The morning after a vibrant two-day event, delegates from the Recovery from Addiction: Bridging the Gap between Policy and Practice conference woke to the sad news that the initial inquest into Peaches Geldof’s death had revealed that heroin is likely to have played a role in her death. Social media, previously channelling devastation at the loss of this young celebrity, lit up with questions, many freighted with judgement. How could she use heroin when looking after her much-loved 11 month old son? Like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Winehouse before her, how could someone so privileged and talented throw their life away so selfishly, and so stupidly? Without first-hand experience of the value-distortions of active addiction it is undoubtedly difficult to comprehend. However, those that have lived through that experience and survive to tell the tale say they find it all too easy to understand, and perhaps all the more tragic and heart-breaking for that.
The public reaction after a celebrity death from drugs or alcohol often feeds one of two rather unfortunate narratives, each of which have their own celebrity champions. Peter Hitchens judges those who struggle with addiction to be making an entirely hedonistic and selfish choice; their addiction being a by-product of their spoilt and, and in the case of celebrities, privileged lifestyle. But if they are not pilloried, they are glamourised. The 27 Club – a term coined by Wendy O’Connor, the mother of Kurt Cobain and widely adopted by the media – denotes the surprisingly large number of well-known rock-stars who have died at 27. The most famous had histories of the misuse of alcohol and other drugs: think Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse. By making them intriguing, the term romanticises their deaths. Howard Sounes describes the widespread media use of the 27 Club notion as ‘flippant and vulgar.’ It certainly disguises the awful tragedy of talented human beings destroyed by the impairment or even loss of their choice (contra Hitchens) around substances.
A third misfortune is the consequence of the fascination with death, especially when it seemed, such as in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s case, that some form of recovery from substance abuse had set in. It’s grist to the mill of the determinists who say ‘once an addict, always an addict.’ A large proportion of people who used to abuse drugs and alcohol would agree that there is no ‘cure’ for addiction, only a daily reprieve. However, the type-casting of former substance misusers as bad-seeds, never to be trusted, risks underestimating the value and potency of recovery when it happens, even if it isn’t life-long.
The Recovery from Addiction conference, run by TRS Chester (@higherpowerproj #bridgeconf), explored amongst other things the relationship between social, spiritual and recovery capital, and reviewed some of the latest research in this area. Speakers (clinicians, criminologists, public health specialists, social scientists and grassroots recovery activists) described recovery as a social and for some, spiritual, ‘practice’, and as happening in the spaces between people. Keynote speaker Dr David Best noted that members of recovery communities with five years or more standing score more highly on quality of life scales than the general population. Dr Sam Weston’s paper on ambiguity in the governmental policies on drug treatment argued for a shift from the deficit approach of measuring the risks and cost of drug misuse to health, communities and to the economy, to a focus on the human dimension of the problem and the more-than-monetary value of recovery to individuals and communities. In line with Bruce Alexander’s view that addiction is an epiphenomenon of the neo-liberal fragmentation of society, the conference focused on questions about what it means to build meaningful communities in the context of modernity, and explored some concrete examples of burgeoning and inspirational recovery communities and projects, such as RISE and Dear Albert
Recovery has its celebrity champions too. Russell Brand has brought a great deal of attention to the idea of abstinence-based ‘full’ recovery in a context of the struggle to move patients on Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) on from dependence on the health care system. But, however many column inches Peaches Geldof, Peter Hitchens or Russell Brand attract, most people struggling with substance misuse and most people in recovery are not celebrities. Based on ONS statistics, the day Peaches Geldof died, probably around 30 other people in the UK died drug and/or alcohol aggravated deaths. Most of these will have been amongst the most socially excluded and the most lacking in recovery capital in the country. Addiction and recovery are issues of social justice, but this fact is liable to be eclipsed by a celebrity focused media.