Going clean, going legal and the personal responsibilities of the ‘productive’ citizen – Lena Theodoropoulou

Francis Alys Don't cross the bridge before you get to the river
Francis Alys Don’t cross the bridge before you get to the river

In theory

The coalition’s government [i] drug strategy for 2010-2015 is a clear, straight-forward document that describes their intentions and plans as well as the changes that actually took place in the UK drug recovery system during the past five years.

The document starts with a statement by the Home Secretary and her commitment to chase those involved in the drug trade; following that, she attempts to make an arbitrary link between drug use, organised crime and the security of UK borders. The inexistent in the real world, as described by the Home Secretary, distinction between drug users and drug traders is no news; the fact that it is mentioned though at the very beginning of the document makes it clear that for its instigators, addressing the connection between offending and drug activity (use or trade) is a priority for the ‘safety of the community’ and their strategy will evolve based on that conviction.

In the main body of the document it is mentioned that amongst the main targets of recovery is for individuals to cease offending, stop harming themselves and their communities and successfully contribute to society. Further on, it is stated that ‘key to successful delivery in a recovery orientated system is that all services are commissioned with best practice outcomes in mind’ that include: a reduction in crime and re-offending, sustained employment, the ability to access and sustain suitable accommodation, improved relationships with family members, partners and friends and the capacity to be an effective and caring parent. At the same time, the government calls the services to provide individualised, person-centred treatment and care plans tailored to the service-users’ needs. This is quite a paradox as, based on the guidelines above, it is obvious that the centre of attention is not the person that actually asks for help but the safety and wellbeing of the people and institutions around them. It is clearly stated that the services won’t be judged (and funded) on the premises of their therapeutic work, but on their ability to produce ‘good citizens’, meaning citizens that have a job, a house, are part of or in the process of forming a nuclear family, are good parents, do not offend etc. It is safe thus to conclude that individualised treatment only refers to the identification and correction of the ‘deviances’ in the service-users’ lives, rather than an effort to accompany them in the discovery of their own aspirations, plans and chosen way of being.


In Practice

As a support assistant at a residential detox and rehabilitation centre, I was invited to attend with the residents a group called GOALS, delivered by an external facilitator. The initials stand for ”Gaining Opportunities and Living Skills” and it is designed to teach the participants the ”Ten Keys of Success”. The facilitator introduces it as a course on how to become successful, delivered in a variety of settings, including companies that are interested in strengthening their employees’ motivation.

The GOALS group focuses on encouraging the participants to take responsibility for their own actions, acknowledge the fact that there is always a choice and learn how to leave the past behind them. The booklet of the course includes a variety of decontextualised catchy quotes coming from thinkers, philosophers and celebrities. Positive thinking and anger management become priority areas and the facilitator starts using examples on personal responsibility and the availability of choices. Among others, she uses the example of the UK’s age of criminal responsibility (the age of 10) and states that by that age people are able to tell the difference between right and wrong (and hence take responsibility and pay the consequences of their actions). The following example is about a man claiming that he had no other choice but to steal in order to feed his children. Once more, alternative options are presented to the group including food banks, or even looking for food in the garbage in order to avoid offending. And finally, when it comes to anger, the participants are advised to leave the past behind for their own good and learn how to forget and forgive.

Bit by bit and with one example after another, a value system is created, based on personal responsibility and the identification of legality with justice. It is also interesting that, although the examples used throughout the course didn’t mention directly drug/alcohol dependence, the connotation is obvious: obedience and legality equals a clean and happy life while disobedience and resistance equals social exclusion and relapse; and it is the enforcement of such equations that render the specific recovery model not just invalid but also unethical and dangerous. If there is a shared, universal feeling amongst people that have experienced drug addiction that would be guilt and shame. In addition to that, the route towards treatment is not an easy one. It usually involves lots of pain, disappointments and disillusionment as well as a feeling of defeat. All these conditions put the person that asks for help in a vulnerable, but also a very respectable position; manipulation though is definitely not the way to show respect. The government’s drug strategy pushes towards treatment that steps on peoples’ guilt and anger (in many cases the outcome of personal as well as social suffering) in order to create obedient, functional and productive citizens. Although the basic principles are quite similar in most treatment models, the reasoning behind them is completely different. Violence and offending for example constitute a ‘boundary’ in most treatment models around the world, not because it is ‘not right’ but because it reflects a lifestyle in many cases adopted during the times of addiction and bears negative connotations for the people in recovery. Additionally, linking offending, criminality and eventually drug dependence with resistance to social injustice and any behaviour that goes against the norms is again an effort to manipulate people during a very sensitive period of their life and takes us back to the initial point of this text that the government’s drug strategy is not about supporting the people that ask for help but about creating ‘safe communities’ and forcing social stability. Finally, playing the card of personal responsibility is an attempt to take the weight off the State’s back when it comes to social injustice and exclusion.

The subordination to a substance is the outcome of the original fear of a person to stand against the world with a clear mind; and this fear is not a choice but a result of the marginalisation since an early age of those that fail to fit in the prevailing social narratives and adapt to the rules of institutions. The failure there is not personal but systemic and has its roots in the imposition of social norms in a top-down fashion. The government’s approach to addiction creates a vicious circle that reproduces rules, restrictions and oppressions, even in the intimate and in theory free of all fear space of recovery.

All this is not to say that personal responsibility does not exist and does not play an important role in recovery. It does though alongside social and collective responsibility and does not only apply to the ex/drug users but to everyone else surrounding them, including drug workers, researchers, services, policy makers etc. Drug recovery is not (just) about being able to stay healthy, get a job and have babies. It is also an act of resistance, an escape from a pointless routine and a desire for freedom. Thus, addiction can only be treated in an environment that offers people the freedom to make their own choices, free of social expectations; free of the guilt of failure to reproduce stereotypes.

[i] This text is based on the previous government’s drug strategy, the outcomes of which are by now embedded in the practices of drug services. Although the new conservative government hasn’t yet published its drug strategy for the next five years, it is quite safe to say that they are expected to follow a similar agenda as they are the instigators of the current drug strategy anyway.

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