Castle Craig Hospital – Scotland

In May 2019, Julie and I boarded a train to Edinburgh, followed by a 45-minute car journey to Castle Craig.
‘The Castle’, as it’s fondly known by staff and patients alike, is situated in the Scottish Highlands in Peeblesshire and provides residential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

Day One
On entering the main hall, we were warmly greeted by a welcoming receptionist and we duly signed a confidentiality agreement as we were being given access to all areas and, obviously, the patients’ dignity and anonymity were paramount.

Whilst waiting for our meeting with Dominic McCann – Head of Development and Marketing – we observed that there was a very homely and calming ambiance about the place. Various patients and staff walked by and engaged in general greetings, some even enquiring what we were doing there. On meeting Dominic, he apprised us of a little of the history of ‘The Castle’ and then invited us to take a tour of the facilities with him.

The residential accommodation is in the main Castle building along with treatment rooms, lecture rooms, quiet areas for contemplation and dining areas. The grounds are extensive and are ideal for walking and tending to the resident llamas and horses.

Patients are allocated either private rooms or shared accommodation and allocation is dependent on the level of treatment that they sign up for. The rooms are comfortable and homely with each patient having their own space even if in a shared room. Patients spend approximately 12 weeks in the initial treatment program. It was stressed to us that the patient must want to be in recovery and that they must abstain from drug and alcohol abuse whilst at the facility. On admission, they are also required to hand over any mobile devices – phones, computers etc. – and are issued with a journal that they complete during their stay.

Within the grounds there are individual houses for men and women who have been through the core treatment programs and who want to progress into independent living. The houses are literally ‘home-from-home’ and allow the patients much more normality and freedom of choice.

It is also interesting to note that there are specific houses for Dutch people who are going through rehab as it is more cost-effective for them to receive treatment in the UK.

The dining areas are communal, and the catering is provided by a Michelin-star chef and his team. Menus are varied and healthy as addicts very often neglect their diets; nutrition is a vital element of recovery and is just as important as conventional medical therapies and the more holistic therapies that are offered to patients.

Throughout our initial tour, we were made to feel very welcome by everyone that we bumped in to. There was a great sense of peace and tranquility about ‘The Castle’, just as we had initially noticed, and the whole place seemed to exude a positivity that is hard to describe.

After a few hours at our accommodation, we regrouped with Dominic, two of the therapists Tony and Victoria and with Nanette, a visiting ‘Addiction Interventionist’ from the USA. We were able to ask questions about the various aspects of treatment and how they are adapted to each person. We established that each incoming patient has an individual medical and psychiatric evaluation which establishes information about their addiction and any dual diagnosis of associated mental health issues.

The patient is then provided with a full daily program of individual/group therapies which concentrate on the ‘12 Step Program’ and physical /alternative therapies. They are advised that they will be required to do homework in their journals and to fully integrate with other patients; this provides a sense of community, peer support and encouragement on their road to recovery. The regime also includes set wake-up and lights-out times which have proved to be effective in creating part of a daily routine.

It was interesting to learn that various members of the Castle Craig Therapy Team are themselves addicts in recovery. They have been clear from addiction and have become qualified to treat others. They said that this comes in handy as ‘patients can’t pull the wool over their eyes!’

Day Two

The next day began early with a bracing walk up to ‘The Castle’ to join in a couple of compulsory therapy sessions that patients are required to attend as part of their rehabilitation.

The first session was ‘Group Dynamics’ taken by therapist Gordon, a very amusing Scottish man who injected much humour into the session. The session was attended by approximately 50 patients all in various stages of recovery and of various ages and gender. We were all asked to introduce ourselves and to tell everyone what we were doing there. Basically, the session explored how the addict’s personality and behaviour featured in their relationships with others, both in one-to-one and larger groups. The session was interactive and very interesting. After the session, several patients approached Julie and I and quite openly spoke about their addictions and how they felt they were progressing with their treatment. The comments were all very positive and it was clear from their individual stories that they were in a better place than they were when they initially enrolled on the treatment program.

After a short break, we joined a small group session with only eight patients. This session explored ‘Cross Addiction’ with therapist Tim and focused more on the individual than the previous session by asking them if they’d found that being in recovery from, say drugs or alcohol, had led to them replacing their addiction with something else that gave them the same feeling. For example, one patient said that he had become addicted to going to the gym. This probably sounds normal to you and I but, where we’d probably go once a day or a few times a week, this particular patient was attending the gym more and more each day because the dopamine released to the brain was giving the same effect as the drug he’d been addicted to. The same can happen with food or another addictive substance or activity.

Before lunch, we visited the Clerical Admissions Unit where we met staff who had initial contact with the addict and/or their families. This is the ‘coal face’ of the organisation where those who are desperate to recover from addiction, or a family member who needs help with getting their loved one into recovery/rehab, are guided through the process which leads to them becoming admitted. We also found out that the admissions staff can arrange for a driver to pick patients up from the railway station or the airport at Edinburgh. They have found that addicts visiting ‘The Castle’ are naturally anxious and the driver is fully conversant with what goes on at the facility and can provide a reassuring ear. The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and were able to talk with empathy and experience to those in distress.

We were invited to lunch and sat with some of the staff who dine together daily. This is primarily so that the staff have a community of support and time away from the rigors of their work, but in a strict setting of confidentiality, before returning refreshed for afternoon sessions.

After lunch, we visited the male and female extended rehabilitation houses that provide the more normal living space to those patients who have completed the initial recovery program. It was just like walking into your own home and the accommodation had a very comfortable feel.

On our way back up to ‘The Castle’, we called in at a unit that housed the Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber (normally used for decompression sickness in divers). It seats 12 to 18 patients and has been shown to be effective in treating addiction as it increases oxygen flow to damaged tissues, especially to the recovering brains of addicts. The hyperbaric chamber is one of the most sought-after therapies.

Before we left, we met with Dr Margaret McCann (CEO and Co-Founder) and her husband Peter McCann (Chairman) to have a chat over a cup of tea. We learned that Castle Craig was founded by them and is very much a family-run organisation. Indeed, their initial project, ‘Clouds House’ in Wiltshire, was set up because of their passion to help addicts due to a personal family experience. Since then, they opened Castle Craig and most recently Smarmore Castle in the Republic of Ireland.

They have over 30 years of experience in treating addiction and are supported by an extensive team of medical professionals, therapists, admissions and support staff. They have a strong belief that addiction is a disease of the brain and those that want to recover can be treated very effectively using the methods that they advocate. Naturally, it involves a lot of hard work and dedication from the addict and they really do have to want to get clean.

We were also told that the support and communication does not stop when the recovering addict walks out of the door to go home as they are contacted on a regular basis when they first leave. There are also reunion weekends and organised support visits/sessions for the family of the addict.

Referrals to ‘The Castle’ are mainly from the private sector via medical insurance with some referrals from addiction charities and the NHS.

Whilst we were waiting to leave, we sat in the reception area and reflected on our experience at ‘The Castle’. We both agreed that it was an amazing place and would thoroughly recommend it to any addict requiring help and wanting to get their life back and free from addiction. Whilst we were talking, we were privileged to see a young person that we’d met in the Group Dynamics session who was leaving to go home. She was full of joy to be leaving and to be on the road to recovery but sad at the same time because she had built up such good relationships with the staff and felt so comfortable at ‘The Castle’. She’d also made friends with the other patients.

Then we spoke to a family who had come to collect a patient who had completed a 12-week program. They told us that he was a professional, family person who had hit rock bottom, had emergency treatment in hospital and then been admitted to ‘The Castle’. They really couldn’t believe the difference in him and were ecstatic at the transformation. They were full of praise not only for ‘The Castle’ but also for their son because he’d pulled himself back from the brink and was able to return to raising his boys.

After saying our goodbyes, we shared a look of regret as neither of us wanted to leave. The location is so beautiful and peaceful, the staff are kind and helpful and the patients are happy and sociable, so much so that we decided to return to experience the Family Weekend in November where families of the addicts in recovery meet to share their experiences and gain insightful information/tools from the staff.

Watch this space…