A Language of Empowerment
The New Recovery Advocacy Movement, operating outside the constraints of anonymous programs, aims to destigmatize addiction and convey a message of successful and sustainable long-term recovery to people across the country.
The Anonymous People, a new documentary about the New Recovery Advocacy Movement, highlights a stated need to change the language of recovery. The idea is to decrease stigma and inspire people to get help. The project is led by Faces & Voices of Recovery, working outside the boundaries of 12-step meetings to put a positive face on recovery.
According to the film, there are over 23 million Americans in active addiction—over 5% of the population. Imagine if the 23 million Americans in active recovery (yes, 23 and 23 according to the film—a strange irony) could be galvanized as a social and political force for change.
The idea for the film came when its director and producer Greg Williams spoke about getting sober at the age of 17 before the Connecticut Legislature. During his speech, Greg was surprised that the politicians had a hard time believing him—as if they had never heard the story of a successful recovery. After his appearance he was interviewed by the Hartford Courant and Greg told the reporter they couldn’t use his full name in the article. Greg was observing the 11th Tradition common in many 12-step programs—"Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film."
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
Many years later, Greg told The Fix, “When I read in the article, ‘Greg W. doesn’t want to disclose his last name,’ I realized that people who did not understand recovery would interpret this as a form of shame. That was the watershed moment for me. The point of the film and the Faces & Voices in Recovery movement is to empower the recovery community to have a conversation with people outside the community using language that is not characterized by stigma and shame.”
Greg went on to a training program called “Our Stories Have Power” conducted by Tom Coderre and the Faces & Voices of Recovery program. Coderre had been the youngest state senator in the history of Rhode Island, but had been taken down by cocaine addiction. Three years into his recovery, Coderre became the national field director for Faces & Voices of Recovery, but has since returned to politics, currently serving as the chief of staff of the Rhode Island Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed. The talk Greg heard that day led him to a method of self-presentation without shame.
Greg told us, “I got into recovery when I was 17 so today at the level of press, I identify like this: My name is Greg Williams and I am a person in long-term recovery and that means I haven’t used alcohol or drugs since I was 17. The goal is to reframe our message for our communities, for our elected officials and for the media. I walked out of that training and for the first time in my life, I felt good about telling someone on a train or telling a reporter my story. I had been given a language of empowerment.”
AN ORGANIC EVOLUTION
The New Recovery Advocacy Movement sees itself as an organic evolution of the original project of the 12-step founders. Although many anonymous program members might deny this connection, Bill Wilson, AA’s co-founder, actually spoke before a Congressional Special Subcommittee On Alcoholism And Narcotics. Wilson’s decision to speak before Congress shows his belief in the value of advocacy beyond the boundaries of 12-step groups.
Although he did identify himself as Bill W., Wilson took an approach that has been embraced by this movement. Rather than talking about 12-step meetings and anonymity, he focused on sharing his own “experience, strength and hope” by telling his story. Tom Coderre told The Fix how moved 12 Steppers are when they read Bill Wilson’s testimony to Congress:
“When AA's find out that the original AA [co-founder] testified, sure it helps them become more open-minded about advocacy. But the truth is that Bill Wilson did something much greater to open the door for advocacy. He encouraged Marty Mann, often referred to as the First Lady of AA, to establish the National Committee on Alcohol Education (what is known today as the NCADD) in the mid 1940’s to carry out the advocacy function that AA cannot.”
But didn’t such advocacy violate the 11th tradition? How could Bill Wilson testify before Congress if anonymity is the spiritual foundation of the AA program? How could Marty Mann publicly advocate for resources to educate the general public about alcoholism? Tom Coderre explains the difference between advocacy and violating the tradition of anonymity:
“Advocating for changes to public policy and promoting our personal recovery is not a violation of the fellowship’s 12 traditions. It doesn’t matter if you’re Bill Wilson or Jane Smith, as long as you don’t identify as a member of a 12 step group or try to represent any particular group, at the level of press, radio and film, you’re not violating the traditions.”
As he closed out his testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee, Bill Wilson expressed the following sentiment: “When you consider the enormous ramifications of this disease, we have just scratched the surface.”
The Anonymous People seeks to raise awareness of the political and community-based power that can be accessed by people in recovery if they embrace a new paradigm. Rather than debating questions about anonymity (such questions have been addressed pro and con in The Fix), the focus is on figuring out how these goals can become realities.
TRANSFORMATION OF NATIONAL PERCEPTION
With a history of past advocacy failures in the recovery world, such a transformation of the national perception about addiction seems challenging. In the 1990s, Johnny Allem,a recovery advocate today for Faces & Voices in Recovery, worked with the late Senator Harold Hughes to launch the Society of Americans in Recovery (SOAR), an early attempt at a recovery advocacy movement. Despite early successes, SOAR quickly became a victim of the War on Drugs when the entire nation became focused on the criminalization of addiction. After two years, it was disbanded, having failed to find support in the recovery community.
When asked by The Fix how the New Recovery Advocacy Movement could avoid the negative outcomes of the past, Johnny Allem explains:
“Changing a public climate is organic, just like healing. You plant seeds and water them. Through SOAR, Senator Hughes planted seeds and hope. He challenged people in long-term recovery to recognize citizenship as a right and a responsibility. His courage was contagious. He taught us to see that we were defined by shame and silenced by fear. He urged us to value our stories and to overcome fear. SOAR ran out of money and steam. But throughout America the seeds grew. Within ourselves, we questioned, debated, tested and learned. When the wind changed, we sought and found ourselves, our voice and our message.”
The movement will have to be careful, however, to avoid internal disagreements that have toppled similar movements and causes in the past. William L. White, Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems / Lighthouse Institute, echoes this point: “To fulfill its mission, the New Recovery Advocacy Movement will have to avoid the perils of charismatic leadership, professionalization and commercialization. It will have to avoid being hijacked by outside issues and interests, and it will have to continue to exemplify the very best within the service ethic of American communities of recovery.”
In The Anonymous People, people are motivated to join the movement by a desire to be of service and galvanize their community. The goal of politically and socially spurring the community is to access resources and offer help. With actual institutional and financial support, is it possible to slow down and even turn back the spread of illegal and prescription drug addiction that is raging across America like a wildfire? As Greg Williams asks with passion in the film, “If over 23 million people have found answers to one of the largest chronic health problems of our time, then why does our health system not focus on finding better solutions?”
Addressing a wide range of social issues from recovery programs in prisons to sober schools, The Anonymous People attempts to designate the future battlegrounds for the recovery movement. Whenever the change takes place on a grassroots level, the results are impressive in terms of shifting perception. But how do we turn those grassroots successes into actual institutional change?
When Greg Williams refers to the health system, he is referring to one of the most entrenched institutional systems in the country. If you are a recovering addict experiencing a relapse and you look for drugs in a hospital by faking a back pain, you could be arrested. You will not, however, be directed toward the option of treatment and the restoration of your recovery. On the other hand, if you are a diabetic and you have high blood sugar, the hospital will treat you with insulin to avoid a diabetic reaction without question. There will be no penalty for screwing up and eating the wrong thing. This is the difference between stigma and disease.
WELLNESS AND HEALTHCARE
A modern bridge between the healthcare system and the New Recovery Advocacy Movement could be the advance of Wellness Programs. Johnny Allem points out that, “Wellness planning forces business leaders to read the numbers. The numbers demonstrate that when addiction is addressed as a health challenge, lives and money are saved. Uninhibited by shame-based definitions, economic forces can and will read the numbers. We will treat early symptoms of illness. We will allow time to heal. We will bridge the gap between primary care doctors and addiction health… We will save money and lives.
Healthcare makes up more than one sixth of our economy. A key part of the solution is appropriate prevention, treatment and recovery support for addiction disease. New policy is being created. Two factors will determine the role of addiction health in the current reform wave: money and noise. Exercising our citizenship through a loud and united voice can and will establish addiction health at parity with cancer, diabetes and all chronic illness.”
If the New Recovery Advocacy Movement could have an impact on healthcare’s approach to addiction and recovery, it would be a monumental achievement. Once again, beyond the obvious financials that exist and have existed for years, changing the perspective of the top 5%, the power brokers of 21st century America that own over 50% of the wealth of the country is the real challenge.
The problem when dealing with such people is they simply do not care about the problem of alcoholism and addiction if it does not affect them. Even then, they often are unwilling to listen.
John Silverman, a former New York City policeman in recovery for over 28 years, is the founder and CEO of SilverSeal, a Global Security Solutions Corporation. When asked by The Fix the best way to convey the message to these power brokers, John Silverman told us:
“Unless the power brokers as you call them have had personal experience with recovery. . .the only thing they will understand is economics. When the private sector business owners (the elite) begin to experience lost productivity. . .its time to address and fix the problem. The way to accomplish this end is through education, Employee Assistance Programs, Interventions, H.R. Conferences (where to go for help), partnering with institutions like Caron, Hazelden, Betty Ford and others.
It’s unfortunate and just my opinion that the uneducated ‘elite’ simply view chemical dependency as a weakness or a choice and not a disease. I’ve heard many disparaging remarks like ‘THAT LOW LIFE DRUNK’ I never heard anyone say: ‘THAT LOW LIFE DIABETIC.’ ”
It is not going to be easy to change such a deeply ingrained perception. Although grassroots approaches can be effective locally, can they institute change on a national level? Tom Coderre points out that, “If we as a recovery community want to be seen as a true constituency of consequence and really change the equation, we must become more sophisticated in our approach. As Cesar Chavez often said, ‘Be the pebble in their shoe.’ We must raise money, hire the best consultants and lobbyists, run people for office, recruit from our ranks celebrities and musicians and do something really big to raise the consciousness of America that this is our number one health problem. Addiction is a public health crisis and we must stop ignoring it and start treating it.“
Without being confrontational, the New Recovery Advocacy Movement needs to do its best to educate the general public about the disease of addiction, removing the stigma and the shame. The moment that Greg Williams experienced in Connecticut when he opened the eyes of the legislators by telling his story of recovery needs to be repeated over and over again. By energizing the 23 million people in recovery in the United States to share their stories without violating the traditions of the anonymous programs, the New Recovery Advocacy Movement has a chance to succeed. The work Greg Williams has done with The Anonymous People is a great first step.
If you want to know whether a movement will succeed, however, it makes sense to ask an expert with detailed knowledge of the success and failure of similar movements in the past. When asked what the future holds for the New Recovery Advocacy Movement, Bill White told The Fix:
“The wonderful thing about history is the chapters yet to be written that will be authored by those living today. If the New Recovery Advocacy Movement can sustain itself even for another decade, I think it will leave a lasting imprint in the coming century on the public perception of addiction recovery, the future design of addiction treatment and the growth of recovery support institutions beyond recovery mutual aid groups. Those influences would be historic.”
Can the dream of The Anonymous People become a viable reality? Will the New Recovery Advocacy Movement succeed? The participants given a voice by Greg Williams in the film seem to believe in its success.
Perhaps the most important advocacy is for sober school programs that address the disease long before it robs the addict or alcoholic of a fulfilling life. A powerful statistic expressed in the documentary is that nine out of ten people with a substance abuse disorder started using before they were 18. Imagine if the problem could be addressed effectively at such an early stage. As Alexandre Laudet, PhD, an internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction, expresses in the film:
“If you can prevent relapse at the high school level and the college level, you would have a lot more than 23 million people in recovery and you probably would also have a lot fewer than 23 million people addicted because it would become part of a culture.”
Who among us would not welcome that outcome?
(The Anonymous People opens theatrically in New York tomorrow, March 14th and is also available on Video on Demand.)
(Full disclosure—A previous owner of The Fix, Paul McCulley, gave approximately 25% of the production costs of the film through his philanthropic 501c3 foundation, The Morgan Le Fay Dreams Foundation.)
John Lavitt is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about treatments for Hepatitis C.