Recovery spaces and the adjacent possible

DJ Mac recently picked up on Bill White’s post on the need to create and protect recovery spaces, given current trends toward legalization.

He followed up by sharing another blogger’s reaction to Bill’s post.

White asserts that “any policy discussions of marijuana legalization should include the voices of people in recovery and should include a serious discussion about recovery space. Such space must be protected regardless of the future legal status of psychoactive drugs.” I have a great deal of respect for Bill White; but I disagree strongly with this line of reasoning. I submit that in an atmosphere of true destigmatization of addiction and recovery, the identification or designation of “recovery space” becomes unnecessary and, in fact, perpetuates the stigma that we are working so hard to shed.

. . .

The world will never be recovery-friendly; but to ask our communities and legislators to be sensitive to recovery space perpetuates the misconception that people in recovery are passive victims, hopelessly susceptible to environmental cues and in need of sheltering. In this context, people in recovery will never achieve full empowerment.

All of this seems like a bit of a straw man. I re-read Bill’s piece and I’m not picking up on any anti-drug or pro-prohibition message.

Look at alcohol.

  • We regulate advertising.
  • We control outlet density through limiting the number of liquor licenses.
  • We say it can’t be consumed in certain places–schools (except Ann Arbor Pioneer on U-M game days) and many parks, for example.
  • We have open container laws.
  • We impose some responsibilities on servers.
  • We have age limits on purchasing.
  • We have age restrictions on many events where it’s served. (All-ages shows can’t serve alcohol.)

We impose all of these regulations/restrictions (and more), and alcohol is still a celebrated and freely consumed drug.

I hear Bill saying that recovery is worth protecting in the same way that schools, churches, hospitals, community centers, etc, are worth protecting.

One can disagree with Bill on this, but I think we all could agree that some people live in recovery-hostile areas where there are no visible examples of recovery and that this inhibits people finding recovery. Isn’t in our community interest to address that? Isn’t in our public health interest to do something about that?

It’s not about creating a bubble.

How is hope to be kindled if there’s no visible living proof of recovery? This reminded me of another post from a couple of years back on “the adjacent possible”.

I discussed a guy who wrote a book and gave a TED talk on the topic.

During an interview he discussed the concept of the adjacent possible and it’s importance in forming new ideas. During the interview, he described it as the building blocks of new ideas. Without the right building blocks, any innovation is not possible. He described it another way in a WSJ article:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.

During the interview, he pointed out that it doesn’t matter how smart one is, it was not possible to invent a microwave in 1650, because the building blocks, the adjacent possible, just wasn’t there.

One factor is that the physical building blocks did not exist. The other factor is that the imaginative/inspiration building blocks did not exist.

This reminded me of a metaphor Bill has used when talking about hope-engendering relationships offering kindling for hope.

So, back to our critic. I admire his bootstrapping spirit, but, like I said earlier, he seemed to be arguing with a straw man and he seemed self-contradictory at times. In one paragraph, regulation is good,

. . . the legalization of marijuana is not about making it more accessible. Marijuana has always been more accessible to those under the legal drinking age than alcohol; which suggests that regulation will actually reduce its availability.

In another, regulation is bad,

Recovery space will not be achieved through restriction or regulation of those who can enjoy the recreational use of substances, legal or otherwise.

It seems that what he really wanted was a debate about legalization, which is a fine thing to debate. He just picked a piece that, rather than arguing against legalization, was suggesting that we be mindful enough to mitigate a potential pitfall of legalization.

UPDATE: The author of the original piece, Adam Sledd, sent the following comment directly to me because comments are now closed:

“Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Sorry I am late, I just discovered this thread. Dirk Hanson has captured the spirit of my argument with his “hothouse flowers” analogy. I have a background in special education and disabilities, so I am sensitive to over-accomodation and its contribution to stigma. Of course there will be recovery space, and I am all for it. When this is mentioned in the context of marijuana legalization, I think we need to be mindful of the message we send in the name of recovery.”

9 thoughts on “Recovery spaces and the adjacent possible

  1. I like your take on this; we do have protected and safe spaces for alcohol – of course we do – and it’s a point well made. The needs of people in recovery, especially early recovery, are different again from the general population; asking for consideration of these needs is not too much to ask for. Not in the least.

    I was a bit surprised by the reaction to Bill White’s piece as I think he makes a reasonable (and sensible) point.


  2. I don’t think the reaction is surprising at all; you’re missing what people are reacting to: stigma, and the idea that recovery is so shaky and environmentally determined that people need to move from special sheltered space to special sheltered space, because an encounter with a chance trigger might send them out again. And indeed it might. But we can’t protect recovering addicts from that, and the wish to do so sends a signal that recovering addicts are special hothouse flowers than cannot thrive in a normal environment, and indeed, are likely to fail. The needs of patients recovering from ANY disease are different from the general population, but I’m not sure that’s a rock-solid argument for safe spaces in this one case. I foresee a demand for safe spaces for recovering diabetics, depressives, the formerly obese….


    1. I agree that any strategy calling for sterilized bubbles is bad on more than one level. I just didn’t see Bill’s piece as calling for that kind of thing.

      Honestly, this attentiveness to the degree to which alcohol and other drugs are celebrated and ever-present in our culture is on my mind as a parent more than as a recovery advocate.

      Maybe Bill will clear up the confusion and say more on the subject with more concrete examples of what he’s advocating.


      1. One other thought I’d add is that we it seems like we are trying to exercise some influence over the cultural milieu to support people like the formerly obese and diabetics and prevent those health problems. There are efforts to make school lunches healthier, the university I teach at is making healthy snacks more available and more visible, and there are efforts like Michael Bloomberg’s in NYC. Some of these efforts will fail because they don’t work, others because they end up being deemed too intrusive or paternalistic, but it seems like an experiment worth undertaking.

        This seems not too dissimilar from what Bill is proposing. Those campaigns are not targeted at one specific set of patients, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they started that way and what won support was the belief that they would benefit general public health.


  3. I think we are talking about separate things. I’m not calling for special sheltered space connected by hermetically sealed tunnels to other special shared space (indeed who is?); just places that folk in early recovery can go to (as can others) where they’re not being offered drugs or alcohol.

    Maybe this is a cultural thing, but in Scotland there are few venues or activities where alcohol is not drunk. We are head of the European league tables for various sorts of drug consumption. The folk I work with cannot safely traverse these risks a few days, weeks or even months after treatment. This is not stigma, this is care and support. That’s the surprise – that it’s being reframed as stigmatising.


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