No such thing as ‘safe space’ – by Jon Canessa

I work at Newcastle Cathedral leading the Lantern Initiative. We seek to be a beacon of light to people experiencing dark and difficult times.

Some of this work involves walking in solidarity with people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. 


Addiction is part of the human condition and can be understood as both ‘dis-ease’ and disease. Many people talk about ‘being addicted to’ their phone, gaming, social media, food or work.

Fewer people, though, will admit to an addiction to unhealthy relationships, pornography, sex, gambling, alcohol or drugs. Shame, stigma, ignorance and judgement surround addiction.  

As a society, we are often uncomfortable or unable to talk about addiction honestly or the reasons why we become addicted in the first place.


An addiction is when someone is not fully in control of doing, taking or using something to the point where it becomes harmful. The excessive drug and alcohol consumption of chronic addiction can often lead to tragic death. Dr Gabor Maté wrote:

“The difference between passion and addiction is that between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates.”

Morality or trauma?

Historically, addiction has been framed as a moral issue; simply a question of the choices an individual makes. More recent research understands addiction as a medical brain disease and also points to the high correlation between addiction and neglect, trauma and emotional loss – especially through adverse childhood experiences.

Either way, many people describe their addiction as a way of coping with pain and hurt and as a way of avoiding being fully present in one’s unbearable reality. 

A more insightful look at addiction will not ask, why the addiction? but rather, why the pain?. Or put another way, what has happened to you? as opposed to, what is wrong with you?


There are different pathways to recovery. Some advocate total abstinence, such as The 12 Steps / Alcoholics Anonymous approach. Others emphasise a harm-reduction programme, replacing Class-A-drugs for a substitute (such as methadone) with the aim of reducing drug consumption gradually over time. 

Whatever path is taken, recovery from acute and chronic addiction is impossible without honesty, openness and a willingness to change.

Community and spirituality

A key way of finding this honesty is from being in community: connecting with others who identify with a similar struggle and who will encourage, challenge and celebrate in a shared journey of recovery together. 

And secondly, by embracing a Higher Power or a ‘spiritual awakening’, sometimes referred to as the God of our knowing, or God as we came to understand them.  The belief in a power greater than oneself enables an individual to connect with a loving and caring presence as well as a source of inspiration, healing and wholeness.


Addiction is, by its very nature, perpetually isolating.  The things an individual will do to maintain their addiction typically involve secrecy, telling lies both to themselves and others.

Writer and journalist Johann Hari highlights how, where addiction is concerned, becoming increasingly disconnected from the self and from others can be harmful:

“I was taught by the people I met – and by the growing scientific evidence – that we are all more vulnerable to addiction now because we are increasingly isolated from each other, and from the things that give us meaning. The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, its connection.”

Recovery Church

As a grateful person in recovery, I know from personal experience the value of journeying in solidarity with others who are walking the same path.  It was a liberating experience when I sat ‘in the rooms’ for the first time and found the courage to share my story.  

At Newcastle Cathedral, a Recovery Church was established which draws on the 12 steps and traditions. It is a ‘brave space’ of honesty, courage and hope.

We name (confess) those things that control and shame us, and by doing so, push them into the light, where shame and guilt lose their power.  We work hard to withhold judgement because it takes courage and vulnerability to talk about our addictions with honesty.

It is captured well by this poem, Invitation to Brave Space by Micky Scottbey Jones:

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”.
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars, and we have all caused wounds.
In this space, we seek to ‘turn down the volume’ of the outside world.
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love.
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
But it will be our brave space together,
And we will work on it side by side.

Recovery Church services take place online, on a Sunday evening and in-person on a Wednesday night.  Contact Jon Canessa for more information.

If you are struggling with addiction contact your local GP who can assess your situation and put you in touch with relevant support.

1 thought on “No such thing as ‘safe space’ – by Jon Canessa”

  1. 👏 brilliant. So insightful & perceptive. An honour to read it. The antidotes to addiction include empathy, understanding, acceptance & love. Only then can honesty, intimacy and sometimes hard truths follow.

    Liked by 1 person

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