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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Vatican Radio interviews Wirral director of Olive Branch centre for recovering addicts

Olive Branch team, page six

Click on this link to listen to Vatican Radio interview with Damian Prescott (pictured centre), the director of the Olive Branch centre for recovering addicts, based in Rock Ferry, Wirral


The place where heroin addicts find healing and hope

A unique project in Wirral is using Gospel values to liberate hard drug-users from their addictions, reports Simon Caldwell

Recovering heroin addict, page fourThe man sat opposite casts his mind back to 1981, the year when heroin first “hit Birkenhead” and the surrounding docklands.

“Being kids, we thought it was a new type of pot (cannabis) when we first took it,” he said.

“Now I count myself lucky to have survived. I have known over 150 people who have died right the way through.”

For him, “right the way through” means the 32 years he has spent addicted to drugs, 20 of them to heroin. In this period he has spent a total of six years in jail as he turned to crime to feed a dependency which began when he was just 14 years old.

Clean for six months, he says he is now determined to kick his habit for good.

To my left sit two men with similar ambitions. One is 37 and has been taking heroin since he was 15 and the other is 28 and has been using hard drugs for about 10 years. They too are keen to change. “I lost my flat and my job,” says the younger man. “But I was engaging with the drugs services and my key worker took one look at me and said, ‘You’ve had enough, haven’t you?’ and I said: ‘Yes, I’m sick and tired of it’.”

Listening to their experiences is to take a journey into a world most people know about but never enter. It is dark, disturbing, harrowing and tragic – a world of lost innocence, of run-away children, broken families, corruption, squalor and death.

One man, 49, speaks about how drug use took him from a good job in interior design, to squandering his inheritance, to crime and ultimately to a cell in Walton Prison, Liverpool, adjacent to a notorious murderer.

I quiz another 42-year-old man about what might be his most terrible experience in a career that began when his drug-dealer step-father introduced him to alcohol at the age of just nine years old. He hesitates, as if to wish to spare me the ordeal. Then he opens up about how, after struggling to stay clean, he despaired following a relapse and attempted to take his own life. This was only last year and he was so distressed that he faced a spell with Clatterbridge Hospital Psychiatric Services in Bebington, Wirral. Instead he found a place at the Olive Branch Recovery Communities, established in July 2012 in a six-bedroom Victorian house in nearby Rock Ferry, in which we sit.

This community is unique for the Wirral, a place with one of the highest proportions of hard drug users per head of population in the UK, partly because of its proximity to Merseyside dockland.

It is offering a service to addicts who have stopped using heroin but are still hooked on the use of Methadone or Buprenorphine substitutes. There is nothing quite like it in terms of its intensity and support, with six-month stays contrasting to the three-week detoxification programmes run by the local authorities. But where it really stands out is that it operates a philosophy or recovery rooted soundly in enduring Gospel values.

“We try to give people a foundational anthropology so they can recognise the infinite value and preciousness of the human person,” says Damien Prescott, one of the four directors of the Olive Branch. “We are not interested in why they are addicts, it is more about how they can get better as a person.

“The long-term project is emancipation. People free themselves and we work to help them to flourish, to grow, to become who they really are.”

He and the other directors – his wife Antonia, Noel Scully and Oliver Mates – are committed Catholics and their faith is “implicit in everything we do” in the project, run in conjunction with Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Residents are never put under pressure to believe in God but any signs of faith are encouraged “as a central component of recovery”.

‘Bringing good news to the poor’

At present, two of the five residents have become regular Mass-goers at St Joseph’s Church, Birkenhead, and three have recently volunteered to accompany Noel on retreat.

“Hopefully, we are bringing good news to the poor, to the broken, giving sight to the blind and setting prisoners free,” says Damien, who serves as a member of the focus group for New Evangelisation in the Diocese of Shrewsbury.

To him, the objectives of the Olive Branch align perfectly with the New Evangelisation. “If we want to evangelise, doing the right thing has to come first,” he says.

But such practical charity also has a profound spiritual and intellectual basis, with much of the content of the recovery programmes underpinned by the thinking of Fr Bernard Lonergan, the 20th century Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian.

“Lonergan spoke of authenticity as ‘man’s deepest need and most prized achievement’,” explains Damien.

“He speaks of different types of bias – in addiction we call this denial – that must be overcome. We must face our own brokenness heroically if we are to become who we really are. He proposes a way of overcoming bias, denial and self-deception, through being attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible. This is the foundation of our recovery programme.”

He continues: “For Lonergan, self-transcendence leads to social transformation, to making the world a better place and our ultimate goal at the Olive Branch Recovery Communities is to provide a space for healing, so that people are able to pass on the fruits of their recovery to their family, their community and the world at large.

“If the world is to be healed of its radical brokenness, one of the first steps is for people to recognise their own transcendent dignity and beauty, and to carry that vision to every person they meet. We hope we are doing this at the Olive Branch.”

Oliver believes that the fruits of their labours are starting to appear, with addicts turning to the project for help after seeing others successfully recovering. “People are seeing them get well and are jumping on to that,” he says.

“The return of the investment is that the people who were ill and troubled and a worry for the community are now the very people who have the initiatives to turn it around.”

Recovering addict on computer, pages five or sixThe venture is less than one year old and so far just three people have completed the full course and returned to the community.

One has successfully readjusted to normal life but at least one has relapsed, a common occurrence among addicts, and also an indicator of just how tough it can be for them once they are on their own again.

This is not a “bad percentage”, observes Noel, yet it remains to be seen if the Olive Branch is going to be a success in the long term. In the meantime a waiting list is building up and the directors are developing plans to support former residents in the community, and also giving thought to opening a second house.

Noel says: “The main aim is to get people back to be able to make a living and become self-supporting, and to pursue a second chance, may be doing something they never had a chance to do.”

The five residents of the house have already received a gift of hope – recovery, support and a sure platform upon which to reconstruct their shattered lives. As individuals they appear sane, rational and committed. As a group they are relaxed. They have fellowship and, for a while, a “home” where they can flourish.


(Reproduced  from the summer 2013 edition of theShrewsbury Catholic Voice. Photos by Simon Caldwell, St Gabriel News and Media)