Community Building for Recovery
“People who need people, are the luckiest people in the world. We’re children, needing other children, and yet letting a grown-up pride hide all the need inside.”
We commonly think of ourselves as individuals, pretty much alone in the world. Our natural inclination is to focus primarily on ourselves, our hopes and dreams, needs and desires. While it’s not wrong to prioritize ourselves, and make sure we’re doing what’s best for us, it’s a mistake to believe that we’re on our own. In truth, everything we do affects so many people, and so many people affect everything we do. Just as we don’t become an addict without a community of complicit collaborators, we can’t recover without a community of empathetic support. This is the power of programs like AA (alcoholics anonymous). Support groups, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), CA (Cocaine Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), and Al-Anon (groups for relatives and friends of alcoholics), provide an environment where friendships can thrive, and honest relationships can develop. In these groups honest conversation is encouraged and facilitated through listening and sharing. Anonymity helps people feel safe, and understanding, through shared experience, connects us to each other in a profound way.
There are many factors, personal and social, that contribute to the development of the negative behaviours that contribute to addiction. While it may be true that many addicts are genetically predisposed to having substance use issues, it is also true that childhood trauma, social living conditions, and institutional factors contribute just as much. In response to Bruce Alexander’s famous “rat park” experiment, many scholars and activists are focusing their attention on the structural factors that contribute to addiction, rather than the individual addict, or the substance itself. In the experiment, Alexander compared the opiate consumption of two groups of rats – one group of rats were placed in individual cages, the other group was placed together, in a park setting, a more natural environment for the animals. Each group was given access to both opiate laced water and pure water. The group of rats that were isolated in cages chose to consume the opiate laced water repeatedly and their consumption increased as time passed. The other group, that were living in a pastoral setting, weren’t interested in the opiate laced water at all, even when it was sweetened with sugar. This experiment has led to policy responses and social movements geared towards the alleviation of the structural factors of addiction (BenIshai, pages 46-7)¹.
This compassionate approach involves accepting some responsibility as a society to fight the stigma that exists in the criminal justice system and the medical system for those who find themselves addicted. That said, I just read today, that it can take more than six months for someone who attempts suicide to get an appointment with a psychiatric professional! This is obviously not acceptable!!
A compassionate perspective recognizes that every individual is unique and requires a unique approach to recovery, but the process doesn’t occur in a vacuum and needs to include a focus on the social conditions that marginalise the individual. Blaming addiction on poor choices and reckless behaviour simply feeds the shame and remorse, instead of helping to create the conditions where recovery can happen. Honestly, if everyone who tried drugs and alcohol became an addict most of us would be in the same desperate situation. This experiment reminds us that treating people with substance use issues as criminals, and isolating them, just exacerbates the problem adding insult to injury, not only for the person who’s suffering from the addiction, but for everyone who loves and needs that person.