Ten Heroes Who are Revolutionizing Addiction and Recovery

By Ruth Fowler 05/01/11

Unlike a certain reality show doctor, most of the nation's leading recovery leaders toil in near-total obscurity. So after consulting dozens of industry leaders and scientists, we decided to salute the ten unsung heroes who've had the greatest impact on research, treatment, and politics this year.

From scientists to scholars to activists, meet ten of America's recovery renegades

For much of the American public, "recovery” is associated with images of million-dollar Malibu Beach treatment centers, ailing A-list actors, and people living in cardboard boxes on your corner. Treatment is something Lindsay Lohan repeatedly tries, Charlie Sheen mocks and a slew of has-beens and never-weres publicly undergo on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. While Pinsky has received his fair share of criticism for the seemingly-exploitative nature of his popular series—there’s no denying the fact that his shows, as well as other popular programs like A&E's Intervention, have gone a long way toward convincing the public at large that addiction is a destructive problem that can be both treatable and manageable, an insight that will hopefully lead to the continued understanding of a disease that has been stigmatized for many years.

But for every Dr. Drew, there are tens of thousands of researchers, educators, social workers and physicians who have been toiling tirelessly behind the scenes to come up with a solution to a problem that directly afflicts an estimated 23 million Americans and indirectly impacts over 40 million others. So after consulting dozens of experts in the field, The Fix decided to spotlight ten relatively anonymous pioneers who've had a profound impact on the recovery field over the past couple of decades. Like any such list, it's bound to be an imperfect document—it's difficult to reduce the army of people working in this movement to a simple ten. So we strongly encourage you to suggest your own nominees. After all, that's what comments are for!

Bill White

William (Bill) White, a former community organizer from Illinois, has contributed an amazing body of work on addiction treatment and recovery. One of the most erudite writers on recovery issues—he calls recovery a “heroic journey”—his scholarship, speeches and writing on the subject have inspired recovery activists all over the world. A former street worker, counselor, clinical director, researcher, trainer and consultant, White’s most significant work has probably been his book Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, which snagged him a McGovern Award. You might have caught him in Bill Moyers’ PBS special on addiction or a Showtime documentary called Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century but White’s work is mainly cited widely amongst academics, researchers and advocacy groups.

Tom McLellan

“The Drug Czar!” everyone cries when Tom’s name is mentioned, referring to his 18-month stint as Obama’s deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which advises the President and organizes anti-drug efforts. What most don’t know is that McLellan is widely regarded as one of the best researchers on addiction related issues. The only non-alcoholic in his family, Tom credits A.A. with saving the lives of his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and he has been vocal in relaying the message that addiction is a complex disease at once genetic, spiritual, psychological, biological and emotional. With impeccable scientific credentials to boot, he’s focused much of his life’s work not just on studying the problem (addiction) but on helping to determine the solution (recovery). He’s on staff at the University of Pennsylvania heading the Center for Substance Abuse Solutions and is currently studying other segregated diseases in the past with a view to understanding, and combating, the shunning of addiction treatment by mainstream medicine.

Carol McDaid

Carol McDaid is one sassy lady. In recovery herself for alcoholism and drug addiction, she’s become a powerful advocate in Washington for people in recovery. McDaid has sometimes faced criticism for her own openness about her recovery and shunning of her anonymity, but undeterred, she chairs the most important advocacy group for addicts at a federal level—Faces and Voices of Recovery. A registered federal lobbyist, Carol led the Parity NOW coalition that successfully supported passage of the 2008 Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act—which requires insurers to treat mental and physical illnesses equally. This led Tom McLellan to note, “If Carol McDaid had not been on this planet, there would be no Parity legislation.” McDaid also serves on the Betty Ford Institute Executive Council and she has had a profound impact in how legislators understand addiction by giving those in recovery a voice and an identity at the Federal level.

Phillip Valentine

Mark Kleiman, a professor, author and blogger at U.C.L.A., insisted that Phillip Valentine is a leader in the recovery field but when we told Valentine this, he sounded bemused. “How could you pick one person out of the thousands of people working on the frontline?” he asked. And so The Fix selected Valentine to represent all those working, without applause or recognition, on the frontline of treatment. As a sober member of A.A. for 23 years and Executive Director of C.C.A.R., a grassroots organization in Connecticut, Valentine heads a staff of 12 as well as over 300 volunteers who work to provide a space for treatment and recovery. This includes helping those in recovery get sober, find jobs and navigate the system. His work mainly involves working with people who have what he terms “Low Recovery Capital”—those who have lost savings, money, families and homes.

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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.