Personal narratives

Personal narrative is a semi-formal verbal or written communication of a person’s experiences by the person themselves. The use of personal narratives is common within the drugs field. They are used in therapeutic settings, in peer settings – ‘shares’ in 12 step fellowship (see Alcoholics Anonymous), for example; in training and briefing of expert professionals within the drugs and related fields; they have also been used in preventative work particularly with children and young people.

Personal narratives can be powerful and seem more direct and real to some people than other forms of therapy or learning experiences. However, the role and value of personal narratives is contended.

Personal narratives are deeply embedded in western culture and are the basis for Catholic confession and Protestant declarations of faith. Indeed it is striking how many personal narratives dealing with problem drug use and recovery follow quasi-religious formats. It is not unusual to discern key Christian ideas within personal narratives:

  • journey metaphors
  • (the ‘path’ or the ‘road’) (‘I started out’...’I ended up’) (see journey metaphors)
  • examples of ‘bad’ behaviour – sin; sometimes repeated
  • (‘I stole anything’; ‘I lie to everyone all the time’)
  • or sometimes a single exemplary instance - (‘I stole from my mother’s purse’)
  • some form of nadir moment (see rock bottom)
  • (‘I missed my daughter’s wedding’‘I was involved in a serious crime and was jailed for 7 years’)
  • meeting an individual – a messiah
  • (‘In prison I met a man who asked me what I wanted in my life’)
  • or being in a particular situation that induces a sudden insight – revelation
  • (‘And then it occurred to me that I was never going to have control over my life as long as drugs had control over me’)
  • the hard work of personal change and being involved in positive activity - penance
  • (‘I have done a lot of work on myself ’; ‘Now I help others’) (see giving something back)
  • the feeling of well-being and contentment – redemption
  • (‘And now I live a useful purposeful life’‘People treat me like I am the same as them’)
  • gratitude
  • (‘Every day I am thankful that I am sober’)

The reason for this is simple. People are not relating their experiences completely and direct – that would be impossible. They are relating very complex and sometimes confused and confusing and even troubling and painful experiences in a way that is safe for them and for their audience.

They are telling their story in the hope that in doing so there is a benefit for them and they hope, benefit for their audience. People want to have lives that, on some level, ‘make sense’ and are ‘meaningful’. They want even the most negative or disturbing experiences to have positive aspects and consequences. They want people to understand their experiences. They want to be accepted by other people. So, people soon learn ways to tell the story of their substance use, their substance use problem and their recovery in a way that achieves these things. This is not to say their story is not true or insincere. In fact, for many people the fact that their story is true and sincere is part of the point of telling their story as they regard this as evidence to themselves and others that they are in recovery or are recovered.

Nevertheless there are huge and crucial omissions in these narratives – often much of the social context is omitted; the complexity of the relationship with services; the ambiguities of motivations and personal relationships are not represented; the extent of mental health issues may not be acknowledged. Importantly the exact details of what the person felt and their attitude, motivations and beliefs at the time these events occurred is often completely absent or mentioned only in passing. This occurs partly because things may not be viewed as relevant, the person may lack insight or for example have had low expectations of services and therefore not really see the insufficiency of the service they were offered etc.

Often people choose to start at the point where they started using substances but what was going on at that time and before this? Are aspects of childhood experience or wider social circumstances not being included in the story? The family and social context is often not explored. (See adverse childhood experiences; see poverty; see trauma; see self-medicating)

The use of ‘stand up and tell your story’ personal narratives takes no account of the power imbalances that exist between the person telling‘their story’and their audience which in some contexts may be composed of professionals and academics, for example. In fact by asking a person to reveal aspects of their life that their audience may not be willing to share – the circumstances of their family or their criminal behaviours, for example - personal narratives often reinforce the power imbalance between the ‘narrator; and their audience.

These kinds of limitation exist for all personal narratives and not only personal narrative around problem substance use.

The shortcomings of personal narrative can be overcome by including people with personal experience of problem substance use in ways that avoid the ‘stand up and tell your story’ format. Discussion and appropriate questioning may be helpful. It may also be helpful to focus on a particular issue rather than an overarching narrative. It would be useful to have more than one person or a small number of people involved. It will always be necessary to address any power imbalance between the person and their audience. (See user involvement)

It is worth noting that one sphere in which there is hard evidence about the effectiveness of the use of personal narratives is in the education of young people in school environments. The evidence is that this is not only ineffective in the prevention of drug use but that it is harmful and is no longer recommended in Scotland. And yet there is still pressure for personal narratives to be used in this and other contexts.

Explore further:

Warren, F. ‘What works’ in drugs education and prevention?’ Scottish Government 2016