Skip to content

New perspectives on recovery: Part 1

Michael White – the founder of narrative therapy – passed away in 2008. His insight and experience live on to educate and motivate us to overcome our problems and to let our authentic selves shine.

White discusses his perspectives on recovery from addictions to various substances in a special issue of the Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997, Nos 2 & 3, 38-47.

His perspectives are summarised in two parts. Part 1 follows below.

He explains that we daily experience extraordinary encouragement to engage in the consumption of various substance – many that our addictive. He refers to a ‘culture of consumption’. (Think for example of young teenage boys whose peers encourage them to drink because it is ’manly’.) This gives rise to questions such as “why is it that some people don’t consume excesses of alcohol?”.  The impact of culture in this regard is significant.

Questions that could then develop from those above – White argues – could include “How then, under these circumstances, is it possible for a person to have the desire to break from this substance?” and ”How, under these circumstances, have you been able to nurture the possibility of an alcohol-free life?”. This then open possibilities for the exploration of some of the more sparkling facets of persons’ lives that been overshadowed and rendered invisible.

Such exploration, White emphasises, contributes to the development of accounts of counter-plots in persons’ lives. Such countering could include ‘resistance to substance abuse’ and ‘self-care’.

Persons who want to change their relationship with a substance have to have a deep understanding of what they are up against.

Should persons decide that breaking from the excessive consumption of substances is principally a matter of refusing pills, stepping back from the bottle, or disposing of the needles, they could be setting themselves up for and experiencing of humiliating failure; further complicating their lives, White states.

There is a high risk of their good intentions souring rapidly. In making such decisions, persons could be unaware of what they are actually letting themselves in for. They would then not have the opportunity to adequately prepare for their separation from addiction.

It is not just cultural forces that persons are up against in their desire to change their relationship with substances, White warns. And it is not just throwing off the weight of the history and the traditions of the culture of consumption that is required.

For most persons, changing one’s life a relationship with substances requires a break from life as it is known. It is to break from

  • a familiar sense of being in one’s world,
  • certain ways of relating to one’ own life and to the lives of others, and
  • in many cases, to break from familiar networks of people.

White makes it clear: Breaking from addictions usually requires a major life shift. It  boils down to a migration of identity – an act of intentionally leaving one’s life behind in order to make a new life for oneself.

“Pursuing a desire to revise one’s relationship with a substance sets one a journey. Leaving the territory of life that one has long inhabited is the fist stage of the journey.”

White advises that this departure is not accompanied by a simultaneous arrival in some other territory of life in which a person finds a new place.

He sums up:

  • In departing from the known, a person does not step into another known.
  • This departure is an exit into the unknown.
  • Persons can only be certain of the general direction.
  • They will, however, remain uncertain of how far they must travel, and what will become of them on the way.

(Part 2 will deal with Michael White’s explanation of the rites of passage and maps for the arduous journey.)


White, M. 1997. Challenging the culture of consumption: Rites of passage and communities of acknowledgement. [Available at:] Dulwich Centre: Adelaide, Australia.