“The Anonymous People” Of Addiction Recovery

More than 23 million people are in addiction recovery, but you’d never know it. On the whole, members of the group have kept quiet, fearful of the stigma and discrimination that can accompany the word addict, even if it relates to a former self.

What would happen if those millions were to step out from the shadows, share their success stories, and lobby for changes in the way addiction is viewed and treated in our culture?

That’s what those who are chronicled in The Anonymous People hope to find out.

The 2013 documentary tells the story of the Faces & Voices of Recovery movement, and others who are speaking out and mobilizing others to do the same. It’s a way to counterbalance the current narrative, which tends to focus only on the high-profile and tragic relapses that make it to the covers of magazines, according to the film’s director and producer, Greg Williams.

What the public comes to believe, Williams says, is that “people don’t get better, people can’t get well from this, it’s a lifelong thing.” As a result, treatment can seem to some — including those who make public policy — like an expensive exercise in futility.

The reality, Williams says, is that people often do get well, and the money put toward helping them get and stay clean is money that doesn’t have to be spent on what the film calls “the public wreckage of addiction”: criminal justice expenses, healthcare costs, lost productivity — an estimated $350 billion a year. “But we’re not going to change that narrative until some of us get loud about it,” Williams says.

The ultimate goal is to help public perception match the science, which shows, as the film states, that “drug addiction is not a moral failing of the individual but a chronic disease of the brain — and it can be treated.”

Telling the story of addiction recovery

Williams knows personally that healing is possible. “I was heavily addicted in my adolescence — the whole addiction story. I went to treatment and got into a halfway house at 17 and ultimately haven’t used alcohol or other drugs in over 12 years now. And as a result, my life has gotten a whole lot better,” says the 30-year-old, now married and the father of a young son.

A filmmaker and storyteller, Williams was inspired to turn his camera on the recovery movement after being introduced to its work and some of its leaders, including those who started Faces & Voices in 2001 as a way to change public perception about addiction and, thus, public policy. Faces & Voices helped pass the federal parity law, for example, that tasks insurers with providing mental and substance use coverage at the same level as medical coverage. Williams now volunteers for Faces & Voices and is directing the related Many Faces 1 Voice campaign that grew out of the film.

Faces & Voices realized “there was an ongoing need for recovery support services and for extending the continuum of care, and a lot of that relies on stigma reduction and changing public perception of addiction and recovery,” Williams said. Those perceptions were more likely to change, the group realized, when real people shared their stories.

“There is this hidden minority of us who are walking around as people successful in our lives who just don’t realize the power of our story and what that can do for those who are still suffering and what that can do for changing a broken system,” Williams says.

The next stage of recovery

But how best to share those stories?

How can people who are accustomed to introducing themselves as addicts in treatment programs feel comfortable talking outside the circle? And what about those who consider the anonymous in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other 12 step programs to be a sacred trust that means they are sworn to secrecy?

Of the first, Williams explains that while the word addict may be therapeutic in a recovery setting or technically correct in medical terms, “at the same time it’s been used in our cultural vernacular as a derogatory term. So saying somebody’s a drug addict literally strips them from their humanity.” In addition, research has proven that when the general public hears the word addict, “they think we’re still getting high, still drinking,” Williams says. “So even if we’re grateful recovering alcoholics, it still conjures up a very contradictory image in people’s minds.”

To make the success stories more empowering and purposeful, Faces & Voices recommends saying “person in recovery” instead. The group even offers workshops to help those in recovery learn how to effectively share their stories. “How you share is as important as what you share,” the film notes.

Williams went through the training, and the effect was dramatic. “It really changed my life. They gave me a language that I hadn’t had.” Now, he said, “it’s a very different thing for me to walk up to somebody and say ‘I’m a person in recovery. I’m a person and I happen to be in recovery’ rather than I’m a label, I’m a victim, I’m an addict, I’m a criminal. It’s a very different connotation. They don’t take a step back, they don’t look at their wallet, and they don’t think I’m still getting high.”

Still, he acknowledges that “personally I haven’t changed my language in a 12 step room,” although he has heard from some who have, saying they want to identify with the solution rather than the problem.

“Recovery advocacy is not a recovery program. That’s what we teach people,” he said. “This is a separate piece. This is citizenship. This is what I do as a taxpaying, voting member of my community. This happens outside of what I do for my personal recovery.”

As to anonymity, the film says the concept has been “misunderstood, misused and misinterpreted” both by those in recovery and in the public. The reality is that those who wish to speak up about their personal experiences may do so, without fear of breaking any tenets of AA or any other organization with anonymous in its name, Williams says.

A big moment, he says, was when the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous released a bulletin in response to the film. “It literally spells it out for people: Anonymity is important but at the same time you can speak publicly as a person in recovery. You can lobby, endorse, finance things as an individual; we just aren’t going to do it as an organization.” A pamphlet called Advocacy With Anonymity explains in depth how people can advocate while protecting anonymity at the same time.

The ripple effect

The film encourages all those with a story to add their voice to the recovery movement, while making it clear that no one should feel pressured to reveal or do more than they are ready for. “The number one thing I tell people,” Williams says, “is if you are empowered and you have a recovery story — or have a family recovery story or a friend or an ally story — tell one person who doesn’t know every day.”

Sharing can be as simple as telling the truth about the fact that you’ve just come from a recovery meeting rather than making up a cover story. “It’s a ripple effect. … Those kind of things start to strip away the stereotypes people have about people with addiction; they start to see a positive face of recovery.”

Well-known faces appear in the film in an effort to help ease the stigma. Former basketball star Chris Herren, who overcame an addiction to drugs and alcohol, speaks movingly of how hard it can be for the young to take a stand for sobriety. Kristen Johnston, an Emmy Award-winning actress best known for role in “3rd Rock from the Sun,” also makes an appearance, reading from a book she wrote about her experiences with substance abuse. “I believe the shame and secrecy that shroud this disease are just as deadly as the disease itself,” she says. The gay community got it right, she added, when they came up with the slogan “Silence equals death” when working to overcome the stigma surrounding AIDS. “Well, I won’t stay silent any longer,” she says. “I hope you won’t either.”

Stripping away the shame

Although the film started small, as a “grassroots, kickstarter, indie film” as Williams describes it, it has grown to be “the second-highest grossing documentary that’s ever done this on-demand model of theatrical distribution,” Williams explains. The film can currently be streamed instantly on Netflix and Amazon.

“It’s been a wild, wild ride,” Williams says of the experience, “but the reaction to the film has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the recovery community and their families.”

He often appears at screenings and never tires of the response. “Years of shame kind of get stripped away as they think about themselves as a movement, as people who are just like anybody else, people who could unite their lives. … It’s amazing to watch people with 20, maybe 30 years in recovery, and see the light bulb go off for them as they realize the power and impact they can have in their community on the issue that they probably care about the most.”

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