More on recovery in the U.K.

UPDATE: The author of the post linked to below believes that she was taken out of context. Her blog appears to be down at the moment. She was responding to this proposed definition of recovery:

‘The process of recovery from problematic substance use is characterised by voluntary sustained control over substance use which maximises health and wellbeing and participation in the rights, roles and responsibilities of society.’

I believed that this would have been clear in the context of this blog (The previous post was on this subject and provided the definition.) and the link back to her blog. My apologies if this wasn’t clear.


A harm reduction advocate in the U.K. wrestles with the idea of a system organized around recovery:

So, hang on, if I’m a substance user who voluntarily controls my own substance use but who chooses not to have participation in the “rights and roles and responsibilities of society” I can’t be in recovery? Who says so? What you going to do? Make voting and working and watching Eastenders mandatory for all ex users? Recovery is what I define it as.

Or say I want to participate in the “three R’s” of society but every 6 months or so I have a binge. Am I not in Recovery? Don’t I have any say in deciding that?

For me, defining Recovery as a process to be controlled by the individual, but then imposing a whole set of values and outcomes upon what “characterises” that recovery is to miss the point. You have to let me judge what my Recovery is. It is not up to you to normalise me. These are my choices, my hopes and my decisions. You make them yours, then you do exactly what those early mental health activists feared. You create “a cosmetic initiative that maintains the dependence of individuals on the system”.

I suppose I understand the apprehension, that a recovery-oriented system just being a new set of parameters for doing the same old thing–controlling people. We’ve certainly had the experience of seeing systems earnestly describe themselves as recovery-oriented when, in practice, they still blame clients for the client’s “failure to change” when, in truth, the system failed to provide the support the client needed. Also, there is some history of recovery advocates (before they were called recovery advocates) imposing one narrow path as THE way to recover.

Before I get into my reactions, let me say that I mean no disrespect. I see her blog post as a constructive attempt to articulate her concerns rather than dismiss or attack.

However, there’s a way in which I bristle at the statement above. I think it paints a caricature of recovery advocates and addicts. The statement suggests that those who advocate recovery may be invested in forcing some sort of conformity onto addicts. I also believe that it hints at a view of addiction of a nonconformist lifestyle choice rather than an illness characterized by loss of control. The truth, in my experience, is that they’re suffering terribly due to their addiction and often don’t dare to hope for recovery. Once we impart some hope for recovery, (by offering success stories, hope-engendering relationships, respect and love) they want recovery. They may be concerned that we’re asking them to give up their identity and become conformist but this is quickly dismissed by experiencing the recovering community first hand–it could hardly be characterized as conformist.

My response to the concern would be that a recovery-oriented system doesn’t force anything, Can a client choose to use every six months and consider themselves in recovery? Sure. They’re free to do whatever they want. Would I consider this recovery? If the binge is unintentional, I might characterize this as serial recovery but continue to work toward a more stable recovery. If the binge is planned, (“I’ll just go on a binge once every 6 months!”) I suppose I would not consider that recovery. I believe that part of recovery is participating in self-care to maintain recovery. However, if a person is capable of “tying one on” once every six months in a way that does not create problems in their life, I wouldn’t consider that person an addict. My reaction is not some sort of moral reflex. I’d have the same reaction to a diabetic who goes on a sugar binge every six months and lands in the hospital. That person would not be in recovery from their diabetes. Now, does my judgment that this hypothetical is not recovery mean that I would try to coerce the client into my definition of recovery or abandon them? No. My response to this would be to try to be a fellow traveler and recognize that this is the client’s journey.

Recovery is all about freedom. The freedom to live one’s life in the way one chooses without being a slave to addiction or being controlled by treatment or criminal justice systems.

That is not to say that we cannot as professionals, service users and policy makers do what they did in mental health and begin to explore what we need to do to support Recovery, to define the conditions in which opportunities for people to achieve Recovery are optimised, or to find new ways of working which return the power to the service user and rebalance old inequalities. This is how Recovery became the dominant philosophy in the UK mental health field. I spent some time with an old friend last week who has spent years as a service manager working towards Recovery oriented mental health services. She told me that in the late 90’s and early part of the century Recovery rapidly gained credence in mental health. Through the work of user groups and coalitions, the developmental work of NIMHE and other organisations across the field, and through live projects and action research, consensus was built around the Recovery model. She said the biggest challenge she faced was in changing the staff culture. No longer were people there to make decisions for people, to impose their will on people or even to ‘lead by example’. Staff had to find a new role, one that was about first of all helping people define their own ideas of what Recovery would mean – whether that was feeling completely well, or finding something they owned and understood in their own experience of illness (for example having a positive experience of hearing voices). But once that challenge had been dealt with, she said the battle was not over. Key for the success of the Recovery model was the ability of staff to empower service users to access the help and support they needed in the community.

This is the key. We’ve struggled mightily with maintaining a professional culture that is focused on recovery. It often conflicts with human nature and the instincts of professional helpers, so we have to accept that it will be a constant struggle. On the subject, we contributed to this paper.

I’ve been thinking about a model of recovery-oriented harm reduction that would address the historic failings of abstinence-oriented and harm reduction services. The idea is that it would provide recovery (for addicts only) as an organizing and unifying construct for treatment and harm reduction services. Admittedly, these judgments of the historic failings are my own and represent the perspective of a Midwestern U.S. recovery-oriented provider:

  • an emphasis on client choice–no coercion
  • all drug use is not addiction
  • addiction is an illness characterized by loss of control
  • for those with addiction, full recovery is the ideal outcome
  • the concept of recovery is
    inclusive — can include partial, serial, etc.
  • recovery is possible for any addict
  • all services should communicate hope for recovery–recognizing that hope-based interventions are essential for enhancing motivation to recover
  • incremental and radical change should be supported and affirmed
  • while incremental changes are validated and supported, they are not to be treated as an end-point
  • such a system would aggressively deal with countertransference–some people may impose their own recovery path on clients, others might enjoy vicarious nonconformity through clients


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3 responses to “More on recovery in the U.K.

  1. Sara McGrail

    Jason I’m happy for you to quote my blog, but I think you might do so in context. You know the first section you quote is in DIRECT response to the UKDPC attempt to define recovery and that in fact my whole piece is about the definitions of recovery from the mental health field. Also, you quoted rather liberally don’t you think? Why not just repost the whole thing so people can make their own minds up.I obviously understand you mean no disrespect, but I think you’ve been a bit cheeky. Context is important.

  2. Peter O'Loughlin

    Yes, that definition of recovery which this writer happens to think is a clasic example of rhetoric and an oxymoron is the product of the official sounding, but wholly self appointed UKDPC.My reasons for thinking it is both rhetoric and self contradictory are contained on Sara’s blog. I would add that far from advocating recovery, it is in fact advocating the use of addictive psycho active drugs.

  3. sara mcgrail

    Thanks Jason, I appreciate your putting that in context. Sara