Professor Wendy Dossett and I share a love Eryri [Snowdonia], and its beaches, valleys and mountains where we both live. Yet despite this proximity, our relationship began in other overlapping spaces of academia and wider recovery communities. Wendy’s generosity and warmth stood out. Over the last decade, we have increasingly translated this acquaintance into some shared working collaboration.
As reflected in our conversation, it becomes rapidly clear that Wendy has so much to offer to, and insight on, the process of recovery. She is honest and thoughtful in reflections on her own recovery journey. Rich and insightful in her understanding of the 12-Step Fellowship and particularly the role that spirituality plays in recovery. Finally, Wendy has an abundance of wisdom that comes from many years of navigating the obstacles within systems and supporting meaningful actions and change.
In the films below, edited from our interview, Wendy describes reaching out for help 18 years ago at a time when she was in absolute agony due to her drinking problem. She has not had a drink of alcohol since that time. In our conversation, we cover a wide range of topics, including the nature of addiction, a wide variety of aspects related to the 12-Step Fellowship, foundations of recovery, grassroots community, recovery advocacy and the system, and recovery friendly universities.
Wendy’s interview was edited into 17 films, totalling over 88 minutes, as well as a Film Teaser, for her Recovery Voices archive section.
Wendy Dossett is a former Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Chester, UK, and Director of the Chester Studies of Addiction, Recovery and Spirituality Group. She and interviewer Wulf Livingston initially discuss how long they have known each other, probably around a decade. Whilst Wendy works in England, she lives in the heart of Snowdonia in Wales. She lived in or near Lampeter in South West Wales for 23 years, before spending the last 12 years in North Wales. She considers herself very lucky to live where she does. Wendy also describes her academic background in religious studies, and her interest in the discourse of religion and spirituality.
Wendy identifies as a person in recovery from addiction. She describes herself as recovering, rather than recovered, as she believes that if she were to drink alcohol again, she would quite likely eventually return to the same position she was in at the height of her drinking problem. At that time, her life was unravelling, she was experiencing a lot of suicidal ideation and attempting suicide, and was clinging on to a job with ‘splintering finger nails’. She was living in a mouldy touring caravan in a field, showering in the university she worked at, and trying to pretend everything was okay. She thought alcohol was keeping her alive.
When Wendy reached what she considered was her rock bottom, a time of absolute agony, she reached out for help. She didn’t go to treatment, and attributes her recovery to mutual aid. As her sobriety continued, her mental health improved incrementally. Although Wendy describes herself as a depressive character, she has not tried suicide since she stopped drinking 18 years ago. She doesn’t want to take the risk of drinking, in effect putting a gun to her head which has a bullet in one of the six chambers. She doesn’t need alcohol, as she has the life she wants.
Wendy describes herself as having a general positive attitude to life and enjoying the natural world. Her relationships with people have helped her recovery journey. Thinking about how to help other people and contributing to knowledge about addiction and recovery through her training also play a significant role. Psychotherapy has helped her at different times in her life, by allowing her to delve deeper into her past trauma, and intergenerational trauma, which she believes underlie her past addictive behaviours.
Wendy says she is in a good place now, although she still has her fragilities with mental health that come and go. She is aware of these fragilities and reaches out for help when needed. She is ‘flourishing in many, many ways.’ She may not have all the things she wanted out of life… ‘but who does?’
Interviewer Wulf Livingston asks Wendy whether she is very particular about the language around addiction, in the same way as she is nuanced with language used around the word ‘recovery’. Wendy responds by saying that she was utterly powerless over her addictive behaviour. She identifies with the concept and experience of powerlessness, and is quite comfortable relating it to addiction. Addiction is that ‘desperate need for oblivion, desperate need to change how I feel… a total lack of control.’ She has so many memories of the desperate desire not to do what she was doing, but being unable to desist, until ‘I acknowledged my own powerlessness.’
Wendy describes powerlessness as being a central concept in 12-step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It is argued that if control of substance use is beyond your own willpower, then there has to be some other power that is going to bring about abstinence. For example, step 1 states ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol…’, whilst step 2 states ‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’
Wendy emphasises that we must remember that the 12 steps were written in America in the 1930s by white Christian men who came from quite pious backgrounds. For them, the Higher Power was indisputably God. However, early on in the development of AA, room was made for people to interpret Higher Power in any way that made sense to them. As a historian of spirituality and an ethnographer, Wendy has been very interested in how the language around the fellowships has changed over the past 80+ years. Today, there is a massive diversity in the way people interpret Higher Power.
Wulf points out that some people reject fellowships without trying them because they say they don’t want ‘to do that god-stuff’. Wendy can understand this, given the literature is still the formal language of the 1930s. However, if you listen to the voices of fellowship members you hear really creative ways they interpret that language, in ways that make sense for themselves. One common translation of GOD is Group Of Drunks. Former drunks being abstinent is a power that a newcomer can tap into. The power of example, the power of community, the power of friendship.
In Wendy’s research, only 25% of her fellowship participants described themselves as religious. Many people who stick around in the fellowships interpret Higher Power in secular ways. She points out that lots of ideas found in SMART Recovery, which presents itself as rational and scientific, ‘those very same mechanisms are working in this apparently religious or spiritual context’ of the 12-step fellowship.
Wulf asks Wendy where does the sense of spirituality sit between the formal religious and the secular? She points out that there are problems in making a sharp distinction between the religious, spiritual and secular. For example, one might consider education and healthcare as secular domains, but historically they have come out of religion. Wendy and Wulf go on to discuss experiences that could be labelled as either religious, spiritual or secular. Are these the same experiences that people are simply badging with different language?
Wendy’s research has revealed that there is a difference between the formal language of the tenets (or texts) of the 12-step fellowship and the way they are interpreted by fellowship members today. She is struck by how conservative the 12-step fellowship is, as reflected by the first 164 pages of the Big Book (the programme of recovery), which has remained the same since the 1930s. She believes that it is very unlikely that this will ever change, as it is argued that the text has worked for generation after generation. It is better to keep it as it is and let people interpret the writings as they wish. She points out that the language of the Bible has been translated differently over time, but not the core Big Book.
Wendy argues that ‘you cannot understand any religious or spiritual group by only looking at their written sources. You have to have the ethnography as well.’ She points out that many people are anxious about 12-step fellowships because they think the writing is what it is. They don’t realise that there is a live and vibrant community around these writings that are reinterpreting the words—they are making it relevant to them and their experiences in the present day.
Wendy states the key message that she wants to get more widely known, including in professional and clinical circles, is the ‘diversity and creativity of people who engage with that concept and how they interpret it.’ These people are not just sitting back and accepting a 1930s concept—they are engaging with it, but bringing their own experience and interpretation to it.
Whilst much of Wendy’s research on the 12-step fellowship has concerned beliefs, she now wants to focus more on fellowship practices. One key area of her interest concerns the taking of ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.’ (Step 4) She wants to better understand how these words relate to more contemporary therapeutic understandings of recovery.
Whilst these words sound like they are coming from a place of moral judgement, both Wulf and Wendy have been in huge gatherings of recovering people where the atmosphere is ‘immensely non-judgemental.’ How can there be such an atmosphere of non-judgement when you have hard core language like ‘moral inventory’? Wendy believes that part of the reason for this is that in mutual aid recovery communities no one is better than anyone else. ‘Everyone has done the same shit.’ Since there is no professional tier, there really is an equality, an egalitarian feel, amongst recovering people. Wulf believes that this egalitarianism is crucial to the wider peer-led recovery community. Wendy points out that whilst professional help is very important for certain things—for example, for psychotherapeutic work, housing, jobs—for navigating a path to recovery from addiction, ‘you are so much better with someone who has trod that path, who knows that terrain.’
Wendy wants to learn more about how people go through the process of looking at their past in an honest manner. Many people report that this process is the very foundation of their recovery, because it’s about coming out of denial and becoming accountable for their past behaviour. Wendy is fascinated by the courageous nature of this process—people take a ‘spiritual journey of immense depth.’
Wulf sees Wendy viewing two key foundations of recovery as ‘coming to terms with yourself’ and the roles of peers. Wendy points out that she is not talking about people who can manage their drink and drug use in other ways, she is talking about people for whom management is not an option. The key factor for the latter group is community. ‘People together are more than the sum of their parts.’ Recovery is contagious so you need a community in which that contagion can be seeded and passed on. In places like the North Wales Recovery Community, you have people from all types of recovery modalities and different understandings. They are sharing their journey, talking about it, shoring each other up, and helping each other understand the particular emotional twists and turns that recovery involves.
Wendy is involved in a recovery community within her own university in Chester. This community is not allied to any classic form of mutual aid, nor to an abstinence programme. Staff get together to discuss various matters, including about their vulnerabilities in this area and in dealing with working in a high pressure environment.
Wulf mentions the Recovery Friendly Universities project in which Wendy is involved, one part of which is about getting universities to recognise that many people in recovery want to go on to higher education and this is an important part of their journey. Wendy wants universities to realise that recovering people are an asset, bringing an important set of life experience and strengths to a diverse university community. Too often recovering people are stigmatised, like people in active addiction, being considered vulnerable due to their past problems. Universities need to welcome recovering people in, and give them a voice as part of their diverse community. Wendy emphasises that this is the way we can tackle stigma in wider society. ‘You can’t tackle stigma anywhere else, but within institutions.’ Institutions must come out and say, ‘This stigma is unacceptable and we are going to stand against it, formally, collectively.’
Wendy points out that her university has formally signed the Recovery Friendly Pledge, something that many more universities need to sign. Wendy and Wulf go on to discuss how institutions often don’t address problems such as those related to drugs and alcohol, because they think there is more stigma attached to being publicly seen to do something about such an issue than not doing something.
Wulf asks Wendy what she believes works in facilitating recovery, and what hinders individual and organisational recovery. ‘’Choice is what works,’ she replies. We need an environment in which harm reduction and recovery are not pitched against each other. An environment where there is a menu of different things that people can do, and they are not seen as being mutually exclusive.
Wendy points out that recovery is often considered as synonymous with abstinence, which for some people it may not need to be. For some, abstinence from all mind-altering substances is their only realistic option, but others can be in recovery through moderation, or through or abstinence from a particularly problematic substance for them.
Wendy also studies Buddhist approaches to addiction recovery, and says that there are at least six different types of Buddhist understanding of the nature of the problem. Wulf emphasises that there are many different recovery pathways in North Wales Recovery Communities—you can do multiple or single pathways.
Wendy highlights the problem that people don’t even realise that there are many community-based resources freely available to them, but which are not signposted. Wulf emphasises that in all his years in training social workers he emphasises to them not to have just one preferred referral and/or pathway. People need to be encouraged down half a dozen different routes until they find the one that works. There is a real block in the field. Not only do professionals want to diagnose the problem, they also want to prescribe their preferred solution, rather than letting the individual find it. Wendy says we need much more communication and mutual awareness of what everyone is about in this space. Much more collaboration is needed.
Wendy emphasises that people should not dismiss things that are based on anecdote. For example, a person may decide not to attend AA because someone has told them it doesn’t work. That person’s conclusion may be based on their one-off experience in one group, but they have generalised to all of AA.
Wendy also points out that someone’s personal experience is so powerful for them that they then say this is the only pathway to recovery. Wulf knows a small number of people who route to recovery has been becoming marathon runners. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone has to run marathons to recover.
During his professional career, Wulf has always emphasised to people that they must try everything at least two or three times—you need to give something a proper chance. Wendy says that community is fundamental to recovery and community takes time to develop. And you have to contribute to community, in addition to receiving from it, and the development of the necessary skills to do this take time.
Wulf points out that when you have access to a city, there are lots of different fellowship meetings going on which involve different groups of people. Wendy adds that if you are lucky enough to access a city there are a lot of different forms of meeting, such as women only meetings and LGBT meetings. She points out the importance of the former type meeting for women who have been on the receiving end of domestic violence.
Wulf asks Wendy for her thoughts on the changes in recovery organisations and movements that have occurred over the past 18 years—much more was going on during the earlier parts of that period than today. Wendy agrees that the past was an inspiring period, but she doesn’t know why activities declined, even before the arrival of Covid. She asks if Wulf has an explanation.
Wulf points that whilst the addiction recovery advocacy movement was in part about challenging stigma, as had occurred in the Pride Movement, it was also about challenging government and treatment agencies to think about things differently. He emphasises that whilst there has been some good in the growth of recovering peer involvement in treatment services (primarily 3rd sector rather than statutory services), sometimes in paid roles, there has been a more significant undermining of recovery advocacy. It is more difficult to speak out about issues such as stigma, for fear of ‘biting off the head that feeds you’.
Wendy and Wulf agree that it is much more difficult to speak out about the system when you are part of it. The great advantage of the fellowship is that it has remained independent of the system. There is no money involved, it is not ‘professional, and it is not allied with anyone. When you are independent of the system you are treated with less respect, and even disrespected by the system—‘you don’t know what you are doing, you are a bunch of amateurs, you’re not professional, or you’re not subject to any regulations…’ You are dismissed for speaking out, but this dismissal is often coming from a position of financial vested interest.
Wulf believes that whilst the recovery advocacy movement has receded off the national stage, it is there in some communities around the country.
Wendy describes the ongoing grassroots recovery-related activities in Chester. The Fallen Angels Dance Theatre has a great deal of recovery energy. They gather people around them who are motivated, celebratory, and look after each other. Artists are involved who talk about their recovery. Storyhouse, which presents a year-round programme of theatre, is open to the recovery narrative. Chester is a Recovery Friendly University. The community is looking to expand recovery-related activities. They want to get statutory and third sector agencies involved in the hope that fruitful discussions will take place.
Wendy and Wulf go on to discuss how wider recovery initiatives, including at a national level, may grow from local community developments.
Wulf points out that during the period of great recovery advocacy activity in the UK a decade or so ago, there were four or five (maybe more) high profile individuals. There is a need for people like these, described by William White as Recovery Carriers.
Wendy sees the situation as a double-edged sword. These sort of people are key in that they carry the infection of recovery in the community, but often the movements in which they are engaged get associated with them as individuals. That situation can become negative or toxic, depending on the nature of the person and their agendas, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
Wendy and Wulf agree that it is important that these people ‘have done their own work.’ And even the best of people can make mistakes. Recovery communities need to deal with that. Wulf points out that for recovery, as individuals or as a community, it is important that ‘we definitely don’t have all our eggs in one basket.’
Wendy has been ‘immensely generous with her time’ and Wulf thanks her very much. It is a touching ending to a wonderful discussion between two good friends who have played a key role in advocating for recovery in their communities and further afield.
Wendy’s interview has also been edited into a large number of shorter clips which will be used on our Themes section. You can view these shorter films on Wendy’s YouTube Themes Playlist.
Wendy Dossett is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Chester and Principal Investigator of the Higher Power Project. Wendy’s research explores religious, spiritual and secular language in addiction recovery modalities, including Twelve Step and Buddhist approaches. She’s also an activist for Visible Recovery, and she contributes to the ‘Recovery-Friendly University’ movement in the UK. She’s a person grateful to be in recovery herself.