Exploration of identity construction and reconstruction during drug using careers, and the factors that influence identity transformation

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O'Donnell, Siobain
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Trinity College Dublin
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Problematic drug and alcohol users generally construct a drug using identity in order to justify and continue drug using, and to minimise the consequences of it. When drug users make the decision to stop they need to re-construct a non-drug user identity. This thesis explores the process of identity construction and re-construction before, during and after drug using careers. It investigates elements that support the reconstruction of identity as non-drug user and barriers to that reconstruction. This thesis employed a qualitative methodology. Drawing on the Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method, it collected life histories from sixteen former drug users. A qualitative analysis was conducted on the data collected which elucidated their experiences before, during and after drug using and their experience of identity transformation throughout their drug using careers. The findings describe how drug users experienced the transition into a drug using identity as a relatively straightforward process, while the reconstruction to a non-drug using identity was difficult, precarious and at times overwhelming. The findings also note that the main supports that were reported as useful in identity reconstruction were those of parents and families, some treatment interventions and membership of 12-Step programmes. This study concludes that successful recovery from drug use is significantly related to the success of identity transition from drug user to non-drug user. Lack of success in identity reconstruction is an indicator of higher rates of relapse, readmission to services and increased difficulty negotiating a drug free lifestyle. When moving away from the ‘addict’ identity towards a ‘non-addict’ identity, the participants reported how they gained a sense of themselves as their new identities emerged. The majority of participants reverted to their previous ‘unspoiled’ identity. The analysis of the data identifies several barriers to effective identity transformation which negatively impacted on successful recovery. Participants experienced great difficulty in moving away from their drug using peers as no other social group existed for them to interact with, with the exception of 12-Step programmes. In early recovery they had still not reconciled relationships with family and former friends and felt exceedingly isolated when separated from drug using friends. This interim period was described as lonely, isolating and frightening. Further barriers were identified as the consequence of stigma and public opinion which were portrayed in stereotypical, negative terms, and lack of support and isolation in early recovery, especially after relapse. A further barrier was the difficulty re-engaging with services following relapse. Fourteen of the sixteen participants related that they experienced membership of 12-Step programmes as the greatest support in recovery. From their reflections this study has found that the telling and retelling of personal narrative, along with a renewed sense of spiritual self and a tradition of helping, all of which exist within 12-Step programmes, facilitate positive identity change. Reframed narratives within the 12-Step framework enabled the availability of a new unstigmatised presentation of everyday self, which permitted a new sense of their subjective social reconstruction of an unspoiled identity. Moving away from the social construction of addiction and deviance, the retold narrative enabled identity transformation to occur. Author keywords: Addiction, identity construction and reconstruction, drug using careers, recovery, stigma