The system punishes you for doing well
Turning your life around is a phrase we often hear when we talk about offending, addiction or homelessness. But what does it really mean? And does it really only depend on people hitting a lightbulb moment? What the people we have met have made clear through their stories is that recovery is a journey. What happens between the moment people decide they want to change, and them living the life they want to live is critical. And feeling like they are not fighting alone is often key.
“People in recovery need champions, I think the ability for someone in recovery to stand up and give their story… it gives a bridge between what was, what is now and a possible future.” – Martin.
In order to change their lives, people need the support of the system. It takes a strong mind and an even stronger will to recover and contribute to society, so casting a supportive net under a person’s fragility is key. Services however are not always designed to champion those who have done well.
During his third long-term prison sentence, Tex asked his daughter-in-law to bring him a guitar to keep in his cell. He taught himself to play, and has, to date, written over 4,500 songs. He says it was the only thing that stopped him from ‘absolutely going over the edge with depression.’ Finding a passion for music was the first step on Tex’s road to recovery. He knew he could take off the ‘mask’ that he had been wearing to harden himself to a life of drug dealing, and to the harshness of prison, and embrace his true calling.
“Inside, that was a big moment ‘cause a lot of prisoners when they see the transformation, the guitar and the singing brought to me, a lot of them wanted to learn to play music but there was no classes or anything. You want to do something for others who are coming off drugs- get the peace and calm that I got from it.”
What Tex discovered in prison is that creativity is an integral part of recovery, however it is not always encouraged. This kind of holistic support is not always directed in the right way. He began to teach his fellow prisoners to play, and now out of prison he wants to use the skills he gained inside for good. Tex feels ready to move forward, make something of himself and contribute to society – for the first time in his life he feels he is doing well, and he knows he has the experience and the potential to help others too.
“I’m planning to start a music guitar school. Maybe now I will develop a reputation for the right reasons.”
However because he served his full term in prison, he was not offered probation upon release. Undeterred, he approached the Job Centre and explained his plans for his music school. He was told that self-employment is not something they support, and that he would have to settle for a ‘normal’ job.
But would a ‘normal’, low skilled job fulfil Tex’s ambition? Tex has skills, and not only music skills. Indeed, you could argue that, as a drug dealer, Tex was an effective entrepreneur, building up many skills that lead him to understanding what businesses need to thrive and survive.
There is a real sense that universal services don’t realise how far people have come on their road to recovery because they do not engage with people during that journey. They expects a person to either ‘be in chaos’ or ‘be recovered’, with no acknowledgement of the path in between.
People like Tex who have come so far on their recovery journey need be able to fulfil their ambition. This is a key moment in their transition. If systems are not designed to support people when they are doing well for themselves, we instil in them a sense of ‘why bother?’ and it can feel as though there’s little escape from the stigma of their past lives.
What can services do
If services were designed to be more relational, and embraced people’s life stories they would be better placed to encourage people to thrive. If employment services talked to prison services at different stages of a sentence, then perhaps people like Tex would be better placed to embark on work experience that embraced their passions.
Equally if housing services talked to employment services, if mental health services talked to probation services… If there was time and space for service providers to express empathy and understanding of an individual’s need to do well then we would see much better outcomes. And if you don’t fit the identikit nature of that system, then you are left on your own to try and thrive as part of a society that you have perhaps never before been a part of.
- Could systems learn not to stifle creativity and embrace people’s passions?
- Could services be better designed so that they do in fact realise how far people have come along their recovery journey?
- Could they celebrate ambition rather than punishing people for doing well?
- How could services actually practice better, more joined up thinking?