Billy Whizz in the ‘Perfect Storm’ of #Addiction #Recovery

Visit FAVORUKIn my field of work, September is international Recovery Month (now in it’s 28th year); the ideal opportunity to not only focus on the issues surrounding addictions but also, promote an effective conduit for advocacy and education… important messages professionally delivered by Faces & Voices of Recovery (FAVORUK).

“…a unified and national voice for individuals and organisations on all issues related to addiction and recovery.” Constantly attempting to “save lives and improve health and wellbeing by challenging addiction related stigma and encouraging, empowering and educating people in recovery from addiction…” (FAVORUK)

By continually raising awareness and promoting ‘visible recovery’ FAVORUK prove to many that escape from addiction is in fact a realistic possibility. Unfortunately, recovery from an addiction is still something that too many have little or no understanding of,  let alone hold any personal expectations of ever achieving such a goal.

Recovery Month is held to increase awareness, challenge stigma, and celebrate the success of those in recovery…(FAVORUK)

As with those who engage in criminality, addiction is too often seen as a simple personal choice made by individuals who have made a conscious decision to tread that path. But what if it’s actually our fragmented society and how that society is organised or managed that developed the belief… there isn’t opportunity or ‘choice’ for me? Choices that are effectively removed by a salacious and voyeuristic media, a machine hell-bent on creating hatred, creating stigma and furthering social stereotypes in the minds of their readership.

FAVORUK facilitate and promote celebration of ‘visible’ recovery with the annual Recovery Walk. This year the event was held in Blackpool and preceded the day before by their annual conference, an event packed with thought provoking information and powerful human stories of successful and sustained recovery.

One important presentation (IMHO) on the day was delivered by Mark Gilman, founder and consultant at Discovering Health – Living better lives together and previously, Strategic Recovery Lead at Public Health England. A self-confessed Northern cynic with a plethora of lived and worked experience in and around addictions recovery. Mark who is also academically qualified to comment, eloquently and humorously where applicable, outlined many of the issues having negative impacts for the long-term sustained recovery of people.

I understand the presentation will be available via the FAVORUK website in due course but until then, Mark’s Helen Lester Memorial Lecture (below) delivered at the University of Warwick early this year comprehensively covers these issues.

Sadly many of these negative factors are born out of the bureaucratic nature which underpins our society and the provision of public services. These issues, highlighted by many addiction professionals in the past but too often dismissed as anecdotal by strategists and purse string holders within government agencies, are the reality. Public Health support is crippled by; statistics, spreadsheets, mission statements, target driven performance metrics, service delivery governance and payment by results, all of which serve to minimise and shroud the human factors… ‘addicts’ are people not just numbers!

Despite the input of many caring and capable treatment professionals doing their best, support around recovery from addictions is hampered and not enhanced by the administration process. The box ticking, book cooking and manipulation of statistics (accidently or dishonestly) to evidence attainment of targets has in many cases removed or stifled much of the humanitarian connection, in far too many aspects of public service delivery.

But treatment is only one part and certainly not the only aspect of support around addiction recovery. Many would argue that ‘treatment’ isn’t actually a requirement for recovery, it’s also a contentious issue. One that is mostly dependent upon your stance around addiction being classified as a disease i.e. something that can actually be treated.

If you don’t know the answer, or you have no idea which side of the so-called disease / lifestyle choice drugs debate you subscribe to have a look at… ‘Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong‘ a controversial presentation by Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

One thing is for sure, long-term sustainable recovery from addiction requires so much more than mediocre medical interventions alone. Rebuilding (or often building) a connected life with purpose and providing them with a reason for being is immensely important. This is one of the major reason behind the importance and efficacy of mutual-aid in recovery. Services can’t or won’t deliver the levels of ‘after-care’ support functions that people actually require. A level of support that shrinks on an almost daily basis, mostly thanks to budget cuts limited resources. This alone should prove the need for mutual-aid, now more than ever before.

Mutual-aid is and always will be, one of the most important aspect of recovery support. (Download the PHE document… ‘Facilitating Access to Mutual-Aid‘)

I have to say that the cynic in me found the presentation on ‘research’ into last year’s recovery walk somewhat refreshing. Many professionals in the field of addictions support will tell you; their observations and experience are too easily dismissed… “anecdotal and without scientific base” however; it appears when you’re able to dress the same knowledge with a cloak of ‘science’ that’s actually all right?

It’s actually ok for an academic, probably with limited lived experience of life’s realities, to observe a relatively small percentage of any given demographic. For him/her to take some notes, prepare a few spreadsheets of quantitative / qualitative data and subsequently, present posteriori knowledge as justification for hypotheses defined from that limited experience and empirical evidence. Welcome to Ethnography… a scientific method for the delivery of anecdotal evidence!

So what of personal knowledge or experience, often gleaned over many years? It’s just not science, it doesn’t support long-term career academia and it simply couldn’t possibly form any foundation to formulate opinion, let alone form the basis of discussions around causation factors or subsequent development of probable hypothetical outcomes. That simply wouldn’t do, would it?

Flippant? Possibly, but I can totally understand where Mark Gilman was coming from when he explained his dislike of statistics and numbers. The ‘science’ distances the process ever further from the reality, it reduces empathy and creates a non humanitarian work ethic. I too look forward to the liberation day when I’m no longer a component part of any performance matrix!

One part of the Friday conference disappointed me. Despite all the powerful messages of hope and achievement. Once again I sadly witnessed examples of mutual-aid arrogance. The distasteful and parochial ethic that says “my way or no way Hose” …despite all the evidence to support the fact; when individuals are afforded a choice in support pathways, this provides greater probability of effective recovery. Come on guys, bury your hatchet of tribal conflict… it’s counter-productive for people’s recovery.

Despite all the impacts of lack lustre public service delivery, the burdens of organizational bureaucracy and general social decline, perhaps the perfect storm hasn’t arrived yet, despite the problematic conditions? Perhaps we’ve braved the initial waves of addiction that were flooding our shores in the late 1980s early 1990s? But what if this is only a temporary respite, a brief interlude delivered in the eye of the storm that gathered?

One thing is for sure, the so-called ‘recovery agenda’ of a few years ago now, must not be allowed to lose it’s momentum. Policy makers and services must continually develop and deliver greater levels of support for long-term problems. Addiction recovery will never be achieved by short-term strategies with quick fix interventions, counting outcomes and ticking boxes. At least not if there is a genuine desire to reverse the escalating death trend associated with substance use disorders.

Irrespective of your personal knowledge and understanding or (stereotypical) beliefs around addiction; people can and do change and we should celebrate that, along with those individuals achieving their goal. I have seen so many examples of this over the years and surprisingly for many… leopards can and do change their spots…

For me, there is no better source of example than those who turn their lives around after a lifetime of addiction, criminality and prison. It’s an achievement which is so often stymied by the system but also, something that can still be achieved. A fact evidenced in several personal stories of recovery delivered during the conference.

These ‘ex-cons’ (stereotype label) are people, ones who often have absolutely no experience of a ‘normal’ life, a life without those impacts and often late into their adult life. They have made some bad choices, for whatever reason (actual or perceived) and then our society tends to write them off as non human or worse, continually kick them in the teeth when they try to get up. We fail to provide education and rehabilitation support facilities, the knowledge required for social re-connection and inclusion, then we wonder why recidivism and continued addiction is so prevalent. But all is not doom and gloom and not much has the illuminating power of success stories.

At the recovery walk I was approached by someone I’d previously supported on their recovery journey whilst serving a prison sentence at HMP Northumberland. Thanks to media hype (but also partly factual), that particular penal establishment holds notoriety for being a ‘hot-bed’ of drugs activity within the UK prison system. Despite being worse than the majority but similar to many for drug issues, this prison like most, provides support to those inmates trying to kick their addiction.

The person who came over to me, was effervescent with personal pride about his recovery and what he had achieved so far. After trying several forms of support and mutual-aid, ‘Billy Whizz’ started learning about SMART Recovery, he engaged in training to become a SMART Facilitator whilst working as a peer mentor on the drugs wing. He recently transferred to a NW prison to serve out his remaining sentence where he continues in recovery, stronger and more able to help and support others in a similar situation to his.

Now ‘Billy’ enjoys day release to further his recovery, trains for a new career and can spend some time with his family… true evidence of the strength found in the power of mutual-aid.

He thanked me, we shook hands and off he went with a contented smile on his face. And possibly, for one of the very few occasions in his life, ‘Billy’ had ambition, realistic expectations and looked to opportunities within his future as a free man.

To know that mutual-aid played some small part in helping him achieve his desires for realistic effective change, despite all the hurdles and impacts life had thrown at him in the past, confirmed the importance of why we should all support recovery.

Well done ‘Billy’ I’d like to congratulate you on weathering the perfect storm of addiction recovery and I wish you every success for a fulfilled and happy life with your family in the future!