Toward a “Conspiracy of Hope” (Jason Schwartz and Bill White)
So it is not our job to pass judgment on who will and will not recover from mental illness and the spirit breaking effects of poverty, stigma, dehumanization, degradation and learned helplessness. Rather, our job is to participate in a conspiracy of hope. It is our job to form a community of hope which surrounds people with psychiatric disabilities. —Pat Deegan
With those words, Dr. Patricia Deegan, Adjunct Professor at Dartmouth College Geisel School of Medicine and indomitable recovery advocate, introduced two ideas with potentially profound implications for the future of addiction treatment and recovery. Below we offer a few reflections on these ideas.
A conspiracy of hope is an organized movement to inject the optimism of lived recovery experience into an arena historically fixated on addiction-related pathology and its progeny of injuries to individuals, families, and communities. But why is there need for such a conspiracy? Opposition to prevailing conditions often arises within the context of oppression. People suffering from addiction and those seeking recovery face innumerable sources of such oppression.
Addiction itself inflicts a rising cascade of consequences, crushing one’s sense of value and blinding one’s vision beyond the insatiable immediacy of drug hunger. Addiction-related social stigma—fueled by media fixation on the most lurid caricatures of addiction—further damages personal identity, fuels social isolation or entrenchment in subterranean drug cultures, and prevents or slows help-seeking. The resulting addiction-based social network behaves like crabs in a bucket—those trying to escape are repeatedly pulled back in. The paucity of helping resources and their lack of accessibility, affordability, and quality all reinforce the view that reaching out for help would be a waste of time and money. When help is sought, the therapeutic pessimism and paternalism of professional and nonprofessional “helpers” can also reinforce low recovery expectations.
As a result of such conditions, addiction-fueled despair whispers and then shouts that we are not deserving or capable of anything different—that recovery is a myth and that the ever-present threats of incarceration, disability, or death are rightful consequences of our unworthiness. Only an organized conspiracy of hope can challenge the oppressive conditions that stand as major barriers to long-term addiction recovery.
Character of the Conspiracy
But what would such a conspiracy of hope require? It would require the cultural and political mobilization of individuals and families in recovery and their allies. It would require a vanguard of such individuals and families willing to share their recovery stories at a public level. It would require those in recovery to move beyond their own personal stories and their particular recovery pathway to identify themselves as “a people” with a shared history, shared needs, and a shared destiny. In short, it would require a social movement aimed at shifting the governing image of addiction from that of the repeatedly relapsing celebrity to the millions of people living quiet lives of stable, long-term recovery. Shifting the dominant view of addiction from one of pessimism to hope will require the involvement of a broad spectrum of people and professions, but people in recovery will be central to this achievement through their individual and collective storytelling and their leadership within recovery advocacy efforts.
There are whole professions whose members share an extremely pessimistic view of recovery because they repeatedly see only those who fail to recover. The success stories are not visible in their daily professional lives. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the police who arrested us, the attorneys who prosecuted and defended us, the judges who sentenced us, the probation officers who monitored us, the physicians and nurses who cared for us, the teachers and social workers who cared for the problems of our children, the job supervisors who threatened to fire us. We need to find a way to express our gratitude at their efforts to help us, no matter how ill-timed, ill-informed, and inept such interventions may have been. We need to find a way to tell all of them that today we are sane and sober and that we have taken responsibility for our own lives. We need to tell them to be hopeful, that RECOVERY LIVES! Americans see the devastating consequences of addiction every day; it is time they witnessed close up the regenerative power of recovery. (White, A Day is Coming, 2001)
What makes this a conspiracy is the knowledge that through these simple acts of storytelling and advocacy we are part of a chorus of others taking similar strategic steps to achieve larger social gains. Built on the back of earlier recovery advocacy efforts, this conspiracy of hope was officially launched at the 2001 Recovery Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota. Christened the New Recovery Advocacy Movement, it has since spread throughout the U.S. and internationally. But the success of this movement hinges on more than our collective storytelling; in Deegan’s vision, it requires a new form of community-building.
Building Communities of Hope
Communities of hope involve creating the physical, psychological, and social space (recovery landscapes) in local communities and the culture at large in which recovery from addiction can flourish. Assuring such space requires building sustainable institutions through which recovery is supported within every area of community life, e.g., government, business and industry, housing, education, medicine, social services, religion, music, the arts, sports, and leisure. The idea of communities of hope means that people in recovery have opportunities to be supported by and in turn support other people in recovery and that those in recovery have opportunities individually and collectively to participate in the larger life of their communities. It also suggests the presence of safe sanctuaries that can serve as incubation chambers for those early in their recovery. We are now witnessing the spread of such new institutions (e.g., recovery community centers, recovery homes, recovery industries, high school and collegiate recovery programs, recovery cafes, recovery ministries, recovery-focused sports and entertainment venues, and recovery celebration events) that transcend the historical categories of addiction treatment or recovery mutual aid societies.
We are also witnessing the emergence of an ecumenical culture of recovery with language that links the distinctive cultures that have historically evolved within these professional and mutual aid settings. Within the addictions arena, the communities of hope that Deegan refers to are under construction across the U.S. and in other countries. That stands as a notable historical milestone within the history of addiction recovery. It is a trend that will benefit individuals seeking recovery and the service systems designed to serve them, but it will also mark a step in elevating the broader health and quality of communal life. We have followed closely the work of John McKnight, Peter Block, and Bruce Alexander on the value of deliberate welcoming, sharing gifts, and collaborative community building and commend their writings to recovery advocates and addiction professionals.
Implications for Addiction Treatment Programs
What does all this mean for addiction treatment programs? Addiction treatment programs could participate in this conspiracy of hope and recovery community building by taking actions such as the following:
*Elevating resilience and recovery as the central organizing constructs for the design and delivery of all services, e.g., strengths-based assessment protocol, recovery-focused training of all service personnel on the prevalence, processes, pathways, stages, and styles of long-term personal and family recovery. Identification and mobilization of client gifts are essential. Conspiracies of hope and communities of hope are built upon participant’s gifts, not their needs.
* Reconnecting what have become ever-briefer episodes of addiction treatment to the larger and more enduring process of addiction recovery via embracing models of recovery management nested within larger recovery-oriented systems of care, e.g., precovery outreach services, assertive linkage to indigenous recovery support institutions, sustained post-treatment recovery checkups, and support services for families in long-term recovery.
*Assuring the presence, diversity, and visibility of people in long-term recovery within the treatment milieu.
* Actively supporting (without controlling or exploiting) local recovery advocacy and recovery community building activities.
* Using community standing to expand the conspiracy beyond people in recovery and beyond service providers, e.g., engaging employers and faith communities as well as other social institutions to make the community “recovery ready.”
Joining the Conspiracy
The journey from addiction to recovery is as possible and fulfilling as it is challenging. Few things are as spiritually energizing as being part of a “conspiracy of hope” to support those journeys. Such journeys are eased when nested within a community of fellow travelers. Few things are as fulfilling as being part of building such communities. Are you ready to join the conspiracy of hope and nurture the development of communities of hope? What steps could you take today to assert such a commitment?