Abstract picture of light against a purple background

Purple is the universal global colour of addiction recovery. You can be forgiven for not knowing that; it’s not a widely known thing. We all associate the rainbow with LGBTQ Pride and the colour green with environmental and ecological causes. Addiction recovery, however, remains far from the consciousness of most people in the world, let alone the colour purple as its emblem. I’m going to introduce you to this subject, and I hope you will allow me to add some of my own interpretation and some big claims since, when it comes to activism, nothing good ever came of ‘staying in your lane’.

So, the colour purple. Its previous associations with royalty and feudalism have faded somewhat and it’s a colour ready to be reclaimed for a new purpose. Its primary constituents, red and blue, are very much the domain of our primary political parties – in both the UK and the US. But, if we blend these primary colours and the ideologies attached, we might just find a new approach, rooted in the experiences and wisdom of those who battle addiction daily.

At this point I must add that there is absolutely no one ‘road to recovery’, people can and do recover in any which way they see fit and this may change over time. Recovery is a self-defined term and concept that puts the individual at the centre of how they wish to build a foundation, identity and network of recovery. This includes those who do not identify as needing to abstinent from all mind altering substances and those who chose not to identify as being ‘addicts’. I am in 12 step recovery so I will be writing from that perspective, although I’m at pains to say, it is not the only one.

On a weekly basis, I sit in a circle of men and women, from every race, religion, culture and walk of life, red flag waving socialists to the left of me, true blue Tories to the right, all of us there with a common peril and a common purpose towards a unified solution. There is a lot to learn from this.

These meetings are ’12 step recovery meetings’, an essential part of a global movement that was founded around a book, ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ written by Bill Wilson, with help from ‘Dr Bob’ and the first 100 members of what is today a global phenomenon. The book and the movement are a fascinating mix of traditional conservatism and outright communitarian egalitarianism. These concepts live together in unity throughout the whole ethos of the project. On the one hand Alcoholics Anonymous is a call to the traditional values and structures of society and the family, and on the other it is a radical call to create autonomous communitarian bodies whose sole purpose is egalitarian emancipation from the ills of the excesses of individualism. The red and blue of these aspects come together to make a beautiful purple hue. 

"We have much to learn from those who know something about turning up for life....people who turn up to address their own personal responsibilities and also promote dedicated collective action."`

Luke Trainor, Institute of Mental Health, University of Birmingham

The centre ground is where it’s at in recovery, indeed, much of our individual daily practice is aimed at finding this balance through ‘centring prayer’ and ‘letting go’ of extreme and rigid ideas. On the group level we also have ‘The 12 Traditions’, based on the collective experiences of those that came before and help us guide our relations with each other and the society at large. They are vitally important but if they become out of balance, they become nothing more than ‘peer pressure from dead people’. We need balance, and for this we go to our 12 steps which remind us not to be stuck in ‘old ideas’ and to embrace the new. There is a radical reasonableness in recovery that is perpetually refreshing. For me, it’s what keeps me coming back and living this way, a day at a time.

Excessive and unrealistic virtue is as much of a problem and we need balance here too. The idea that all life’s problems might be solved by virtuous progressive endeavour that negates the need for some traditional values is fruitless. We need the common sense and warnings of those that came before us. Otherwise, we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water. For true and sustainable progress, these things must be in balance. There is dignity and harmony in this. All these things I learned in recovery, and they have served me extremely well. The act of centring takes effort though, it is far from the path of least resistance, it is a radical act.

But surely this is a very niche example and subject, and I should stay in my lane?! Well, no, I don’t think so. Revolution has a habit of coming from the most vulnerable in our society. It is my contention that just as the ‘proletariat’ was at the coal face of industrialisation and early capitalism, so the ‘addict’ is at the coal face of Neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism.

Let me unpack that. The proletariat was the person who most felt the sting and the unfairness of industrialised capitalism: they worked the whole day through without any say or ownership over the means or fruits of production. In today’s capitalism, free market radicalism won out, it is king. We are now consumers more than we are labourers, And the addict is the uber consumer of liberal pleasures. The ubiquitous indulgence offered by the fruits of capitalism is deadly to the addict, and yet the marketing of these fruits, even in light of the tragedy of these unfortunate victims, is seen as a necessary sacrifice to keep the show on the road. Addicts are at the coal face of consumerism. Here is my radical claim: the recovering addict has something to say about the solution to our current society’s problems. In fact, as a movement, they have the potential to lead the way.

There are few who would argue against the fact that the solution to a great deal of these problems (climate crisis, inflation, extreme disparity in wealth, widespread addiction) will be found on both the individual and collective plane. Recovery knows all about this, individual responsibility and collective action is our mantra.

This is all well and good but where do we start? There often seems no obvious time to begin recovery: my own experience taught me that the beginning of getting better was not some obvious start line, and even when I did start, all too often I would find myself back at the start line once more. Do we wait until things get intolerable before we put in the necessary action? How do we know when things are bad enough? Even a cursory glance around should tell us that the time is now.

Recovery begins with a frank assessment and declaration that one is indeed up the creek without a paddle. But where to start? Local is the answer in addiction’s recovery terms but local is also the answer across communities in general. If we look around our local areas, the need for recovery across many spheres will become evident. Our own behaviour will be put into question as a result, and personal responsibility will become clear. It’s only by realising we are part of the problem, that we can become a part of the solution.

What this looks like in real terms is the formation of smalls groups of people coming together to share their own experiences of what needs to be changed – a traffic problem, say, in some part of the neighbourhood. Individual responsibility is required in order to say that the reason one is becoming resentful with traffic, is that one is stuck in it on a daily basis. It soon follows that one is part of the problem.

The Libertarian might protest that his right to travel in any particular vehicle in any such way as he sees fit is an unalienable right and that any collectively enforced prohibition would be against his human rights. The socialist may say that private ownership of vehicles is the problem and that state funded public transport, clean and green, is the only solution. At the polar regions of this argument, nothing is actually getting done. Somewhere in the middle, however, there is a solution that recognises personal autonomy but also responsibility. There is the possibility of a collective response, but one that honours choice. Practically and pragmatically, these people need to sit in a circle, with a sense of shared peril and the purpose of a shared solution before anything is going to change. Crucially, they need a unifying principle that transcends either of their precious ideologies. Which brings us to the sticky subject of spirituality and faith.

The elephant in the room here is that the idea I am advocating is one based on spiritual foundations. 12 step recovery and fellowships are founded on spiritual principles. This is all too often the point in the conversation that people’s attention is lost but, to be clear: the 12 steps are not ‘a religious thing’. Our programme and our traditions are explicitly non-religious although we are always quick to realise and incorporate those areas where religious people have thrived in finding solutions to social problems in the past.

The Labour Movement in the UK, for instance, was as much about Methodism as it was Marxism. Spirituality is the key word here. That word is much misunderstood and maligned, yet the spiritual people that I encounter on a daily basis are often weathered old urbanites who have lived a little and turn up every day to be of service to others. There is a seriousness about them but also a serenity. The have no particular identifying regalia. They are the best of us. Most of them don’t identify with any denomination. They identify with being assets to their community and there is a kind of higher power in their lives that guides that.

Aren’t we all looking for some higher power in our lives? Some higher purpose and dare I say, a higher self? The worldly clamour of news cycles and quick fixes doesn’t seem to be cutting it. I believe we have much to learn from those who know a thing about turning up for life, both their own and the lives of others. In every town and city, unbeknownst to you, there are weekly meetings of people who turn up to address their own personal responsibilities and also promote dedicated collective action. Seems a good blueprint to me, or a purpleprint, perhaps…

Luke Trainor, is Project Manager of the 'Better Than Well' Recovery Programme at the University of Birmingham