Reflecting on the losing of humanity…

Thank the good Lord for Friday. It has been another long hard week.

Regular readers and friends will know that I earn a living by working as a mental health social worker- for around 20 years now. Or to be honest, these days I do not do a lot of social work (although I still practice as a Mental Health Officer)- I do this other thing called ‘management’.  Some days I am not sure how much longer I can do it.

What has allowed me to survive so long working within a large bureaucratic institution has been two things- firstly the need to provide for my family, and secondly the hope that I might be able to genuinely make a difference to the lives of the people I work with. In management, it is possible to fulfil the first, but the second- well the evidence is not as strong.

Being in contact with people in the extremes of distress and crisis on a daily basis does something to you. It is impossible to stay as emotionally engaged as we do when we first begin these encounters. The best of my colleagues hold on to their compassion however- we nurture it by making it shape our language, our small talk and the way we treat everyone we come across. We have learnt that kindness in the small things, despite terrible external circumstances, can indeed make a difference.

And sometimes that is the only thing we have to offer.

Images by Fred Kleinberg

In the course of my work, I come across people who have done terrible things. People who others would say have lost all sense of humanity.

People who have harmed children, or killed and dismembered people.

Others who have locked themselves away (or been locked away) and have lost or forgotten almost all basic skills of human interaction.

Perhaps most striking is watching people slowly destroyed by addiction. To see them in the later stages of this- near to death- and wonder what incredible life force keeps a person alive when skin is bright jaundice-yellow and all organs are playing discords.

Sometimes it seems that almost all that makes us human is gone.

Almost- but not all.

Because in all of these people, despite their brokenness, what is left- what is most visible, is… their humanity.

Unhidden, undefended, right on the surface like an open flesh wound.

And should we lose sight of this, the danger is that it is not their humanity that will be at risk- but rather our own.

I wrote this in response to a recent event…

Deep in the soup and the stew of him

In the ooze and glisten of his grey matter

Some synapses spark and flicker

Sending out electro-chemical dots and dashes


And he- wired almost to breaking point

Is all strung out

Senses dulled

But deadly receptive


So bone becomes knuckle

Muscles turn to gristle

And poisoned sinew moves like a snake

Ready to strike


Later some said he was evil

That some dark thing was in him

Others called him mad

A flesh machine gone wrong


Still others bayed for his blood

-as if enough had not been spilt already

They want eyes put out for the eyes he closed

And every broken tooth smashed in return


Me, I stand over a stain in an old carpet

Through which something human has fallen

And feel a little of myself

Drain away

‘Road to recovery’, and ‘spiritual capital’….

BEWARE- this is quite a long post, but please bear with me dear readers, as I think it deals with rather important stuff… but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?


Powerful image from here.

I love it when you come across something unexpected that reeks of the Kingdom of God…

I spent all day yesterday at a development day and Annual General Meeting for the Cowal Council on Alcohol and Drugs. I am one of the volunteer directors of this company, who provide counselling and support for people with addictions in this area. I am proud to be part of the organisation, which like all such voluntary sector small companies has had some challenging times.

At present, I think it is a good healthy place to work, and brings genuine help to people who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol in our area. Our area (the west of Scotland) has seen too many lives cut short and families devastated by addiction. But there are many people who we are not able to help- and the purpose of yesterday was to try to consider how we might set our agenda for next year to do better.

I was part of a discussion yesterday about the concept of ‘recovery’.

Recovery is a word that I am very familiar with from the point of view of mental health services- in this context, it is life giving and hope enhancing. Check out the Rethink website, or the Scottish Recovery Network site. I seriously think that any Christians interested in seeing the words of of Isaiah 61 made real in our time should become familiar with what is happening in the area of Recovery- a lot of the sites are full of personal stories that make you weep. Chains are breaking, and we people of faith ought to celebrate and support as much as we can.

Until recently I was not aware of how much the concepts of recovery are starting to cross over into the the field of addiction.

This is an excerpt from a recent Scottish Government document called ‘The road to recovery‘, which specifically addresses addiction to drugs-

81. What do we mean by recovery? We mean a process through which an individual is enabled to move on from their problem drug use, towards a drug-free life as an active and contributing member of society. Furthermore, it incorporates the principle that recovery is most effective when service users’ needs and aspirations are placed at the centre of their care and treatment. In short, an aspirational, person-centred process.

82. In practice, recovery will mean different things at different times to each individual person with problem drug use. Above all, people aspiring to milestones in recovery must have the confidence that they can achieve their personal goals. For an individual, ‘the road to recovery’ might mean developing the skills to prevent relapse into further illegal drug taking, rebuilding broken relationships or forging new ones, actively engaging in meaningful activities and taking steps to build a home and provide for themselves and their families. Milestones could be as simple as gaining weight, re-establishing relationships with friends, or building self-esteem. What is key is that recovery is sustained.

83. Recovery as an achievable goal is a concept pioneered in recent years with great success in the field of mental health. The Scottish Recovery Network has been raising awareness of the fact that people can and do recover from even the most serious and long-term mental ill-health. 32

84. The strength of the recovery principle is that it can bring about a shift in thinking – a change in attitude both by service providers and by the individual with the drug problem. There is no right or wrong way to recover. Recovery is about helping an individual achieve their full potential – with the ultimate goal being what is important to the individual, rather than the means by which it is achieved.

‘Recovery’ is essentially a collection of grass roots movements growing out dissatisfaction by users of services who are sick of being ‘done to‘ by professionals, and are looking to break free- not only from the specific difficulties affecting their lives, but also from the industry and economy generated by medical, social and political attempt to ‘cure’ them. The fact that recovery is now forming a part of government documents is both a triumph and a threat. It is a threat because there is a real danger that the word becomes just a word. It stops to carry any passion, or any hope…

But back to our discussion yesterday.

One of the things evident to anyone seeking to discuss the possibility of recovery with people who have been forced beyond the edges of society by addiction, mental illness or stigma and discrimination, is that there can be no recovery without mental wellbeing, and there can be no mental wellbeing without real opportunities to build friendships, find meaningful activities and participate in our towns and communities as both recipients and a contributors.

I have blogged several times about the idea of Kanyini, and how the loss of identity, purpose and spirituality amongst Aboriginal people has led to a loss of their very selves. Anyone who has spent any time amongst people with addictions (who have may also have lost everything) will resonate with Kanyini. Bob Randall speaks movingly of how his own people have fallen into addiction, isolation and mental illness…

There was a discussion yesterday about how we might be able to encourage these things in our organisation, and more importantly, our community-

  1. Recovery capital– how do we give power and control back to people who use our services, and provide change opportunities, not ‘slots for treatment’?
  2. Social capital– how do people find meaningful social connections, from a position where trust and opportunities have all but disappeared?
  3. Spiritual capital- this gave some pause for thought, so more on this one below!

What is ‘Spiritual capital’? I suppose this rather depends on your definition of spirituality- but lets not get into that just now. In this context, I think Spiritual capital refers to MEANING. The meaning on life, the meaning of love, the meaning of small stuff, and the biggest stuff.

Most of us do not need to dig into this too much- we have no time, and the scaffolding around our lives- jobs, marriages, mortgages, etc- means that we are insulated from the biggest questions. But people who have none of this scaffolding and have reached the end of all their coping, even the bottom of the bottle- these people have a whole different place to look at spirituality from.

Interestingly, the discussion in one of the other groups seemed to get into RELIGION. There are some Christian organisations involved in addictions work. Some of them use high octane charismatic deliverance kind of stuff- which to be honest, I kind of find slightly disturbing. But then again, if it is meaningful and helpful to people involved, great. My fear is that one addiction is replaced by another on, called GOD- and this can indeed be a dangerous addiction for some…

But I wonder if Spiritual capital can be seen more commonly in encouraging people to consider things relating to the heart of who we are, rather than the material stuff that we surround ourselves with…

And in this, I think people who have suffered addiction, or experienced mental health problems, have much to teach the rest of us…

As for me, it started me thinking about a writing project, and I had a great conversation about the possibility of a ‘recovery cafe’ with my mate Ali…