When people are ready to change, how can services support them to reinvent themselves positively?
Tex, Martin and Natasha are all in better places now, and part of their recovery journey has been to redirect their energy towards positive roles: as a musician for Tex, as a visual artist for Martin, as a mother and loving partner for Natasha.
Another inspiring example of someone who has reinvented herself positively is Lizz. It is worth looking at her journey in more details because it illustrates some of the steps necessary to build a positive sense of identity.
Lizz has been through a lot. She has experienced sexual violence and domestic abuse, and has lost the custody of her children because of her dependency on alcohol. Eighteen months ago, Lizz engaged with a women’s group at Hope North East, an addiction recovery service. Even though this support was focused on overcoming her addiction, it helped her to recover her self-esteem and build a positive image of herself which went beyond simply alcohol recovery.
“When you get out of the addiction, you start to see life in a different way. In the last 18 months I’ve had more of a life than my whole life…
One of the first steps on Lizz’s journey was to learn that it’s ok to ask for help. When you listen to her story, you can’t help but count the missed opportunities for support. Twice in her life she felt ready to report the abuse she endured, first from her dad, then from her first husband. Each time, she was left unsupported by family members who knew about the domestic violence. Social services and the police were aware too but didn’t help. It is only when Lizz no longer felt able to cope and turned to drink that social services intervened – not in a way that supported her as a parent, but in a way that felt like a punishment – by removing her children. She describes this moment as her rock-bottom, a moment that also made her feel ready to cross the doors of Hope North East. There must be something deeply wrong with the system for Lizz to have had to wait until things escalated that far to access therapeutic support. What her story makes clear is that it is especially hard to ask for help when all your life you’ve been sent the message by people around you, and by services that didn’t help when they could have, that it must be all your fault.
Another step is to recognise your own skills and assets. People who have been through these experiences and who are now in a better place often talk about wanting to give back. Lizz reflected on how volunteering pushed her out of her comfort zone at first, but quickly helped her to see how much she had to offer to others. She describes the change she went through in the space of a few months. She remembers crossing the doors of Hope North East, hardly being able to look up or speak to anyone. She shows a picture of what she looked like a the time to emphasize how transformed she feels now that she has become a core volunteer: standing up straight, talking with confidence, feeling comfortable in her body, and bringing her warmth and cheerfulness to others who cross the doors of Hope North East.
Convincing yourself that you can change is only half the battle. How others see you and respond to you also matters. As you are redefining yourself positively, people around you might still cling on to your old identity. For Lizz, the next battle is to rebuild a trusting and nurturing relationship with her children and grandchildren.
Changing yourself is scary. It takes courage to start accepting yourself when you’ve been blaming yourself all your life, or to undo a harmful reputation. What can services do to reinforce people’s sense of positive identity?