Dr Tessa Parkes and I were asked to speak at the Substance Use and Addictive Behaviours Research Group European conference at Manchester Metropolitan University. I spoke about recovery and identity and my role as a Peer Navigator in the SHARPS study. In this blog, I want to share some of key points and reflections from my presentation.
What is the work?
Relationships don’t just support the work – they are the work – compassion and empathy must be real, not just words.
How I build a relationship with a ‘participant’ (given my role in a research study), is exactly the same as I would do with any other person. I have normal banter, humour, and discuss hobbies and interests. I don’t sit with a participant on our first meeting and say ‘tell me your issues and problems’. Many professionals ask or expect people to reveal their issues problems immediately with no relationship being in place. This is the push on services to show results, but it means professionals are often working to timetables that do not fit with a person’s need for time and patience.
I want a participant (when they feel comfortable) to open up around their issues. I speak to all my participants on our first meeting and say that we work as a team and that we are equal. I also speak about the confidentiality I have with participants in the hope that it can develop into a trusting, honest relationship.
Having an understanding of what people have endured during their lives as adults and children is at the heart of the work we do, as workers and services following a Psychologically Informed Environments (PIEs) approach. We need the right services in place to help deal with the different traumas. I think that without dealing with the trauma, individuals are more likely to return to substances – the underlying issues have not being resolved.
Taking a psychologically informed approach is key to understanding where people have come from: don’t judge their behaviours but seek to understand them in the context of their lives. For various, complex reasons, this is often easier to talk about than to implement. Yet if you are working to this model as a service, it must be implemented.
Here’s a good example of this challenge: a person had just moved into The Salvation Army hostel where I am based. The person’s behaviour was challenging – it was unacceptable. But I sat down and talked with them to see if we could find out why they were behaving like this. This person had come from living in the woods, had years of substance misuse, and moved areas. They had anxiety about even living in a building having four walls around them. We need to understand a person’s background before judging their behaviour.
What is my identity? Making the invisible visible
A key part of my role involves harm reduction. People and services may think the word recovery means abstinent from substances. I think if you have suffered any trauma and you are trying to address these, then are you not in recovery from that trauma?
I am a professional but as someone with lived experience, I can also relate to people in other roles, including those actually using drug services. I wear many hats and this is the complexity of the work. The work of peers can be visible to non-peers working in services. The work of peers can be ordinary and extraordinary. Sometimes the emotional and practical support I offer participants feels invisible in the services I work and encounter. Sometimes it is belittled and laughed at.
It is important not to put labels on recovery.
In my work I draw on my own experiences of being in drug services. I know what it feels like to be treated as someone who has gotten off the books and into recovery.
I see myself as learning from what not did not work for me to offer and try something different to someone. I try to make sure everyone who spends time with me gets something valuable from that approach. I reflect on each appointment. So, what does long term recovery mean for someone who has used substances for 28 years?