What is normal?

People whose lives combine severe and multiple disadvantages have often grown up in worlds where alcohol or drug use, violence or offending are normal. Chaotic behaviours can be a coping mechanism to trauma and isolation. But often, they also reflect the environment in which people live.



To some extent, our actions are guided by what is perceive as normal in our families, friendship groups or communities. People measure the appropriateness of their behaviour in relation to these norms. When excess drinking and fighting is considered a normal part of being a “real Northern man”, as Paul described, it’s
hard to draw the line between problematic and ‘normal’ alcohol use.

Supporting people with complex needs to live the life they want also implies recognising that one person’s irrational behaviour is another’s normality. For someone to adopt behaviours that are less harmful to themselves and others, we must first ask: how much does it take for someone to recognise and challenge their norms?


When chaos is normal

When we first met James, he told us he had no real reason to take the drugs that he has been addicted to for the majority of his life. He says his dad wasn’t really there for him, but apart from that he had friends, a loving mother and what he describes as a stable childhood.

“Most addicts, they have a reason. They’ve been abused or whatever. But not me. I had a good childhood. I just fell into it.”

James grew up on the Ford Estate, which was notorious in the early eighties and boasted Britain’s highest rate of heroin abuse among teenagers. He started smoking at 13. He says; ‘it’s just something we used to do as kids.’ He moved onto heroin at 18, and still uses daily.

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James does not fit the stereotype most people might have in mind when they think of addiction. He has two children, and describes his current relationship with them as good. He was able to hold down a permanent job as a carer for disabled people and for older adults until the age of 40 when he became too ill to work.

“I’m proud of how he was with the disabled. He was so caring for them. He would always look out for people” – Rochelle

Addiction doesn’t necessarily imply a chaotic life. A life-long addiction combined with a supportive social network where addiction is normalised can mean that being on drugs has become synonymous with stability. Rochelle, James’ daughter describes her father’s addiction as a normal part of her childhood. The family has always been open about it, from his mother who regularly lends money to her son, while joking she hates “giving them dealers money,” to his sister, who, during a family holiday, found a dealer for him. That doesn’t mean that James’ addiction is a light-hearted joke. Rochelle recalls the bad times too. But she talks about how the family uses humour as a way to cope with it. She also feels that if services had personalised James’ support much earlier, life could have been very different.


A couple of years ago, James was diagnosed with early onset dementia. He has started to forget things, and feels like his habit has gotten worse since the diagnosis. This also affects how he sees his future. He doesn’t see much point in coming off drugs now, given the stability of his life. Rochelle feels that if services had personalised James’ support much earlier, his life could have been very different. But she also recognises that keeping using is his choice, and that he should be supported to do so in ways that are less harmful.

Listen to this recording to hear James and Rochelle talk about it in their own words:


How can we we support people to break from chaos and build stable lives while respecting the choices they make?

And how can services take into consideration the complexity of people’s lives, or recognise the norms they are starting from? The answer lies in personalised support. Not just for the individual, but also support whole families, neighbourhood and cultures to change.

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