Is it time for #metoo in the recovery community?

By Kelly Palmer 04/24/18

The #metoo movement, in spite of an inevitable backlash, continues to gather momentum and is hitting industries and communities around the globe as women break their silence on their experiences and the pervasiveness of sexual assault, abuse and harassment. So far, I have seen little effect on the recovery community. I believe its time.
Whether it be rehabs, 12 step fellowships or other peer support groups, the recovery community is far from immune to reports of sexual assault and harassment, predominantly by men, on women. Recently, Christopher Bathum, founder of Community Recovery in Los Angeles, was convicted of 31 counts of rape and sexual exploitation1 against female patients in his facilities. Part of his pattern was to offer the women – recovering addicts in his care – drugs so as to render them more vulnerable.

We can't afford to dismiss Bathum as a tragic one-off. Maia Szalavitz, in her book 'Help at Any Cost' has documented the horrific abuse, including sexual abuse against children of all genders, endemic in many popular rehabs for teens, from Straight Inc to wilderness therapy-based boot camps. Szalavitz claims that many of those who worked in these facilities, even though they were shut down for misconduct, went on to work in other substance disorder treatment centers. Given that addicts enter treatment in both physically and mentally vulnerable states, and that women in particular have often experienced sexual abuse or exploitation prior to their entering treatment, the potential for further misconduct is immense. When you add in the factor that recovery treatment centers and therapists are not held to the same regulations as in other areas, its easy for such abuse to go underground. It will be interesting to see if there are any more allegations in light of the #metoo movement as survivors feel more supported and empowered to speak up.

Fellowship groups are also far from immune. In her hard-hitting documentary 'The 13th Step' former AAer and recovered alcoholic Monica Richardson chronicles tales of sexual abuse in the rooms of AA across America. We all know there are some predatory people in the rooms who pursue vulnerable newcomers; what we can only guess at is how often these already blurred boundaries cross over into actual assault. Victims may well be reluctant to speak up about this – after all, personal recovery depends on fellowship unity, and worried they will not be believed. In Richardson's film, a woman who was raped reports being told by another woman in the fellowship to 'look at her part', berating her for making friends with the alleged perpetrator and 'leading him on'.

After four years in the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous in the UK, I'm happy to say my experiences in this area have been mostly positive. Nevertheless I have heard of incidences where the boundaries have been certainly more than blurred – and levels of support for the woman in question have been varied. If our recovery depends on our unity, we need to ask what that unity means. Because it does not mean sticking our faces in the sand and ostracising the most vulnerable. It means accountability, support and personal responsibility. It means listening to, believing and amplifying the voices of those in our community who have the courage to say #metoo.

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