28 February 2023

It has been an inspiring and stimulating start to the year for me personally. Apart from the usual hustle and bustle at First Step and my constant state of amazement at my colleagues skill and our clients’ resilience, there have been 3 additional sources of inspiration. The Victorian Alcohol And Drug Association conference (2 weeks ago), reading an amazing book: https://www.madnessmademe.com/ , and the International Family Drug Support Day at Parliament house last week.

All three ‘things’ left me with 1) an abounding sense of community, and 2) an ever deeper respect for, and belief in, the voice of lived and living experience.

Quick explainer if needed: Lived and living experience is a term used in both the mental health and alcohol and other drug sectors to reference an individual’s personal current (living) or past (lived) experience of either:

- Mental illness
- Significant alcohol or other drug use (some would use the word addiction but it’s not always relevant and some don’t like the word)
- Both
- And I’ll add to that (I’m not the first) the lived or living experience of caring for someone with a mental illness or someone living with addiction.

What is exciting about this movement is that it has come so far, but still has so far to go.

The Victorian Government has put it’s money where it’s mouth is and created a department of Lived Experience (mental health) with the author of the book I listed being it’s Executive Director. Mary O’Hagan has a staff of over 20 who are gradually going about transforming the work the Department does with, of all things, the insider’s perspective. Would we ever have tried to, let’s say, build the Grand Prix racing track without engaging drivers? But for so many years, having (or having had) a mental illness has been seen as nothing but a negative and a source of shame. Mary’s book opened my eyes to the notion that there is meaning in mental illness. I’m going to leave it on that intriguing notion.

And at the VAADA conference, once again we saw the voice of lived and living experience. So many presenters (including myself) quoted clients and families at great length. Many panels had lived and living experience speakers, and when a presenter failed to acknowledge or realise that they were speaking to people with a lived or living experience . . . well, it stood out like a sore thumb!

And then there was the Family Drug Support Day. Carers spoke, and people with their own lived and living experience of illicit drug use spoke of the people who had cared for them. Mum’s featured heavily! How can we possibly plan services and plot pathways to a better system without those voices? They are starting to be heard and they speak volumes.

I am very happy to say that First Step has always employed people with a lived experience of alcohol and other drug use. For some years now we have had volunteer and paid peer roles, and we have a lived and living experience reference group (that includes carers). But, we’re pretty new to this. We’re excited, and we’re also very keen to do it right. We are constantly told by our clients that seeing a person in the room who had survived an ordeal similar to theirs is a pivotal source of inspiration. One of those volunteer peers, now working in the sector, asked me at the conference if we would employ someone at First Step with a living experience of illicit drug use (i.e. someone who still uses illicit drugs by choice on a regular basis, and has valuable skills and experience)? Well, I told them, I’d have a good think about it.

 #lifewithaddiction #firststep 

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer