Changing Relationships – Changing Life: The Role of Friendship during Recovery from Problematic Drug Use

Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Anette SKÅRNER, University of Gothenburg, department of social work, Sweden
Departing from a social network perspective this paper highlights the role of social relationships for recovery and mental health. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 50 Swedish long term drug users, the paper explores how friendship relations evolve during periods of drug use as well as during the recovery process. The analysis is guided by a social interactionist perspective. From this point of view, recovery processes can be seen as renegotiations of identity, which take place through interaction with those persons the individual encounters. The analysis shows that the transition from a subcultural drug context into a life without drugs presents a substantial psychological and social challenge. Absence as well as presence of friends is of the utmost importance when dealing with the insecure and marginalized situation that tends to take place when leaving the ‘drug world’, i.e. without fully having reclaimed anything old or established anything new. Compared to kinship relations, friendships can be described as more voluntary and more open to individual negotiation. If main bonds are in the ‘drug world’, non using friends may serve as valuable social capital for recovery and provide links to ‘ordinary life’. Subsequently, close friendships in the social context of drugs may constitute problematic links leading to relapse. Furthermore, the paper emphasizes the consequences of drug use in Sweden being strongly associated with stigma. Recovery processes are thus complicated by stigmatization processes, i.e. by creating social barriers that shape the perception and responses of ‘non using others’ as well as by reinforcing a sense of shame, insecurity and low self-esteem of the (former) drug using persons. In other words, a classic catch-22 dilemma: in order to accessing a new life their past has to be hidden – but doing that is a constant reminder of the very identity they wish to abandon.