Giving something back

This term is used widely in the drugs field. It is used to refer to volunteering and other activity that people who have or have had a substance problem – usually people who may be described as being in recovery- undertake.

People involved in such activity often state that they are ‘giving something back’. They may find this term empowering and it may help change their self-image and the impression other people may have of them. It may allow people to feel more at ease with themselves and in their relationship with the wider community or society. People talk about ‘worthwhile’ or ‘meaningful’ activity. For some this activity will be therapeutic.

However, there is some discomfort with this term. The notion that people are ‘giving back’ seems to be analogous to making reparation or repaying a debt or making amends. It seems to re-enforce the idea that people who have a drug problem are somehow taking something away from their community or society and that this should be paid back later.

For some people, this misdescribes at least some people with a drug problem and their relationship with their community or society. For some, the fact that some people have been victims of abuse and neglect sometimes at the hands of the state suggests that they ‘owe’ nothing to society. The question arises: what is the state or community owed by a person whose parent was imprisoned when they were a child? or someone who was taken into the care of the state as a child and abused and or neglected in that ‘care’? What debt does a person have who received a poor education or was themselves imprisoned when they were still a child? What is owed by someone who was refused services and support freely available to others? For someone who has borne stigma and been marginalised by their community for all or most of their life, what debt is now due?

Specific objection has been raised in cases where workers or services have talked about people ‘giving something back’ or suggesting that people should ‘give something back’. This forces on people who have or have had a drug problem the notion that they are in debt and have a duty to make reparation. This is a potentially disempowering, marginalising and stigmatising notion.