Castle Craig’s 24th Reunion

I came to Scotland to make a short film about Castle Craig’s annual reunion, when hundreds of people who have recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction get together to share their experiences. As a non-addict I felt rather privileged to be able to share in the powerful emotions of the day that are generated when so many people in recovery get together.

My tolerance level for seminars and conferences and speeches is very low. If the speeches aren’t engaging I head for the exit and I generally avoid this type of event. But Castle Craig’s reunion was really exceptional, in my experience, in that I was totally engaged as soon as I walked into the big blue and white marquee on the front lawn.

Peter McCann, the chairman of Castle Craig Hospital, opened the proceedings with a short and informative speech during which he gave quite a useful summary of what the last year has brought Castle Craig, as well as what’s happening in the NHS regarding the treatment of the disease of addiction. He thanked the fantastic and hard working team of staff at Castle Craig who go out of their way to help their patients get through treatment and recover. Sadly, the NHS continues to keep its head in the sand regarding addiction treatment and the number of addicts referred to residential treatment continues to fall.

Before setting up Castle Craig in 1988 with his wife, Dr Margaret Ann, Peter McCann founded another residential rehab clinic in England: Clouds House. Clouds House was mentioned fondly in Peter’s speech and he was glad to report that it is still flourishing despite the lack of referrals by the NHS.  It also provided the link to the main speaker of the day.

David Charkham has been in recovery from alcoholism for over 20 years. He told an incredible story of success in the theatre scene in London many years ago, his fall into severe addiction, unemployment and his eventual recovery at Clouds House. What made his story so engaging was his insights into all those behaviours that stop people succeeding in recovery – denial and blame in particular.

Someone once told me that an actor is a “behaviour specialist”, in other words someone who understands behaviour, actions and psychology. I realised that there is a lot more to actors than I used to think, and listening to David Charkham I realised how true this is. He was able to summarise the experience of addiction and present it in a way that was funny, moving, tragic and full of insight that is of relevance to me as well as all those in recovery.  

I didn’t really grasp how many people were at the reunion until lunchtime. A huge queue formed at the barbeque tent and I thought “I’ll wait for the queue to die down a bit”. But it didn’t. The queue was moving quite fast (scores of people were being fed every minute) but it never seemed to get smaller. There were hundreds of people at this reunion, but they all fitted very neatly into the marquee. I still don’t understand how the kitchen staff managed to feed such a big crowd, but catering has always been a mystery to me.

Four alumni gave us their stories after lunch (they call this a “share” in AA meetings). Of particular interest was the account of a doctor from Northern Ireland who described how he lost his entire family on his way to the bottom. What made his story compelling was how unsentimental he seemed about his losses, as if he had put it all behind him. One of the other speakers told us about her global travels and how she has found guidance and inspiration in Buddhism. The first speaker kept being interrupted by his baby who was squealing in delight at the sight of her Daddy giving a speech.

We spoke to scores of other visitors and all of them had the same happy message: how wonderful it is to have this opportunity to come together and share their experiences with other people in recovery. I really felt honoured to be able to participate in such a powerful event and I do hope to come back next year for Castle Craig’s 25th Anniversary reunion.

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