“Drugs and alcohol are a form of self-medication,” Michelle Christiaens tells The Independent. “Addiction often comes from trauma or a lack of self-esteem or social anxiety. We call it a hole in the soul.”
The 29-year-old works at a recovery house for women fighting drug and alcohol addiction set up in memory of Amy Winehouse who died from alcohol poisoning 10 years ago today. Amy’s Place, in Hackney, east London, is one of the only recovery centres in the UK solely for women even though research shows women are more likely to relapse than men.
“Relapse can be triggered by something tiny and seemingly irrelevant that you see, hear or smell that sets off a response where you go back into trauma,” Ms Christiaens, a recovery support worker at Amy’s Place, adds. “When you have been in trauma for a long time, it can sometimes be difficult to separate what is reality and what is trauma.”
Unlike most similar services, Amy’s Place is unique in that it does not kick out residents who relapse and use drugs or drink alcohol. “If people come from a background where it wasn’t okay to make mistakes and they have always been punished for making them, we just repeat that cycle if we kick them out,” Ms Christiaens adds. “How are you ever going to break that cycle of addiction. Kicking them out just confirms in their minds why you shouldn’t be honest about things.”
Amy’s Place provides homes for up to 16 young women aged between 18 and 30 as well as delivering a plethora of therapeutic and practical services to support women including music and art therapy.
“They come here to find the safety they need to explore their potential and their talents,” Ms Christiaens explains. “They do things here they never thought they would be able to do and turn out to be amazing at them.”
Amber’s life has profoundly changed since moving into Amy’s Place a few months back. The 28-year-old, who did not want her surname included, has struggled with drug addiction and was using drugs every day at the height of her addiction.
She started using drugs at the age of 14, living between her mum’s house, her friend's homes and foster care her entire life. And then at the age of 16, she was sectioned after suffering drug-induced psychosis.
“I was using quite a lot and became quite unwell though the drugs,” Amber, who grew up in west London, adds. “I don’t remember much of it. I was in The Priory [a well-known rehabilitation clinic]. It was free for under 18’s. I went to The Priory a few times.”
She has been clean for almost six months and was off drugs for 18 months prior to that before relapsing for a week.
“There is a nice sense of community here,” Amber reflects. “You never feel alone. Everyone’s story is different but we can all relate to each other. When I arrived here, I could drop my armour and be myself.”
She said there are always staff available to speak to if she feels anxious she is going to relapse – adding that it is helpful living with other women in the same position as well as having a safe space to call her own.
Amber runs an online shop called Resourced Vintage which sells a beautiful array of second-hand designer menswear and sportswear. “It really took off after I got here,” Amber adds. “I couldn’t really do it for long when I was using.”
Like the other women who live there and staff who work there, Amber is a massive fan of Amy Winehouse who of course had her own protracted battle with drug and alcohol addiction. Memories of Amy reverberate in the centre with framed photos of the musician hanging on the walls.
“I didn’t begin to really build my life back up until I was blessed enough to be offered a flat at Amy’s Place,” Emma, an ex-resident who is now doing a degree in counselling and has a job at a recovery service, says. “This was when my life really started improving – the support and encouragement I received from the staff and living with other young females in recovery helped me more than words can say.”
Jane Winehouse, Amy’s stepmother who is managing trustee and co-founder of the Amy Winehouse Foundation alongside Amy’s parents, explains many of the women at Amy’s Place are very musically or artistically creative.
“They seem to generally be bright women who have all these different talents but haven’t had the opportunity to even explore their own potential,” she says.
Rachel Geary, a project manager at Amy’s Place, has first-hand experience of addiction like so many people who work in services that help those like her who also experience addiction.
“I was drinking a bottle of vodka every day,” the 50-year-old adds. “If it was not for my partner, I would be dead. He was planning my funeral. I got clean six or seven years ago.”
Ms Geary explains many of the women who come to Amy’s Place have experienced some form of trauma in their past – whether that is domestic violence or child abuse or something else.
“We deal with highly intelligent, highly creative young women,” she adds. “It is not this picture that they come to us sitting and shivering in the corner. They are all high functioning in some way or other and have a lot of potential and talent.”
Ms Geary, who has worked at Amy’s Place since it first opened its doors five years ago, said women quickly develop a new vigour and zest for life after arriving at Amy’s Place. In turn, channeling their emotions and ultimately their trauma into creative pursuits and other activities. Reflecting on the perpetual lingering fear of relapsing which long hangs over addicts’ lives, she argues it is difficult to pinpoint what triggers a relapse.
“But what is important is we are not what is classed as a kick out service which makes us unique,” Ms Geary adds. “Most secondary housing kicks people out if they relapse. The vast majority will ask someone to leave between two and 24 hours. If someone has gone out and drunk, or used for 24 hours, and has got the guts to walk through that door and tell us, what is the point of kicking them out into London with no support. How is that helpful in any shape or form.”
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