Consider this post as a confession of sorts.
Throughout my life, I have witnessed the devastating impacts of addiction. I have seen this both personally, watching friends slip from view; and professionally, with children no more than 10 years old, and seniors nearing their seventh decade.
I have a collection of images in my mind. There is Dory, barely fifteen, coming through the door of the New Hampshire group home after a weekend binge on cocaine, alcohol, and sex, exhausted and disheveled. I see Luis, a reed-like street kid with tender eyes and a shy smile, nervously huffing his plastic bag filled with yellow shoe glue as he crouches against a dirty stall on the streets of Guatemala City. I see the face of Jimmy, a Vermont reentry client, gaunt cheeks and thin lips, telling a string of lies about not using the heroin he had injected beneath his finger nail the night before.
I will also admit that I have found it deeply challenging to work with people who struggle with addiction. I am not proud of some of my past responses, which undoubtedly did more harm than good. In the name of trying to ‘help’, I have resorted to power, punishment, and guilt, sometimes all at once. Beneath these impulsive and harmful reactions, I struggled with a tangled mix of emotions, vacillating between anger, compassion, frustration, hope, and impotence.
I suspect I am not alone.
Here is one thing I’ve learned after more than thirty years of images and emotions: addiction undermines the pillars of healthy relationships. Trust, sharing, and support become vulnerabilities that can be exploited; skepticism, distance, and indifference becomes tools for self-care. Self-care and distance, however, will only take you so far. As a relationship-based professional, I have had to find ways to simultaneously remain both hopeful and realistic. Not an easy proposition.
And I consider myself incredibly lucky. I have not personally struggled with addiction and my immediate family has largely escaped the disease. All of this to say that my heart goes out to families struggling with addiction; children and parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, relationships slowly torn asunder by mistrust, anger, and desperation.
For some time now, I have felt that–as a community–we haven’t figured out how to deal with these pervasive and indiscriminate consequences of addiction. In some ways, I see similarities between my own personal flawed responses noted above, and our vacillating collective community response. Almost like clockwork, we seem to vacillate between punishment (regardless of its sordid ineffectiveness) and rehabilitation.
This is not surprising. The vast majority of us have been touched by addictions in one way or another. The strained mix of emotions which we experience in either personal and/or professional settings can be collectivized into policy and laws. In other words, rehabilitation and retribution are visceral responses to a deeply challenging and chronic illness.
The Restorative Response to Addiction Involved Crimes
These entirely human emotions and reactions speak to an underlying truth: addiction is spurred by a wave of harm, and addiction leaves a wake of harm. This is fertile ground for restorative justice.
Although I don’t have the statistics at hand, I would venture that addiction (and the collateral consequences) are present in the majority of current restorative processes. The crime may be theft, bad checks, or assault, but substances are the subtext and motivator of the wrongdoing.
I base this assumption on personal experience. Over the course of ten years of facilitating restorative processes, I’ve heard a similar story told by countless different voices: when the craving takes hold, the addicted person will do whatever it takes to fill the void. They will steal from their parents or children; degrade themselves and lie to others with abandon; and engage in behaviors that leave a deep and lasting well of personal and family shame. These are their stories, not my interpretation.
Restorative justice can attend to this complex constellation of needs.
There are some unique factors to consider when developing restorative processes that involve addictions. First, the timing of the process is critical. If the responsible party is still actively using drugs or alcohol (not uncommon), the restorative process should in most cases be put on hold. To ask someone to take responsibility even as they continue to engage in risky behaviors is likely to be harmful to all parties. (There may be a role, however, for the ‘restorative coordinator’ to help the client to access needed treatment).
Second, the restorative process should ‘stay in its lane’. The restorative process’s primary purpose is to create the opportunity for dialogue; acknowledge and explore harm; attend to the needs of all vested parties; and support the completion of meaningful amends. It’s also possible that the restorative process will indirectly seed the conditions for healing. Addressing and treating the underlying causes of addiction, however, is not the purview of the restorative process. This work is best left to professional treatment providers.
Finally, I do not know if the restorative intervention will reduce the recidivism (or relapse) rate of the client. I also don’t think this matters; it’s not the core purpose of the intervention. The restorative process holds a larger perspective and responsibility: it creates a safe space to both share complex emotions and unspoken harms; and offers an unbiased circle of care as a response.
In my next post, I will explore an area of untapped restorative potential: treatment courts.