Entertainment & Arts

Recovering addicts' idea wins 5 Live Rachael Bland podcast award

Jade, Selvi and Melissa
Image caption Jade, Selvi and Melissa

The winning entry of the BBC's Rachael Bland New Podcast Award will explore life in recovery from addiction.

The new series, made by BBC Radio 5 Live and available on BBC Sounds, takes a warts-and-all look at the reality of addiction through the eyes of three recovering people - Melissa, Jade and Selvi.

The award was launched in memory of the presenter Rachael Bland and announced at the British Podcast Awards on Saturday night. Rachael died from breast cancer in September.

Here her husband Steve Bland explains why this series was chosen as the winning entry, and why he thinks Rachael would love it.

Former primary school teacher Melissa Rice says she always felt like she "wasn't born with the right tools to cope" with some of the struggles and pressures of everyday life growing up.

Now 31, her mental health deteriorated quickly in her early 20s before drinking became a crutch.

First, it was a form of "friendly light relief", but she says it quickly became her "captor" and left her confused and ashamed of what she and her life had become.

The story of art dealer Selvi May Akyildiz is somewhat different. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1987 to an English mother and Turkish father, Selvi grew up in Oxford.

After her parents separated, she was diagnosed with depression and then prescribed the antidepressant diazepam at 14.

By the time she reached her late 20s, drugs and alcohol had become an essential coping mechanism. Selvi quickly found herself without a home and feeling suicidal.

'Rock bottom'

In some ways Jade Wye's introduction to drugs took a well-trodden path.

Born and raised in Portsmouth, she started smoking marijuana "to fit in, and to lose the sense of awkwardness I felt about simply being alive".

By her own admission she placed little value on life and "would take anything".

Now 29, Jade was finally brought to her knees by cocaine. Once a mental health nurse, all of a sudden she found she could not go a day without using it. Her mental health deteriorated.

She says her "rock bottom" was a suicide attempt which resulted in a coma. She says "once I came round... I still couldn't stop using".

These three women have been chosen as the winners of the very first Rachael Bland New Podcast Award, which was launched after the death of my wife, the BBC newsreader, presenter and podcaster.

And I promise you I couldn't be happier.

When Rachael launched the award-winning, ground-breaking podcast You, Me and the Big C in March 2018, she desperately wanted to give a voice to a community of people affected by cancer.

She saw conversations happening on social media that simply weren't being mirrored in the way the wider media portrayed cancer.

Image copyright Claire Wood/BBC
Image caption Rachael Bland launched You, Me and the Big C to 'give a voice' to people affected by cancer

Along with Lauren Mahon and Deborah James, this game-changing podcast opened up those conversations to a wider audience, changed the narrative around death and a disease that takes from so many, and gave people affected by cancer an outlet and a reassurance that they were not alone.

With this competition, the BBC wanted to offer that same chance to another community. The award was launched on what would have been Rachael's 41st birthday, January 21 2019, and before long the entries were flooding in.

In all we got more than 1,000 submissions covering some truly incredible topics and featuring some stories and people that you just wouldn't believe.

'Debunking the stereotype'

But one stood out. In her initial submission for the trio, Melissa, who is from Liverpool, wrote: "It's time to debunk the stereotype of addicts. There's this spectrum, on one end the celebs, the super-rich. On the other, the 'down and outs'. So archaic. But what about us somewhere in-between? How does society react? How do we access treatment? How do we make a comeback?

"Let's change the doom and gloom record. Believe me, addiction, rehab, recovery, 'reintegration' is the ultimate tragicomedy, best served fresh and straight from the horse's mouth.

"We've had more lives than a cat sanctuary, but we aren't dead, we are truly better than well. Recovery shouldn't be a dirty secret.

"Help us celebrate visible recovery, bust outdated myths and cry with laughter at the wonders and blunders encountered on the journey, from addiction to recovery."

I can only speak for myself but I was, if you pardon the expression, hooked.

I could see so much of Rachael in these three women whose journeys from rock bottom had led them to meet and form a unique relationship at a rehab centre as they bonded over "dark humour and irrational anxieties".

When we received their audio submission, in my mind, the deal was sealed. Full of effervescent personality and honesty, they don't want us to feel sorry for them. Far from it.

All three are in a "good place" and are proactive in their recovery. They have been clean and sober for more than a year.

Image caption The new podcast will be made with Rachael's husband, Steve Bland

As Melissa told us, "I can't advise, suggest or diagnose… I thought knitting would keep me from drinking; clearly I'm not qualified.

"I'm simply a person who spectacularly swan-dived from 'grace' and hit every shameful branch along the way, someone willing to talk about recovery without clichés and self-indulgent waffle."

I have no doubt at all that Rachael would see in Melissa, Jade and Selvi so much of the same chemistry, spirit, honesty and determination to make a difference that she, Lauren and Deborah laid bare week after week so incredibly in You, Me and the Big C. The parallels are clear, but the stories are very, very different.

The first podcast will come out in September 2019 and whether you have a personal experience of addiction or not, you won't be able to put it down.

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