Running, Recovery, and Hugs, without the Anonymity

By Katie MacBride 05/17/17

"If I don’t share my recovery, it’s not helping me, it’s not helping anyone else."

people running marathon with drummers in foreground
Open Recovery organized this Road to Recovery 5k to combat the stigma of addiction via Author

I am not a morning person. I am also not an exercise person, which is why it was odd to find myself strolling across Crissy Field in San Francisco one Saturday morning in April, heading towards a huge banner that read, “Road to Recovery 5k.” Hosted by Open Recovery, an organization in San Francisco dedicated to ending the stigma of addiction through education, advocacy, and “empowering personal experiences in the community,” a non-sober friend had sent me a link to the event’s website. I hadn’t ever heard of a non-anonymous/non–A.A. affiliated recovery event (which isn’t to say they don’t happen, just that I haven’t heard of them). So I decided to check it out.* Honestly, I didn’t have the highest expectations. It seemed like a cool event but would people really get up at 8:00 in the morning on a Saturday to celebrate their recovery?

As it turns out, yes. When I arrived at 8:45 a.m., there were already hundreds of people milling around Crissy Field wearing blue Road to Recovery shirts. At least a dozen booths formed a half-circle around a large stage. In other words, this wasn’t just a 5k run. It was something of an extravaganza.

photo via Author

The 5k began at 9:00 a.m., signaled by the celebratory drumming. Although some of the participants were as athletically motivated as you might expect –- at the front of the line, fiddling with various electronic devices to measure their speed and heart rates -- there were also families walking together as a group, people pushing strollers, and folks of all ages walking or jogging lightly. In short, it was my kind of athletic event, the kind where actually being athletic isn’t a prerequisite.

That’s because athletics weren’t the purpose of the event, Fay Zenoff, Executive Director of Center for Open Recovery (COR), explained. The purpose, as the name of the organization suggests, was simply to give people a place to be open about their recovery. “We can’t reduce the stigma of addiction unless people are willing to be open about their recovery.” The success of COR’s goals -- education, advocacy, and building community -- depend on folks in recovery talking about their recovery, non-anonymously.

The Center for Open Recovery isn’t anti or pro-Alcoholics Anonymous, Zenoff explains. In fact, the woman who founded the organization was involved with AA, even writing the “Women Suffer Too” chapter of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “She wanted this organization to be all of the things that AA couldn’t be, because of the focus on anonymity,” Zenoff said. In order to do that, however, some of the messaging around the organization had to change.

Until Zenoff took over the organization three and a half years ago, the Center for Open Recovery was called the Center for Alcoholism and Other Addictions, a decidedly less friendly title. "Most of the addiction recovery organizations are focused on intervention,” Zenoff said. “They’re very crisis oriented. That’s where the insurance money is.”

While there’s certainly a need for crisis organizations, Zenoff wanted the newly christened COR to be about something different. “There’s nothing to sustain and support recovery outside of individual recovery programs. So, as a non-profit, that’s what we wanted to do.”

Still, an organization about recovery without people actually willing to admit they’re in recovery doesn’t do much to reduce the stigma of addiction. Thus, my conversation with Zenoff comes full circle. “We’ve got to take a page out of the gay rights movement, to talk to people and ask them to come out of the closet so we can change people’s perception of what recovery is.”

For those who still feel the stigma of being an addict or alcoholic in recovery, this can be a tall order. Allen Martin, the event’s emcee, wasn’t at all sure about the idea when he agreed to emcee the previous year, at the inaugural Road to Recovery event.

“It took me a minute to get into this idea of open recovery," Martin said, “you know, what happened to the anonymous part?” He wasn’t sure until he arrived the morning of the event. “I showed up and there were hundreds of people hanging out, having fun, and just...being open about their recovery. It was then that I realized, if I don’t share my recovery, it’s not helping me, it’s not helping anyone else.”

photo via Author

Martin is careful to note that being open about recovery and proselytizing about it are two very different things. “Being open doesn’t mean crossing that line and browbeating people into recovery,” Martin said with a laugh. “For one thing, we know that doesn’t work. Enough people tried to do it to us to know that.”

Although the organization is staunchly not-anonymous, Zenoff doesn’t see any conflict with AA or other organizations that promote anonymity. “Your affiliations are your business,” Zenoff said. “All we’re saying is that you can be open about your recovery here.”

The notion of open recovery was strange but welcome to some of the people newer to recovery. Some people, like John (name changed), a 21-year old man I interviewed, weren’t ready to speak publicly about their recovery but appreciated the fact that there was an environment in which they could if they wanted to. John had decided to come to the Road to Recovery event with his inpatient treatment center to “just get out for a while,” he said. “But it’s really cool to come here and see this.”

The event may have helped him find an ally among his existing community. “I bumped into this kid I knew from high school,” John said. I asked if the person was also in recovery. “I don’t know,” John replied. “We just talked for a little bit. But he’s out here, you know, he’s running and supporting the cause.”

The 5k was promoted as the main event but for those of us who weren’t running, there were plenty of other entertaining happenings. Sponsors of the event, like Hazelden, had booths, but there were also chats with local authors of books about recovery, a meditation tent, yoga, and a fascinating organization called “Sidewalk Talk” had volunteers available to sit and listen to anyone who needed a compassionate ear. Sure, not everything was right up my ally (“free hugs” were being given out at one booth and, to be honest, it’s always going to be too early in the morning for hugs from strangers for me) but there really was something for everyone. Not having any idea what to expect from the event when I arrived, I was utterly impressed with the organization and the overall attitude on display.

Of course, among the fun and games (and hugs!) was the possibility of more significant change. “Last year there was a guy who was doing the audio and he was just here to make his 20 bucks an hour or whatever,” Martin said. “He came up to me after the event and said 'you know, I’ve been white-knuckling it [maintaining sobriety without a program of recovery or support group] for about six months and I think I’m starting to realize that there’s a better way to do this.'”

*It turns out I know the Executive Director, Fay Zenoff, from my own recovery community, though we hadn’t spoken in several years and I did not realize she was involved with the organization until the day before the event.

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