Interventions into severe alcohol and other (AOD) problems have focused primarily upon altering the character, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals. Far less attention has been given to influencing the environment in which such factors are birthed, sustained or changed. But interest in the geography of recovery is increasing. Researchers are beginning to suggest that reaching the tipping point of addiction recovery may have as much to do with community factors as intrapersonal factors. Recovery advocates and clinicians are calling for creation of a “healing forest”— “naturally occurring, healing environments that provide some of the corrective experiences that are vital for recovery.”
In 2006, Canadian geographers Robert Wilton and Geoffrey DeVerteuil co-authored a most provocative essay in which they took emerging work on the influence of physical environment on personal health and extended it to the arena of addiction recovery. Exploring the physical concentration of recovery resources within a San Pedro, California neighborhood, they described how isolated programs had evolved into a true recovery community creating what literally evolved into a recovery landscape.
The places within the “people, places and things” long understood to be a critical dimension of the recovery experience are finally receiving needed attention from scientists, addiction professionals and recovery advocates. There is a growing understanding that the prevalence of addiction and addiction recovery expand and contract under the influence of physical and social space. The alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries have long understood this principle and have expended enormous resources in expanding, promoting and then protecting the community space in which their products may be procured and used.
Addressing AOD problems at a community level involves shrinking addiction spaces and expanding recovery spaces. The latter is happening at an unprecedented rate around the world based on the growing awareness that addiction recovery requires more than a personal decision. It requires a recovery-conducive world–physical and social environments and a diversity of community-supported recovery lifestyles within which individual and family recovery flourish. It is that world that recovery advocates are trying to create by expanding the recovery space within local communities. It is in this context that we are witnessing the growth and diversification of recovery mutual aid fellowships and the spread of recovery advocacy organizations, recovery community centers, recovery residences, recovery schools, recovery industries, recovery ministries, recovery cafes, recovery-focused sporting events and innumerable projects related to recovery and the arts (e.g., writing, theatre, film). What is occurring is recovery community building at a level of intensity never before seen in history.
Today, individuals across the world are ending addiction treatment. Their fates will be shaped by many intrapersonal factors, but they will also be shaped by ratio of addiction space and recovery space they encounter as they move forward with their lives. Those spaces must become targets for sustained intervention at cultural and community levels. Neurobiological, psychological, social and spiritual models of recovery would be greatly enriched by a deeper understanding of the ecology of addiction recovery.
How many spaces exist within your community within which addiction thrives compared to the number of recovery-friendly spaces? A young woman just home from weeks cloistered in an addiction treatment facility steps out of her doorway. Where will she go? Will she find spaces in which her fragile recovery status is welcomed, celebrated and strengthened? Or will she find…..?