This Is How Scotland's Recovering Addicts Organised To Fight Stigma
A community of Scots in recovery from substance abuse has grown rapidly over the past decade. At their first ever national conference, they told BuzzFeed News about their plans – inspired by the LGBT pride movement.
A group of people in recovery from substance abuse are exchanging stories of stigma they've faced. One woman says she was made to enter her pharmacy through a back entrance when picking up methadone prescriptions and treated "like a criminal" once inside.
A man describes doctors crushing his hope by saying he had "zero chance of recovery". Another talks about the daily experience of walking past newspapers with headlines about "junkies", deepening his shame about illness and making him even more reluctant to seek help.
The group is part of the first mass meeting of the dozens of recovery organisations in Scotland, the country with the highest drug-related death rate in Europe. BuzzFeed News was the first publication given access to what they call "the recovery community" – including people in recovery, their families, and their supporters.
One quiet member of the group starts talking, barely above a whisper, about the night her son died before he managed to get into recovery: "My son was a heroin addict, and you always thought bad news would come late at night – I would go to bed with my clothes on because I needed to be able to jump. The only time I slept in my PJs and my nightie was when he was in prison and I knew where he was."
She felt her son's addiction affected how police treated her and her husband when they knocked on her door with the news she'd dreaded.
"This particular night it was quarter to eight and the buzzer went. It was the CID [crime investigation department] and I just thought to myself, What has he done now? It was a lady and a younger man. The CID officer said to me, after looking me up and down: 'And you are?' I asked her who she was – she was in my home. She then told me and my husband that they had found a body."
This impersonal treatment continued, she said, when her husband was asked to identify their son's body. "They took him round a few streets. He saw an ambulance and assumed my son was in there, but [the officer] walked past that into a close. He walked through the back court, and there was my son, lying at the bins where everyone’s waste and discarded bits of this and that were. The police pointed and said to my husband, ‘Is this your son?’
"My husband knelt down, cradled him, spoke to him, kissed him, and was told to hurry up because – well, I don’t really know the reason. All around was drug paraphernalia, his jacket, hospital blankets. Again, he was urged to hurry up. Instead of bringing him home, then they took him to the police station to give a statement. He hasn’t got a clue what they asked him – he was in shock."
Families like hers up and down Scotland are now saying enough is enough. Last week over 400 people from 120 groups came to the south side of Glasgow to make friends, get ideas, and share experiences. The Recovering Connection: Stigma to Respect conference took place on 1 September, the first day of Scotland's Recovery Month, a 30-day showcase of what people are doing to bring an end to the stigma people have faced.
There, BuzzFeed News did not see a despondent community sharing only tragic life stories with each other, as those in recovery or addiction are often shown to be in media and film. Instead we found a hopeful, motivated, and burgeoning activist movement that had taken clear inspiration from the LGBT community.
The event was nothing like the sombre and anonymous meetings many might picture. Energetic activists reeled off projects they've set up to help themselves and others and to make people in recovery more visible to the wider public, including "recovery gigs", rambling groups, discos, choirs, yoga classes, radio stations, and local fun days.
On 30 September the Recovery Walk, directly inspired by pride marches, will see thousands of people take to the streets of Dundee to give "recovery love" to the city and place a rose in the river for each person close to them that they've lost to drug abuse.
"This is what happens when any marginalised community gathers itself and becomes strong enough to be visible – we're out and proud now," says Dharmacarini Kuladharini, a Buddhist nun and CEO of the recovery charity the Scottish Recovery Consortium, which co-organised the conference. She is in her 15th year of recovery from alcohol abuse.
"I've been to Pride a number of times, and it's challenging for me because there’s so much drink, but I feel so proud when I see those banners go through Glasgow," she says. "That’s the same thing we want for us now – we’re a stigmatised community making ourselves heard and making people feel better about themselves when they take part in it. Honestly, it makes us feel amazing."
The plan, says Dermot Craig from Aberdeen in Recovery, who himself is in recovery, is that the more that light is shone on what the recovery community is achieving, the more the inaccurate stigma attached to it will fade. In the northeast of Scotland, Craig tells the audience, his group has carried out over 90 public meetings, established a quarterly recovery magazine, and has over 140 trained members – each with a lived experience of addiction and recovery to share with the public.
"This is how we beat stigma – the more we make it visible that recovery is very possible, the better," says Craig. "We all have to be very brave in what we do. We’ve got to out our recovery – the guys that are here, go and tell your friends and the fellowships, you must out your recovery. What’s the point of keeping secrets? Our secrets kept us sick for years and years and years. My secret, my guilt, my shame kept me sick. I’m in recovery, and I will shout it from the rooftops, and in doing so I will do my part to burst stigma – that’s what we’ve all got to do."
Another speaker, Adrian Wilkinson, tells the audience about the Dry Dock project in Leith, where the local council is giving a group of people in recovery a building in which to practise "recovery through creativity", including, he says, "Art classes, yoga three times a week, we have a carpenter who comes in from time to time to teach woodwork, we have drums and guitarists and bass players – of course, some of them are better than others."
Other projects include a residential community for people in recovery in South Ayrshire with a garden and café to attract visitors who can learn about recovery. In Glasgow, which has 25% of Scotland's recovery groups, alcohol-free club nights organised by one group have proved popular with people in recovery, their friends, and the wider public.
What becomes clearer with each representative who takes to the stage to explain what's happening in their part of Scotland is that the recovery community is a nationwide, innovative, passionate network of activists that has been quietly growing in stature, influence, and confidence over the past decade.
Since the Scottish government produced its 2008 Road to Recovery strategy – which pledged to put ex-addicts at the centre of how the devolved government dealt with substance abuse, and is, according to ministers, due a "refresh" this year – those in recovery have been gradually more able to speak out and organise, like any other stigmatised minority group, Kuladharini says.
As part of the strategy, the recently launched Partnership for Action on Drugs in Scotland (PADS) group lets those who have been through substance abuse and are now in recovery, known as "lived-experience advisers", directly feed in to government policy.
"[Road to Recovery] was the start of the idea that you could put recovery and getting better at the heart of our treatment services and the work we do," says Kuladharini.
"Nine years later, there's a lot of work to do, but it released people in recovery to become visible, to get active, and create this movement. It’s rare for a drugs strategy to inspire a movement, but people in recovery have taken that and run with it. Up until then we were dirty news that was hidden away, but now the value and necessity of engaging with people with lived experience is fully appreciated."
And the activists feel their influence is only just beginning. It would previously have been considered too politically risky for a Scottish government minister to attend an event like this, but the Scottish minister for public health, Aileen Campbell, was the star speaker. Placed on each seat at the conference was a letter from Nicola Sturgeon hailing Recovery Month and throwing her support behind the community.
But despite these gestures, the Scottish government has actually cut direct funding to drug prevention, treatment, and support services by £16 million (22%) over the past year and asked the NHS to make up the difference to avoid a drop in service quality.
Previously, drug policy experts have told BuzzFeed News the Scottish government's cut in funding could be in part to blame for the drug-related death rate doubling in Scotland since 2006, with 160 people in every million dying because of drug-related causes. Drugs charity Release Drugs, which argues for decriminalisation, compared that figure to other countries in the EU and found Scotland's problem to be by far the worst.
Speaking to the audience, Campbell insists the government is committed to improving the lives of the recovery community. "Scotland's recovery community has grown immeasurably over the years and that is a real cause for celebration," she says. "We should be proud as a country to shout very loudly about the effort, dedication, and commitment of anyone who either supports people in recovery or people who are going through recovery themselves."
She says the recovery community would be directly involved in the "refreshed" Road to Recovery strategy: "Your experience, your views and your thoughts ... are fundamental in how we shape and hone the approach. It's important you feel you're part of the development of this new strategy and it's important that you feel your voice and experience are not just listened to, but acted upon – it's easy for us in government to say we'll listen to you, but the test in that is you being confident that there's a response to that."
Campbell's appearance at the conference was well-received overall, but she was confronted by some unhappy activists following her address.
One, Fiona Gilbertson, is the cofounder of Recovering Justice, the only recovery organisation focused entirely on lobbying for a change in drug laws. It believes drugs policy is the principal reason for the staggering drugs-related death rate in Scotland, and is urging both the UK and Scottish governments to rethink their approaches.
"As someone who was brought up using drugs, the laws created more problems in my life than drugs ever did. I'm talking about stigma here – the institutionalised shame of people," Gilbertson, who is also in recovery, told Campbell.
"The recovery movement have an opportunity now to stand with all the other great movements in saying we will not get stigma [to] decrease until we change policy.
"Scotland could lead the way on this, and the recovery community can help you and stand with you. We can show you international evidence, we can bring you the Swiss prime minister who changed stigma in her country.
"The gay movement did not change until we stopped criminalising people. There's not going to be a change until we end the war on drugs – and we need to do it together."
Following the conference, Recovery Month has a calendar of comedy nights, social events, women's groups, a 10km run, and a football match, culminating in the Recovery Walk, where roses laid to commemorate those who had died are a reminder that some addicts didn't live to see the stigma against them being lifted. Back in the workshop, the woman who lost her son – she wishes to remain anonymous – says the recovery community has become a central support in her life.
She takes part in a weekly family support group in Glasgow, volunteering for Family Addiction Support Services and carrying out talks in police college. She even lends out a caravan to families dealing with addiction and recovery so they can go on much-needed holidays.
"We all have our moments, there’s no doubt about that," she says.
"But if you can get something positive from it then it’s a great help. There’s one thing you’ll never get over, and that's the death of a child. It’s unnatural to outlive your children, and you learn to deal with that on a daily basis.
"But this community is so important – it helps you feel like you’re not alone. Sometimes you feel you’re the only one going through it, but in the community, if something is bothering you, you can say it, because there’s always someone who’s gone through it too.
"You do the best you can, and you meet some lovely people in recovery. Some are still addicts – they’re lovely boys and lassies. I’ve met some lovely police officers too. Let me tell you, it’s not all doom and despair."