of hope, only to have to suffer the departure of his father months after he came into the world. His mother, the most strong and resilient of women, made the correct decision to create a safe distance between him and me.

I thank her for this today. Around that time I became homeless, sleeping rough or in hostels, and my mental health was in the poorest of conditions. But my one solace in this misery was not the drugs – by now they were barely working other than to divorce me further from this world and the people in it. Instead, it was books. I would read philosophy, literature, and science, trying to make sense of what was happening to me.

And somewhere, somehow, a miracle took place. How and where the shift occurred, I cannot fully remember, as that time is marked by extreme dysphoria and disorientation for me. The slightest of shifts in consciousness grew into bigger ideas and further into enough volition to act on them.

I enrolled on an access to Higher Education course at a local college in Birmingham, Fircroft college. I want to extend my upmost gratitude to this institution, which has a long history of providing education to those who would usually be excluded or exclude themselves from the world of academia.

My time there was not without its struggles or trials, as I was still using drugs sporadically and my behaviour and presence was, at times, disorganized and unmanageable. They did their upmost to keep me on course, even allowing me to sleep in a broom-cupboard when I was homeless. I got through it, and even excelled in matters of sociological imagination and political science. I also began to slowly recover from some of the acute horrors of street drug using.

Growing into a new future

As my time at Fircroft drew to an end, it became clear that I would need a period of treatment and detoxification within a residential setting. I was physically dependent on opioids and benzodiazepines, and could see that this was untenable in terms of my journey to university.

I went to a residential treatment centre and began the painful process of detoxification and waking up to the harm I had caused to others and myself. There was also the issue of a final outstanding assignment which needed to be completed if I wanted to go to my first choice of university, the University of Birmingham.

I managed to complete and hand in this essay during the throws of opioid withdrawal (to this day I don’t know how on earth I managed that). During my stay in rehab, I opened up my heart and soul, as well as my mind, to another way of life – a design for living that would work for me in hard times as well as those times when all seemed well.

This meant the destruction of my self-centredness, the acceptance of a community of others like me, and connection to a higher power, purpose, and the possibility of a ‘higher self’ emerging from this commitment. The best way for me to maintain this was to avoid selfish things and turn my attention to helping others, especially in those moments when self-centredness was creeping in once more.

Better than ever before

So, full circle, and to my arrival at the University of Birmingham to begin my undergraduate studies. (An aside: you will be glad to hear, by now I was joyously reunited with my first son, Gabriel, and he was now joined by my second son, Kane, who has never seen me intoxicated, not once!).

As you can imagine, this was a daunting experience for me. The wonderful catharsis of turning my thoughts and experience into writing was life-changing, but at the same time I felt isolated, disconnected, and let self-stigma get the better of me.

What I craved was a community on campus, like the one I had outside of university. A space and place to share my feelings, thoughts and hopes around recovery and education. At this point I wasn’t keen to share the fact I was in recovery to anyone without lived experience at the university.

When asked the inevitable questions about why I was studying so late in life, I would come up with different stories. I preferred to say I had mental health problems, as opposed to mentioning addiction. This is sad, but true. I didn’t want people to identify me with the image of the ‘junky’ pushed at us through the media, the vagrant, the thief – the ‘other’, once again.

But despite all this, I excelled. I drew deep on my experience and connected with the struggles of the individuals and groups throughout history I now studied. And I loved it. It allowed me to focus my mind and channel my restlessness.

In my second year, I had a chance encounter on campus with an old friend, Dr Ed Day (now the UK government’s recovery champion, no less!). Ed was someone I trusted implicitly and someone who absolutely understands recovery. We talked for many hours about my journey since we had last seen each other, and he introduced me to concept of the Collegiate Recovery Program.

In the US, students have been coming together to create recovery communities in universities since the 1970s. I have since met some of the individuals who started up these revolutionary services. They have inspired me and been incredibly generous with their time and support. I was absolutely lit up by this - I felt a new lease of life, ignited by the possibility that no student need ever feel isolated in recovery at university again.

As I finished my undergraduate degree, Ed set about the business of getting buy-in from the top brass at the University of Birmingham. In 2020 I obtained my degree with first-class honours, when just 4 years prior I had been homeless, hopeless and on death’s door. I had proved to myself and others that remarkable things are possible if we can keep even a flicker of hope alive. I wanted others to know this, that they too could achieve marvellous things, that is never too late.

Launching Better than well

Today, our Collegiate Recovery Program, Better Than Well, is fully up and running. We have engaged with 25 students seeking help with recovery from addictions, both substance-related and behavioural.

Of those 25, we have a core group of 13 students who are actively engaged in co-production of the program by attending and helping to design our groups, regularly dropping in to our cosy, safe space on campus, attending recovery groups in the community, and socialising, together.

It’s a truly beautiful thing to behold. Our dream that no student in recovery need ever be alone again at this university is being realised. One day, we hope, this will be true of every other university in the land.    

You can find out more about Better Than Well, and Luke, by visiting the University of Birmingham online, here.