When I talk about my research, often with academics at conferences or with students at university, I find that I cannot presume a prior understanding of addiction or recovery. These terms are commonly used in the media or in popular culture, often too frequently in a way that ‘others’ the addict as a deviant or diseased member of the human race. When I talk about my practice research in the field of performance and addiction, I realise I need to convey my understanding of these terms - addiction and recovery – to share a deeper awareness of what they mean to those who have an embodied experience of them. I have reflected on how best to do this. Having read through a vast array of scientific and social research in this area, my concern is that the vast majority of this form of research does not actually convey the lived experience of addiction. I’m also mindful that I do not wish to reinforce stereotypical value judgements about those affected by addiction by using languages related to disease or moral concepts that appear in much of the research. These discourses have a purpose and I don’t wish to critique them here, but wish to consider a different approach to talking about addiction. My performance practice is more interested in what it means to live, breathe, feel, affect and be affected in the sense of a ‘body in process’ in the world (Manning 2013). How then do I talk about addiction and recovery?
Here, I would like to explore an analogy that might be useful, that of the ‘body in process’ in the world as a wobbly weeble. By this, I refer to a toy that was popular when I was a child, a skittle-like object, animal or person, with a rounded bottom that causes a constant rocking motion. [See image] I use this analogy to represent a body’s experience of life in constant motion. As Erin Manning (2013) and Brian Massumi (2015) have discussed in their interpretation of process philosophy, the body and thus our experience of life, is our capacity to affect and be affected. If affect is an ‘intensity of feeling’ that propels us into thought, action or inter-action, perhaps we might imagine this force as the wobble of the weeble. As we experience affect, we respond through an affective wobble. This affect might be interpreted as emotions, though it might also be an inexplicable sensation which might seem pleasurable or painful. We might consider our experience of life as a capacity to continue to wobble, feeling and responding to affect, sometimes with greater or less intensity – or wobble.
Broadening this idea to the concept of addiction, and taking account of addiction research, I consider the body as a relational field within which the physical, neurological and psychosocial converge to become an individual’s lived experience, or, in other words, their particular system of processes in the world. Addiction is one potential tendency of these processes that, if placed on a spectrum, would perhaps be situated at the extreme. Moreover, it involves a loop of extreme sensations, behavioural and thinking processes, in which a person may find themselves stuck. Neurobiologist, Marc Lewis considers addiction as an extreme pattern of learning that has become embedded in the neurological pathways of the brain (2016: xx). This would suggest that neurologically, the brain has become stuck in a certain pattern of response. In considering the idea of being ‘stuck’, I do not wish to infer any particular value judgement on forms of existence in the world, but, rather, I suggest that by becoming stuck in a perpetual loop manifested in the graft-score-use process of ‘active addiction’ a person might find themselves unable to move beyond activity that is increasingly detrimental to their capacity to engage in the world around them, not to mention an ultimate threat to their health and wellbeing. If we bring back the idea of the weeble, perhaps we might consider that the experience, or affect, of life – perhaps experience including childhood neglect or loss or trauma - has created such an extreme pattern of swings that the weeble eventually falls over, or is perhaps at risk of falling over, if we consider stillness as the end to motion and therefore the end to life. These extremes involve the embodied sensations of craving, ‘clucking’ or ‘gouging out’ that inhibit a body’s capacity to feel any other affects or effectively engage in relation with others.
So, what might recovery be if wobbling is part of the process of life and addiction might be an extreme response that perpetuates an extreme cycle of wobbling that might ultimately endanger the life of the weeble?
As Constant Mouton (MD) noted in a recent blog post ‘Can recovery be measured?’ for the iCAAD website, recovery is not an end result, it is a process. It should be viewed as an ongoing journey to maintain ‘sobriety’ within a complex web of psychosocial, cultural and economic factors, including other differentiating issues such as gender, race, age and family networks. Treatment programmes – or getting ‘clean’ as some might say - are just the beginning of the journey. The rest of the process involves moving forward with one’s life, growing towards a new way of being in the world. This may, however, involve lapse and relapse, which makes measurement of recovery somewhat tricky, and perhaps, an inaccurate representation of individual progress.
The term recovery itself is perhaps a misnomer, with its implications of a return to or re-covering of some normative notion of static wellbeing. I prefer to use Manning’s concept of the body as an ‘ecology of processes’ to reframe it as an effort to find equilibrium. If addiction is a swing towards extreme processes that cause someone to become stuck, perhaps, recovery is in fact an effort to find equilibrium within ongoing processes of life. It is an effort that realises that wobbling, feeling affect, is part of movement in the world, but finding a way in which to navigating the feeling of affect so as not to revert to the extreme responses that led to the loop of addiction.
What does this effort towards equilibrium involve?
It is a process of active and embodied learning. It is a moving forward through life, to what might immanently become new experience, rather than a repetition tied to the past. This might involve recovery practices, such as those learned through engaging with treatment services or 12 Step meetings. It might also involve re-locating your weeble away from others that might still be trapped in an extreme loop. It might mean connecting with a new network of people that understand the effort towards balance and how difficult that effort is. The phrase ‘It takes effort’ realistically implies that recovery is not easy, although it is not impossible.
As a socially engaged theatre-maker, and fellow weeble, I am interested in how arts practices can support people affected by addiction in their effort towards equilibrium. But that topic is for another blog…