Recovery should be about freedom. So why aren’t we embracing diversity, asks Mark Prest.
Picture an addict, what do you see? Someone white, probably working class and straight – a stereotype straight out of Trainspotting.
As a gay man in recovery, my own treatment experiences clearly demonstrated that the ‘one shoe fits all’ approach doesn’t work. It was a small place, an intimate affair and to my knowledge I was the only out gay in the rehab. It’s since felt to me that my sexuality and its relationship to my alcoholism were simply ignored by my counsellors. I exited rehab with much of the hurt and harm from my failed relationship hangovers still firmly in place. Post-rehab I’ve come to think of this as feeling like a pile of broken biscuits instead of a full packet of Rich Tea or Hobnobs. My gay and recovery identities were at odds and even now, nine years on, I’m still feeling conflicted.
Twelve step and other recovery values such as an abstinence-based lifestyle, self-honesty, personal responsibility and the need for healthy loving relationships don’t rub along well with the hollow quick-fix ‘Grindr fuck’ and the substance-orientated, hedonistic LGBT+, objectified world and lifestyle norm.
I agree that with recovery there comes a need for a moral self-realignment and to see the world with eyes wide open. If we do as we’ve always done then it will always be the same. This is needed whether you’re queer, black, straight, male, a woman or person living with a disability.
It’s harder to achieve though when like me, you’re from the recovery community’s wider margins. And it feels like there are no places or access to the experientially informed people, services, or other agencies that can advise and help interpret this culturally specific and conflicted internal process. There’s a sense of homelessness – where do I belong?
I left treatment feeling full of fear and trepidation. I disconnected, rejected who I was, isolated myself from my queer folk. It felt like there were no socially enabling, more inclusive, non-judgemental, dry alternatives where I might safely meet or connect with like-minded people within the LGBT+ community.
I’m not alone in feeling this: there are others who I know and have met through Manchester’s two LGBT+ friendly fellowship meetings. As it stands, LGBT+ recovery services and those tailored to meet the needs of other minority or marginalised groups are a rare and exceptional thing.
It doesn’t help when the 2017 governmental drug strategy – released by the Home Office instead of the Department of Health, thus framing addiction as a criminality and not a health issue – fragments and minimises the situation by focusing on chemsex rather than the issues facing the community as a whole. BAME community needs are not even mentioned.
The statistics are alarming. In a 2016 Guardian opinion piece headlined ‘Gay men are battling a demon more powerful than HIV – and it’s hidden’, journalist and activist Owen Jones says:
‘According to Stonewall research in 2014, 52 per cent of young LGBT people report they have, at some point, self-harmed; a staggering 44 per cent have considered suicide; and 42 per cent have sought medical help for mental distress. Alcohol and drug abuse are often damaging forms of self-medication to deal with this underlying distress. A recent study by the LGBT Foundation found that drug use among LGB people is seven times higher than the general population, binge drinking is twice as common among gay and bisexual men, and substance dependency is significantly higher.’
Recovery for me is about freedom. But where is the freedom when services are not representative and fail to meet the needs of not just queer but other culturally diverse people? Tailored, more inclusive approaches to recovery are critical and a civil and human right. These are all very timely considerations as we’re in the midst of celebrating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Yet it would appear that for some of us in, or working towards, recovery we’re still the victims of systematic homophobia or other discriminatory forms. I’ve personally experienced and witnessed this from in and outside of the rehab and ‘rooms’.
Nearly a decade since rehab I’m finally seeking integration of these two polarised and opposing identities towards a more liveable identity fit. I founded Portraits of Recovery (PORe), a visual arts charity, in 2011 in response to my professional background in the arts and my own addiction recovery experiences. PORe’s work looks at bringing about new ways of knowing addiction and recovery by working with contemporary art and artists. The publically exhibited work, commissioned from a range of artists, supports the emancipatory reframing of addiction and recovery identities. In other words, it aims to blow away the myths and legends in favour of social change by presenting more authentic and diverse forms of self-representation.
Art has become my central strategy for recovery.
I conceive, make, experience, produce and collect it. Art helps me feel good about myself, gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and a purpose for living. If it works for me then why not for others, as previous PORe projects have demonstrated? Working with an individual’s existing cultural capital as a transferable asset from the old life to the new, can through additional cultural investment make sense of the past. This approach also helps to support a sense of cultural citizenship as a device for social justice, inclusion and change.
PORe’s latest offering, UNSEEN: Simultaneous Realities, is an umbrella arts project, under which sits a series of new commissions that explore the viability and desire for Greater Manchester’s South Asian, LGBT+ and disability recovery communities to be visible and understood. At its heart is a project that draws attention to and visually celebrates the diversity of our recovery communities. It also speaks to the urgent need for culturally diverse and tailored approaches to recovery, which are few and far between. The project has been developed in collaboration with Professor Amanda Ravetz from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).
UNSEEN is a reactive stance against the white heteronormative bias of treatment and recovery services, seeking to change this imbalance through activist-related artistic and cultural advocacy. Its public-facing exhibition, performance and events programmes engage the public in dialogue for the emancipatory reframing of addiction and recovery identities.
Stereotyping does nobody any good – not people looking towards recovery, their family and friends, nor health services or wider society. Holding or promoting such one-dimensional views is discriminatory and inaccurate. UNSEEN frames addiction in diverse communities as a health concern – not a choice.
PORe’s work is couched within Recoverism, developed in response to a cost-cutting and politically hijacked recovery agenda. This new social movement, borne out of Manchester and the North West, supports a more inclusive, interdisciplinary Recoverist discourse as allied to the arts. Led by Clive Parkinson, of Arts for Health at MMU in partnership with PORe, it was an outcome of a European arts project called I AM. We’re all recovering from something, so why not invite others to join in the conversation? More about this can be learned from the online Recoverist Manifesto.
I’ll finish with a quote taken from the publication’s introduction by author Will Self, as this sums up what recovery and Recoverism is about for me:
‘One thing that the vicissitudes of addictive illness teaches us, it’s that in the last analysis what matters is not our circumstances or our experiences – let alone our thoughts – but our feelings: we need to feel and be felt by other feeling people.’
Mark Prest is the founding director of Portraits of Recovery, a curator, a man in recovery and a recovery activist. Full details of UNSEEN: Simultaneous Realities at www.portraitsofrecovery.org.uk
Artist’s talk: Sutapa Biswas discusses the work she created as part of UNSEEN. With Dr Anandi Ramamurthy, reader in Post-Colonial Cultures, Sheffield Hallam University and Sunny Dhadley, founding director of the Recovery Foundation. Saturday 7 October 2017, 1-3pm Touchstones Rochdale. Free, but booking required on 01706 924 928
Installations: Out of place and at the margins: one hundred songs for Kneeze and Vijay, Sutapa Biswas’s installations created as part of UNSEEN: Simultaneous Realities. Until 16 December 2017, Rochdale bus station interchange and Touchstones Rochdale. Free
Film: Launch of Fruit Bowl, directed by Professor Amanda Ravetz and Huw Wahl. A portrait of performance artist David Hoyle. Thursday 16 December 6-9pm, Whitworth Art Gallery. Free