I frequently get asked what is a recovery community? Why do we need them? It is sometimes hard to articulate all this encompasses in a succinct way. When I struggle to do so, I often cite the much-heard phrase from those still doing alcohol or other drugs, or those in recovery: ‘It is easier to get off than it is to stay off.’
If we really hear this, then we know that as invaluable as treatment is, it is no more than the beginning, the window to sobriety, an opportunity to start recovery considerations. The long-term sustainable stuff needs to be done elsewhere. This short article expands on why I have arrived at this understanding.
Firstly though, what do I mean by recovery community/ies? I think of these as essentially taking two forms.
The first are those communities that are supported from within a drug and alcohol agency context. Often with a paid worker/posts, and seen as intrinsic to the overall offer of that agency, where they will also have criminal justice, government or health ‘addiction treatment’ contracts of one form or another. In the UK, these most often manifest themselves in larger third or voluntary sector organisations. They will usually have the valuable role of identified peer mentors or workers within this framework.
The second type of recovery community for me are those that are beyond the treatment and immediate alcohol and drug behavioural change considerations. They are generally smaller, local organisations of peers. Those with lived or living experience of alcohol and other drug use will form the trustees, directors, staff and volunteers (where applicable), as well as those accessing the community. Activities will focus on the maintenance of change and developing sustainable lifestyles, through a combination of mutual aid, physical and social activities. Engagement and participation will include and be with wider family and community groups. It is this second form of recovery community, and its emphasis on the ‘staying off’, that this article celebrates the necessity of.
The visibility of recovery; the active sight of those in recovery being in and giving back to the wider community; the demonstration of what is possible; and even the possibility of successful change are all pivotal to individual and collective recovery. The direct challenge to misperceptions, discrimination and stigma enables a better and more accepting space for people to be themselves in recovery.
Simply put, recovery communities are critical to changing prevailing social discourses which rubbish those who fall into difficulties with alcohol and other drug use. Yes, professionals can (and should do this). But all too often they choose to defend a reluctance to become involved in these political challenges behind the lines of individual and organisation professional boundaries. Recovery communities can and are often loud and proud. Here, there is much in parallel that the openly purple wearing recovery community can do, as has been achieved through the rainbow of pride.
At a far more pragmatic level, for individuals in early recovery, trying to make changes, then just being with other individuals who have achieved a long period of recovery becomes inspirational and motivational. Recovery is contagious. The infectious positives of recovery do not spread through the isolation of the one-to one-treatment appointment etc.
Not only is there this direct showing through being, recovery communities also share the knowing through doing together. Shared activities—such as bowling, boxing, climbing, cooking, dancing, eating, film watching, fishing, knitting, painting, running, skating, talking, and walking—when done in groups become enjoyable, learning, safe and rewarding pastimes. Such activities fill the time void of all the previous time spent maintaining unhealthy habits or attending endless professional appointments. They also help people develop knowledge and skills in ways of doing other stuff they like.
Being in an active recovery community is fun. It even shows people they can have fun again. It helps that process of reconnecting with the old passions lost to alcohol and drugs, or developing new alternative ones. These are the things that sustain us through the mundaneness, pressures and stresses of daily living.
Recovery communities are invariably seven days a week, from morning until bedtime, (if not through the night) and active in public holiday windows. The hours beyond Monday-Friday 9-5 are often the hardest and loneliest of times for those making change. The times when the professional and paid agency has long shut up shop and gone home to be in their own community of well-being. Recovery communities are there literally beyond treatment services. Recovery communities are maintained by those who freely give, rather than being of the paid contractual disposition.
Importantly, they also allow for the development of close friendships. The sharing of human interaction in a manner in which the professional agencies do not support, and even guard against. It is this closeness, the human bond, the feeling of being loved and loving others, which also sustains us. Recovery communities can become very healthy and supportive families.
And, like healthy families, recovery communities are there to listen and challenge. They provide the safe space in which risk-taking and growth, with all the bumps, falls and tears that come along the way, can be held and nurtured. The safe space is the warm blanket from which individuals can venture forth into the world of community service, employment and study; and then to safely return. Recovery communities create a sense of belonging and identity for those who for far too long have become cut adrift, or off, and given (and often adopt) the harmful labels of the system.
Recovery communities add value to the locality. Both, the wider and immediate community within which they are situated. They, and by fault the ‘recovering addicts’, become to be seen as assets rather than liabilities. Ironically, this often is understood by professional groups and organisations, once they grasp that long-term change is often best supported by those peers in recovery. They then become comfortable in sign-posting to the communities of [ex]-users as places of support, where in early treatment they are keen to encourage breaks from [using] peers.
More importantly, recovery communities extend into the economic, residential and social fabric of the location. They become good neighbours. And like all good neighbours, they help others around them in times of need. They add, rather than detract, in terms of value. They instigate community activities. They become a wanted and accepted part of the local fabric. Simply put, they integrate.
In essence, we need recovery communities because they change the dialogue. They are helping fix a treatment system that has struggled to solve its revolving door issues. They illustrate to society that even those who have been the ‘worst’ can become among the best. And, critically, they provide the space that ultimately enables individuals to ‘stay off’. Through shared friendship, journeys, knowing and love, they help sustain the long-term process of rebuilding lives afresh, and in a different way without the recourse to destructive use of alcohol or other drugs.