Is usually what people who are easily offended say.
The new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ has started a bit of a twitter storm. The film, featuring actress Anne Hathaway portrays the evil witches with distinct physical features that were not part of the original. Many have raised concerns that the film could further the stigma around disability.
In Dahl’s original novel, the witches have “square feet with no toes” and “claws instead of fingernails” and are depicted in the cover art as having five fingers. In the 1990 film the witches are also shown as having five fingers. For some reason they have used creative license to change that and upset a community of beautiful, resilient humans.
Warner Bros. has now issued a statement of regret as a studio spokesperson said, “We the filmmakers and Warner Bros. Pictures are deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in The Witches could upset people with disabilities, and regret any offense caused. In adapting the original story, we worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book,” the statement continued. “It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them. This film is about the power of kindness and friendship. It is our hope that families and children can enjoy the film and embrace this empowering, love-filled theme.”
As a person who was born with a “limb difference” I can honestly say that I personally am not “offended” about the depiction. I am sure that the majority in the #NotaWitch camp are not “offended”. Perhaps more annoyed by the non apology and lack of awareness at the potential impact of popular culture and its stigma perpetuating narratives on our children. Disability should not be a taboo. I remember the recent intolerant response to the BBC presenter who had one arm as ‘scaring children’. We should do better at educating our children to look for the similarities not the differences we all share.
Throughout history people with disabilities have been persecuted. The last literal witch hunt execution in Scotland was in 1722 The ‘Dornoch ‘witch’ who had a daughter with a deformed hand. Villagers said she ‘transformed her daughter into a pony which she rode to witches meetings and on Satan’s errands’. Some of the first victims of the holocaust were also disabled, and portrayed as a burden. We like to think we have moved forward as a civilised society but we have to recognise we all still have blind spots and biases for things that are out of our experience.
I say I’m not “offended” as a 40 year old man that has only just started wearing T-shirts in public after lifelong feelings of shame, guilt and a lack of self acceptance. I say this as a 40 year old man that used substances for many years to numb the feeling that i wasn’t enough and to ‘fit in’. I say this as a man who has fought, often literally to not feel like or be seen as a victim.
I do not speak however, for the young kids that get bullied at school because they are ‘different’ or for the young boy that has to go swimming for the first time worried about how he looks. I do not speak for a “disabled community” or anyone other than myself, and perhaps the younger me. The younger me that had no positive limb different role models in his life. To him i would say… ‘You are more capable and resilient than you know. ‘
When Janet Home (The Dornoch ‘witch) arrived at the execution spot, after being tarred and feathered, she is said to have warmed her hands at the fire prepared for her burning, saying ‘Eh, what a bonnie blaze’.
I love the stoic mantra of ‘Amor Fati’ which loosely translates as love your fate. Seize it, own it, and live your life with confidence that you are enough. Limb difference is not scary, and neither are we victims. There are so many positive role models now we can follow through social media, so many inspiring stories of hope, resilience and overcoming adversity. Whatever hollywood does or doesn’t do, just be kind to each other and yourselves.
September is celebrated as Recovery month in towns and cities worldwide. It is a visible celebration of recovery from addictive behaviours, where people from various pathways connect, share stories, sing, dance and typically walk through their towns and cities in a show of solidarity. The recovery movement hopes to challenge stigma and act as a beacon of hope and inspiration for our communities, showing that we can and do recover.
This year however it comes around amidst a backdrop of record numbers of drug related deaths, rising suicide rates among almost every demographic and increased social isolation due to the pandemic, which will undoubtedly result in a surge of additional mental health and substance use issues. It is more important than ever to shine some light on a subject that is not a particularly endearing societal problem, despite so many families and communities being affected. There is an enduring stigma that pervades addiction and prevents people talking honestly and openly.
A quick bit about my early experience
I am a person in long term recovery from substance use and mental health issues and now a self employed recovery coach and consultant for a couple of peer led recovery services in the UK. Having worked for almost a decade within both NHS and charity services I want to share my experience as a person seeking recovery, working in treatment, and why i think that recovery coaching may be the answer to some of the issues we face.
The first time I ever sought ‘treatment’ was for my opiate habit and I was aged 18. I’d already dropped out of my A’ level studies after too much house partying in the late 90s, and my substance use had escalated onto harder drugs looking for some kind of escape from myself and my environment. I’d never heard of the concept of recovery then. I was living in a small market town in Lincolnshire, my mum was an addict, her bloke was a dealer and hope was something other people had. It was trainspotting without any of the nuanced relationship dynamics or scenic tourism. It was dawn raids, ODs in the kitchen and methadone not milk in the fridge. Shoplifters half price offerings and a who’s robbing who of giro junkies. I took my feelings of shame to the local surgery, broke down in tears to my GP and begged for some relief.
The well meaning but Ill equipped GP gave me some DFs and a few diazepam for which I was grateful (bless him) it was free drugs after all. The intention was there though, in that moment of clarity between giro days I imagined a life free from withdrawal, anxiety and depression, I was going to do it. Well, I did 3 long days on my grandma’s sofa pretending I had the flu before I necked the rest of the yellow tablets and clucked off to score again. I didn’t re-engage meaningfully with treatment again until I was 21 and left town with a methadone script and my first ever period of (MAT) recovery, and all manner of cross addictions (but that’s another story).
These first interactions of mine over 20 years ago with services raise some important points for me to reflect on today as a person in long term recovery.
Firstly a few questions, Can we honestly say that GP’s and front line services across the UK have the resources and knowledge necessary to provide more proactive interventions over 20 years later? Are traditional treatment services appealing and accessible for those new to them? Are waiting lists for accessing ‘treatment’ still in the future with very little in the present to support people during those brief moments of clarity? The best time to initiate change is when a person feels ready, that feeling is fleeting. Are aftercare services post treatment fit for purpose to maintain long term sobriety? I must say that I do see areas of good practice in some places in the UK with thriving well connected recovery communities, but i’m speaking here in general terms of the treatment system.
Secondly, what would it have looked like if I had access to an experienced guide who could advise me of different pathways and connect me to others in recovery, as well as wider community resources. Someone who could share their story of hope and recovery as well as ask tough questions from a place of experience and understanding?
My belief is that Recovery Coaching should be at the heart of every recovery support service and community.So, what is Recovery Coaching?
It is a form of strength-based, person centred support for people in or seeking recovery, and even their family members. It is similar to life or business coaching in that it is a type of partnership where the person seeking recovery self-directs their plan while the coach provides support, guidance and options. Recovery Coaching focuses on achieving goals important to the individual, without stigma, dogma or an agenda. They help people access recovery and the systems needed to support it and add to an individual’s recovery capital. They are not counsellors or therapists and as such are future focussed and goal oriented. They do not diagnose or treat substance use or any mental health issues, but can absolutely help with signposting to professional services that can, as well as offer an unparalleled level of understanding.
Peer based Recovery support
There are a myriad of different names for volunteer roles in the U.K, from mentor to recovery champion and others in between. These are primarily volunteer roles, and typically taken up by those still in treatment or at an early stage of their recovery. I am in no way dismissing these roles, they play a crucial part, and it is in these roles that I also gave back and volunteered at the start of my own journey. Nor am I speaking of the specific roles of a sponsor which again is a great part of a wider community approach.
There are however some distinct differences between existing unpaid roles of ‘peer support’ or ‘recovery champions’ and that of an experienced recovery coach. Not least a period of stable recovery, but also robust ongoing training and guidelines that incorporate values and ethics. The dynamic of the roles is also largely different, and an understanding of these differences can help ensure each role is maximised to its full potential in order to support existing treatment and public services. Support and development of these roles is critical to building a thriving recovery community.
There are areas of the U.K that have embraced similar models of peer based recovery support services, including rehabs and community organisations, and some great work has been done broadly by FAVOR UK on this as well as regionally by Red Rose Recovery. While this has been a great step in providing opportunities for employment and resources for people, we also need to be mindful to maintain the fidelity of the Coaching lane so these roles do not become appropriated into clinical, or “go-fer” type roles. Many treatment services over reliance on volunteers has reached new levels, sometimes in a way i have seen to be detrimental to their personal recovery. Whilst giving back is undoubtedly an important part of wellbeing and recovery it must be meaningful, and feature appropriate support and guidance. Once trained our experience and expertise provide us invaluable insight and become our tools to help others. There must also therefore be a pathway for volunteers through meaningful volunteer roles to employment when appropriate.
I am grateful to be working with a very proactive CIC in Grimsby that supports recovery through art and mutual aid. They recognise the importance of bringing some of these concepts to their recovery community to help it become a thriving space for people to get well and re-engage with the wider community. I will be initially delivering 8 sessions of recovery coaching based on the great work of many giants before me including William White, McShin Foundation, CCAR and Favor UK to name but a few, as well as including elements from my own experience and coaching practice. This will form a wider bit of co-produced work from which we aim to establish a number of local coaches and implement systems to support the local community.
When i attended my first recovery walk in Birmingham UK in 2013 the theme was ‘make it happen’ and this is a mantra i have continued to aspire to on my own journey. Recovery is not only possible, it is inevitable when we reconnect with a community and find our purpose.
Hope + Opportunity + Purpose = Recovery 💜
I am also looking to connect with people across the UK who would like to influence their local community to make visible and sustained recovery the new normal.
For most of my adult life (i’ve just turned 40) i have attempted to cover up my disability. I use the term disability loosely as its the easiest descriptive noun to use, as the only disability i’ve truly faced is the limits i have placed on myself. I mean i’ll never be a famous juggler but aside from that this label does NOT define me.
I was born with a congenital limb deformity, which in laymans terms means i have a spaz arm, that is pretty useless in many ways, although i could always still roll a decent spliff.
Anyway having spent a lot of time on personal development and reflecting over the last few years, and pushing myself through various fears and insecurities. I thought it would be a great time to write about the experience. That’s what these blog things are for isn’t it.? Hopefully someone can find some value in my ramblings, and if it shines a light for someone struggling then i would love to hear from you in the comments.
In covering up my disability i was inevitably denying a true part of myself and resisting reality for short term comfort, which was later to be the main reason i used substances. The drugs were never the problem and are only a symptom of something else that we don’t want to face. A survival mechanism that we come to rely upon.
I never covered up my arm out of shame or feeling less than (at least initially) My amazing grandparents did a fantastic job of raising me for my formative years and telling me i could do anything. The main reason was I just did not want to be treated ANY differently to other kids.
I rode a bike, did judo, played football with the best and got in fights with the rest. I could not bare the thought that i’d be treated differently, or allowed certain privileges. If i was going to be a success i’d do it on my own merit. I was stubborn and determined and worked hard to match up.
Somewhere along the line that changed, a subtle shift from courage to avoidance. What bothered me the most was the awkward looks, or the thought that i would have to explain myself. I started making up stories like ‘shark attack’ or ‘acid’ because it was more interesting, and made me feel good instead of awkward and disempowered. Then in my teens i started just hiding it altogether. Lots of times people would say “you hide it well” as if that was a badge of honour, but it became my reality. It was easier and reduced my uncomfortable feelings, at least in the short term.
The fear of fitting in is something we all face at some point of our lives, not wanting to be ostracised by the peer group is a very human thing. When i was 10 I moved to a new city and a new school where everyone had already made connections. My first day I attended in a bright purple shell suit which probably didn’t help me going unnoticed. I started fights to not be a victim, and was not bullied despite my difference. My survival armour seemed to serve me well, and i used humour to deflect.
I started to no longer wear t-shirts in summer and wore jackets instead. I dropped out of sports teams and found cigarettes and alcohol. I realised i’d get the attention i wasn’t getting at home from playing the school clown. My studies suffered as did my mental health as i drifted further away from my true self. Pleasure seeker and people pleaser. Fast forward through the club scene and ketamine, beyond the heroin years, and avoidance had become a default. A victim mentality and a prisoner of my own thoughts. I had self sabotaged my only ambition of going to uni, and school certainly didn’t prepare me for life beyond the gates (which i too frequently snuck out of). Drugs had become a comfort blanket that later became my identity. I was a champion drug user.
My 20s was mostly a blur with a few lucid moments and fleeting achievements. On my 30th birthday I wrote my third car off (intoxicated on diazepam this time). Id had many ‘rock bottoms’ but somehow this was the one. A little magpie sat on the grass as I sat upside down in my car and just stared at me, bemused. It’s strange to say but i think it was an omen. In that moment i just knew that everything was going to be ok. I lit a cigarette and laughed at myself and the absurdity of it all. I then found a couple of key-workers that helped me believe in myself and went above and beyond to get me into a detox facility not long after. I’ve since noticed magpies urging me on at key points in my life since. I guess we are always looking for patterns, or maybe there are things we just don’t understand. I prefer the latter.
Now coming up to my 10th year in recovery and in that time i have committed myself to personal growth. I have put in many thousands of volunteer hours, created a small recovery community organisation, peer mentored and sponsored others. I have been employed by various recovery organisations including my most recent role for an international charity as a national coordinator for England. I have pushed through many personal milestones including college and public speaking. i have ran half marathons and was due to run the London marathon this year as i turned 40. I do not say this to brag, and actually am pretty uncomfortable about tooting my own horn but i think it is important to take a moment to recognise and celebrate your achievements. The journey to self acceptance is not linear and is an ongoing practice.
One of my biggest barriers to growth has always been self acceptance and love. Anger had become a defence mechanism. Recognising thought patterns that have limited my authenticity and ability to engage with the world in any true and meaningful way has been my biggest lesson. Something we all undoubtedly struggle with to varying degrees. Many of us are given a shit hand in life, some of us more literally, others to a larger degree. The fact is arguing with reality seldom brings happiness. It is undoubtedly easier from a survival perspective in the short term to avoid discomfort, confrontation or stepping into the great unknown. Our brains are wired biologically for survival not for fulfilment. To look for problems not look for joy.
Many people have written about the fabled hero’s journey, from Carl Jung to James Joyce and more recently Joseph Campbell. All good stories have one, from star wars to toy story. The journey of a protagonist setting out on a journey of transformation, coming into contact with a mentor who guides them, facing all manner of challenges and temptations along the way to return victorious having grown through the unknown.
My time of fighting dragons is over as i approach the final stage of my life cycle and reflect on what i’ve learned. An early mid life crisis perhaps, or one of Jung’s stages of life. I ponder what my legacy will be, and what (if any) lessons I can pass on to those at an earlier stage of their journey and how i can be of service to the world. What kind of father I am to be and what guidance can I give to my 3 year old son in this emerging new reality of instant gratification and information overload. I didn’t have a dad in my life so one of my main motivations is to be the father i would have wanted. To strive to be the best version of myself in every moment and interaction with others. I cannot do that if i do not embrace my shortcomings or my vulnerabilities. How can i be truly authentic with others if i am not honest with myself?.
So this blog is the first step in me accepting the current reality of recent redundancy from a career i’ve given a lot of myself to, and embracing the unknown final stage in my life cycle. Perhaps the self actualisation part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So I am creating my own coaching program to support others, and embracing the uncertainty and potential joy of self employment and service. I want to lean further into my true authentic self, something i really should have done sooner, and I would love for you to come on the journey with me.