The ‘R’ word

Alex Boyt

Alex Boyt tells DDN why he is having trouble climbing the steps of the recovery bus. 

Maybe it is the circles I operate in, or those that I gravitate towards, but when I mention the word ‘recovery’ there is good chance that low level groans are emitted, and eyes will roll as the glint of defeat replaces the sparkle of indifference. On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense – surely recovery is a positive thing, speaking of hope, lives saved and purpose regained.

A commissioner said to me the other day, ‘If we put the word recovery in enough strategic documents and action plans, people are bound to get better faster.’ You couldn’t accuse them of being serious but it did wag a finger at the gap between theory and practice. Visible recovery was brought to the front because it was contagious. We all have success stories in our treatment system; get them chanting ‘you can do it too’ in our prescribing services and erm, well…

 When I am exposed to discussions about recovery communities I have much the same reaction as when the devout knock at my front door and ask if I am interested in salvation. Show me a purple t-shirt and bright eyes and my soul will implore you not to sing a bloody song. As WB Yeats said, ‘the worst thing about some men is that when they are not drunk, they are sober.’

Nonetheless, if there is evidence that lives are being saved, that all this visible recovery is drawing otherwise lost souls into a contagious leap forward, then I really ought to stop my moaning and hop aboard the bandwagon hurtling into a brighter future.

So how would you measure the success of this new(ish) push for recovery networks and communities. Is it the number of people on a recovery walk? Well… no! Is it the volume of cheers when a recovery champion talks about their new found hope…. no! Is it the number of people engrossed in an asset mapping exercise… hmm. Is it the number of residential rehab providers on a parliamentary group insisting that they have an 80 per cent success rate… erm… definitely not. 

There are parts of the country where it is well known that ‘recovery communities are strong, something we should replicate elsewhere’. I was never really sold on this, but before the NTA was subsumed into PHE, I did ask someone there what the successful completion rates were like in these areas – you know, how well are they delivering the national drug strategy? (In the immortal words of Theresa May, ‘people should not use drugs, and if they do they should stop.’

 The response was along the lines of: there doesn’t seem to be much of a link between strong recovery communities and people coming off drugs, well not so far, but we haven’t looked at the data properly yet, and there will probably be a delay between changing a treatment system and the data coming through, etc etc.

Of course there is nothing wrong with celebrating recovery; there is something uplifting in a group ‘hurrah’ and you can’t begrudge the warm fuzzy feeling it gives to those in the huddle. But is it attractive to the distrusting and marginalised, looking at the clinch from outside? Not in my experience. For many, there is something disturbing and unattractive in trying to plaster optimism over the struggles of the often disadvantaged, traumatised and neglected.

I am not alone in taking a step or two backwards when exposed to excessive enthusiasm, a rallying battle cry or a drive to push from the dark into the light. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.’ I heard Anne Milton during her brief stint as health minister talk about commissioning miracles. You know she meant well, but really.

The recovery agenda has right on its side: ‘You don’t want the recovery we offer? Then I am not sure you deserve our help.’ I work with many courageous, determined, talented and resilient people who make progress in spite of the national drug strategy and recovery rhetoric, not because of it. A nice little shaming prod, pointing out the lack of personal ambition, doesn’t always help the self-esteem.

Those that fail to acknowledge the holy grail of recovery are somehow guilty of colluding in the problem instead of championing the solution. It is worse than refusing to delight in how cute your neighbour’s dog is, so I thought I should keep quiet. The other day, however, I noted that someone at the centre of national strategy – a champion of recovery, with all national data at their disposal – was after many years, trying to find a link between recovery communities and successful completions. I decided I ought to write something.

Alex Boyt works in central London as a service user coordinator


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