The Recovery Movement Spreads to the U.K.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor to march through Cardiff with about a thousand people in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Loved ones of people in recovery from babes in arms to grandparents came along for the fun (as did some other professional clinician types like me). It was the first recovery walk ever in Wales, and the third ever in the U.K. I was surprised how moving it was for me. I have spent a lot of time with addicted people, but usually it’s when they are at their worst. But here they were walking proudly as drivers honked in salute and pedestrians waved and clapped. If you can get the average citizen to applaud for an addict, you are indeed changing the culture. That more than anything made me feel that I was in the company of heroes.

In prior posts, I have tried to describe what the recovery movement is about in the U.K., both in terms of how the government is responding and the potential conflict between methadone providers and recovering people (which as I have said to my friends in the movement is unnecessary and unproductive). The day before the Cardiff walk a number of leaders in the recovery and harm reduction movements met for extended dialogue, which can only be a good thing. The broader the movement, the stronger it will be. Factionalism in contrast will kill it in the cradle.

What the U.K. recovery movement should fight for isn’t for me to dictate, because I am not in recovery and spend most of my time in the U.S. these days. But in listening to recovering people, I discern a few lines. First, many of the movement’s goals are cultural and psychological more than political. The members of the movement want the healing experience of being re-joined to society, being recognized for recovery rather than stigmatized forever because of their past alcohol and other drug problems. Second, they want to instill hope in people who are in the throes of addiction. I acknowledged the marchers for that when we all did our closing remarks, pointing out that somewhere in the U.K. at two in the morning some addict in misery was going to turn on the telly and see all these recovering people and at that point a spark of hope would form in his heart. Third, they want their government to do more to help. Sometimes these demands concern changes in treatment services but more often than not they center on better opportunities for jobs and housing for recovering people.

In terms of firm political party alliances, I don’t think the recovery movement in the U.K. yet has one and indeed may not need one. In the depths of their addiction, many recovering people didn’t follow politics as all and so don’t enter the movement with strong biases one way or another. Those who were politically engaged prior to recovery come from all political parties for the obvious reason that addiction affects people of all political stripes. My own experience in public policy is that most politicians don’t like addicted people and don’t want to publicly advocate for them even if they feel sympathetic to them. For this reason, I have worked with anyone in any political party who showed an interest (very often because they had experienced addiction personally or in their family). Although again it’s not for me to say, I suspect the U.K. recovery movement will follow a similar pragmatic course in its political strategy, giving loyalty based on each politician’s performance rather than party.

p.s. To those of you in AA and other anonymous 12-step fellowships who may believe it violates the 12 traditions for people to publicly acknowledge their recovery, please note that the founders of 12-step organizations did not hold this view nor do the current trustees (I know because I have asked). To represent oneself in the press or to public audiences as a spokesperson for AA/NA violates the traditions, but to acknowledge that one has had serious drug and/or alcohol problems and is now in recovery does not.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “The Recovery Movement Spreads to the U.K.”

  1. Any movement of hope should be greatly encouraged, supported and sustained. Any continued effort not to embrace the dignity and decency of humankind should be challenged, as redemption is undivorceable from Christian faith! And yet, who seems to be quick to stigmatize the recovering addict! Surely not community members who think of themselves pious! I too am encourage by your Wales experience. Could it begin to happen here in the good ol’USA? Has it already begun? Because recovery is not part of my world, I haven’t been paying attention.

  2. Just to point out that recovery of any kins does not require ‘christian’ faith or indeed any kind of religious belief. I am a proud Atheist well over 5 years clean and sober by working a 12 step program.
    Just thought i’d mention it

  3. Kevo: Take a look here for events all over the U.S, this month which will involve more than one hundred thousand recovering people and in which you and anyone else who is interested can participate

    You also can see quite a bit about recovery as well in President Obama’s national drug control strategy.

    You are absolutely correct that there are many Christians in recovery. There are also many Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists in recovery. The fastest growing 12-step recovery groups in the world are in Iran!

  4. I’ve been sober 25 years and often marveled at how ignorant (meaning uninformed) many people are about addicts. Many people think they’ve never known an alcoholic or addict, but recovering addicts are everywhere, your lawyer, your pastor, the woman who sits in the next cubicle at work. I heartily support anything that raises awareness and reduces stigmatization and, of course, helps those still suffering.

  5. Hello Keith –
    My partner Kerry and I were delighted to meet you in Cardiff, and we were very privileged to hear you speak. Splendid stuff all round!
    I’m going to be speaking next year about my recovery, and your post script is aposite – I found recovery in AA, and though I can’t speak for the fellowship, I always make it clear how I got better. Being silent regarding the recovery of my fellows is part of my commitment to them; but I have every right to speak for myself.
    Between now and then, I’ll be fundraising for UKRF – we’re on a bit of a roll after such a successful summit and walk.
    Your contribution to the event was wonderful, so many thanks.
    Till our paths cross again,

  6. The flip side is that not everyone wants or should be in “recovery.” I am 64. I will never be able to do anything productive or useful again.
    I lost everything in the Vietnam War – my soul, my mind, my self esteem and any nonsense about “goodness” in people were left there. I personally resent bitterly every single person that has attempted or succeeded in denying me any drugs or alcohol that stop the squirrel wheels in the back of my mind.

    There is not one single logical reason that I should not be warehoused and provided with the drugs of my choice. Anything else is a total denial of my rights as a human being.

    Just saying, don’t get all freaking carried away with the “good” that is being done. A lot of us have damned good reasons for what we do.

  7. Hello “Things that are useless” –
    Of course you have every right to be where you are, and anyone who denies your right to be there is firmly and squarely in the wrong.
    The Harm Reduction movement has done a great deal to keep people safe; in the UK we have some people “warehoused” on substitute prescribing, and what I’d like to see happening is for people to have the option of moving on from that – if they’re ready and if they want to.
    We have a history of “parking” people, especially on Methadone, and there have been people who want to go to rehab or whatever but aren’t always given the help they need to do it.
    The NHS has finite resources for all this, and substance misuse has been seen as a criminal justice issue for too long – but things are changing slowly.
    I think we have to be careful that we don’t split into camps in the UK and have either abstinence or prescribing become no-go areas depending on one’s stance.
    It sounds to me that you have been through a lot in your life, and if doing what you do keeps you sane, all power to you, I say. Good luck, and keep well.

  8. Hi “Things that are useless”

    The Vietnam war was a tradgedy for so many who were involved, and that includes countless victims who survived – but whose lives were irredeemably damaged. I believe that the government has an exceptional duty of care to such people. They should offer adequate financial support and appropriate medical intervention for any who continue to suffer as a result of their actions. I am, however, doubtful that failure to supply your drugs of choice could reasonably be described as a total denial of your rights as a human being: Even if their policies contributed to – or wholly caused – your addiction, it can hardly be a breech of human rights if they refuse to actively perpetuate your dependence in the manner of your choosing. I can’t see it as a fundamental human rights issue – any more than I would consider it a violation of my own human rights, if I had to work overtime to pay my taxes….which were then spent by the government on your drugs of choice. But maybe I’m just a bit picky as to what I think constitutes human rights.

    Andrea makes some good points – notably, about the criminal justice issue. She also says, “We have a history of “parking” people, especially on Methadone, and there have been people who want to go to rehab or whatever but aren’t always given the help they need to do it.”

    How true that is. The government indeed have a long history of parking people on Methadone. The vast majority stay on it for many years, while either reactivating their original addiction, or developing alcohol abuse problems. This state-sponsored additional addiction is notoriously difficult to withdraw from, and has been used as a substitute for effective intervention solely because it can then be claimed that greater numbers are in “treatment”. Every year, the NTA – with a breathtaking disregard for anything approaching honesty – would congratulate themselves on their success. True, they had lots of people taking Methadone – it’s easy to get customers if your product is highly addictive and free – but few people ever get free of of it, and few manage to stay on Methadone alone. But aside from all those who have been failed by the maintenance programme – all those who just have another addiction to cope with on top of their original one, or who are now suffering the ravages of alcoholism – the lasting legacy of Methadone is summed up in Andrea’s words – “there have been people who want to go to rehab or whatever but aren’t always given the help they need to do it.” She couldn’t be more correct. There have been thousands of them, and many of them are now dead. They were victims of the obsession with cheap and inneffective treatment, and the numbers game. While huge amounts of money were squandered on Methadone, alcoholics were dying for want of funding for rehab. It still continues….and I am forced to wonder if that might be something approaching a human rights issue. I might not agree that entitlement to your drug of choice is about human rights, but I would much sooner see you get that, than see you stuck on the Methadone treadmill….if you’re not on that junk already.

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