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An Interview with Emma Drew

April 17, 2018

We love hearing from our authors, about the books they write and the ways that they make a difference. Today we've got an in-depth piece from Emma Drew, author of 'The Whole Person Recovery Handbook', which was published by Sheldon Press in 2015.


Emma Drew is a writer and director of an arts and health project in Brighton. Previously she worked in publishing and bookselling, and has trained as a person-centred counsellor. She uses both sets of skills in supporting people in recovery from addiction and common mental health problems, and has a particular interest in what we can learn from the voices of those who have successfully moved away from self-harming behaviours. She studied English literature at Cambridge and has an M.Sc. with distinction in Medical Humanities from King’s College, London.


My interest in recovery grew from personal and professional encounters with people experiencing dependence on alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and other compulsions and addictions. My own partner died in 2011 as a result of addiction and serious underlying health problems, and I wanted to write the book that I would have found helpful at that time. I knew there were lots of people in our position, but very little by way of practical help.





I was involved in the Royal Society of Arts’ influential ‘Whole Person Recovery’ research, which showed not only that UK drug and alcohol policy wasn’t working, but that there were more hopeful and more humane ways of helping people to live well and manage addiction and the health challenges often linked to it. That is where the Whole Person Recovery Handbook came from, and happily Sheldon Press agreed to publish an accessible, non-judgmental book containing the latest thinking and interviews with people with first-hand experience. The WPRH contains tips, techniques, personal testimony and research findings to support people thinking about recovery, and those who want to help them.



Recovery is freedom from shame and guilt. Being able to open up to anyone.

No more secrets’ – M





‘Recovery’ is a simple but powerful idea: rather than focus on traditional medical treatment, which tends to be based on standardised protocols, it assumes that there are many ways to living well, and that being free from dependence and mental anguish is a process, not an end goal. ‘Whole Person Recovery’ assumes that all of a person’s circumstances, personal attributes, experiences, social connections and challenges are taken into account when designing support, which is done with them, not for them. The process is an equal partnership between ‘experts by experience’ and ‘experts by profession’. It challenges the notion that there is a neat distinction between addiction and other physical or mental health problems: there often isn’t. People who have to choose help with one health condition over another, rather than having support designed around all of their needs and health goals, are likely to have a reduced chance of successful recovery. People do not have to choose between treatment for a broken leg and treatment for asthma, so why should they have to choose between treatment for addiction and treatment for, say, post-traumatic stress, or depression?



My recovery is in the maintenance stage. I’m mindful of triggers and outside influences. I’m in a place of safety. I notice things more, and people notice me more’ - S





Treatment for addiction has not traditionally had high success rates: standardisation means that if people’s circumstances and state of health do not fit the requirements of the programme, they are effectively set up to fail. This leads to adverse effects including demotivation and relapse, with all that that means for family, friends, health services and the criminal justice system.

Addiction can affect anyone at any time. Stigma is a big barrier to seeking help. If people feel judged or fearful of the consequences of asking for support, they may avoid doing so. Social isolation reinforces the problem. The results can be catastrophic, and very expensive for individuals and society. Recognising that the origins of addiction can be complex, that it is a condition not a moral flaw, and that the behaviour associated with it is often socially accepted (until it isn’t), allows us to think differently about what kind of support might actually work. Telling someone who is addicted that they are a bad person is not just cruel, it is pointless. For a person affected, to learn to live differently and manage their own wellbeing in a way that enables them to live comfortably and safely in society, what is needed is long-term support, patience, understanding, and safe space.



It is about going from where you don’t want to be to where you feel safe and comfortable. A whole person is someone connected to

themselves, others, nature and the world around

them. They live in the today’ - T





The point about Whole Person Recovery is that we are all experts on our own lives, and that we can manage a move away from health-damaging behaviour to reconnect with family, work and community, if we are able to access to right kinds of support and resources, and move at a pace that is manageable for us. Honesty, self-awareness and self-care are important not just for the addicted person, but also for those in a supporting role, whether that is family, friends or professionals. Taking responsibility for past behaviour and future change takes enormous courage, so it is vital that support is non-judgmental and empathetic, and takes account of the risks and barriers a person faces. We don’t all get things right first time, but we are more likely to have another try if we feel recognised and our efforts are valued. Similarly, it can take time to understand that those that care for us also need to care for themselves.



Sometimes there is no previous self to return to if the issues that caused the behaviour originated in childhood. I think of recovery as a journey to somewhere

different… I feel I can be in new spaces now without

having a sense of falling apart’ - G





At the moment we are still often not getting it right – for example there is currently only one residential rehab centre in the UK that enables women to enter a treatment programme without being separated from their children. Trauma and broken attachments are key causes of addiction, so this is both inhumane and illogical, and risks setting up the next generation for exactly the same problems. Similarly, punishing addicts by sending them to prison has not been shown to be particularly effective.

There are beacons of hope: the city of Brighton has recently dropped out of the top ten UK locations for number of drug deaths, having occupied the number one position for eight out of ten years. This has coincided with a redesign of local drug and alcohol services so that anyone can refer themselves confidentially. Alongside creative, peer-led and emergency services across the city there are key, lifelines such as GPs, blood testing, counselling, housing advice, emergency medication, family support and skills training available in a single location, Richmond House, which also functions as a safe space for anyone who needs to be there. Funding cuts threaten services here as elsewhere, but the case for public investment in effective services that keep people alive, healthy, out of hospital and prison, and economically and socially engaged, is overwhelming.

My particular contribution is to run support groups that help people to use narrative skills and the creative use of language to ‘rewrite their life scripts’, to encounter different world views in literature, to find new ways to connect and express themselves, and to enjoy spending time in ways that support health rather than harm it. For people who have been at rock bottom, pleasure in life is potentially life-saving. It’s a simple but radical idea.



Attending a recovery meeting, I was scared of who I would meet, and who I was. Afterwards, I knew I wasn’t alone or unusual’ -  T



Having observed the shocking power of the stigma of addiction to destroy lives, needlessly, across the whole social spectrum, I am now researching the potential benefits of challenging stigma from another angle in society – watch this space.





Photo provided by Author






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