Maura Casey: The anonymity of addiction

McClatchy-TribuneJanuary 11, 2013 

I often wished that state legislators who knew the most about addiction would band together and speak out as one during budget debates. Who better to advocate for treatment and chip away at public denial than the recovering alcoholics I knew who were also members of the General Assembly?

Yet the answer was as close as my nearest mirror. Despite being a journalist and writing opinion for years, I was no more likely to publish a column about my own 20-plus years' recovery from alcoholism than lawmakers were prepared to out themselves on the floor of the legislature.

Whether springing from shame or shyness, my decision not to write about my addiction was a mistake. The same goes for most of my 20 million-plus fellow citizens who are in sustained recovery from addiction.

Besides our passivity, one barrier to public understanding may lie in the terms we use. "When people hear that a person is in 'recovery,' they think someone is struggling with addiction, or still using," when such is not the case, said Patricia A. Taylor, executive director of the grass-roots nonprofit Faces and Voices of Recovery.

Her organization is onto something. Although recovering people lead utterly normal lives, our silence has allowed others to define us as either living under a bridge or teetering on the verge of relapse.

Worse, our lack of advocacy has enabled a treatment system to take shape that has, too often, criminalized addiction instead of treating it as a public health issue -- one that estimates say costs the U.S. more than $500 billion annually.

Greg Williams, 29, of Danbury, Conn., makes a convincing case for the need to speak out in the eight-minute trailer of his riveting documentary on the recovery movement, "The Anonymous People." Williams hasn't used drugs or alcohol since 2001.

"Public perception continues to swim upstream against science," he says. Even though addiction is a disease, "society continues to tell me the lie that at age 15, with a developing brain, and genetic predisposition, I somehow made a rational choice to become addicted."

Addiction is hardly the first illness to carry a stigma. In recent years, AIDS and cancer did, too. Treatment improved markedly when patients spoke out. The comparison is particularly apt to William L. White, who is a cancer survivor and author of the superb book, "Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America."

"Talk to anyone who has undergone cancer treatment. From the beginning, you are told you will need regular lab tests and appointments for five years and are told what you can do to help your recovery," White said. "Yet in addiction, we give people a 30-day treatment, give them a hug and tell them to have a good life. It's like giving a patient an inadequate dose of antibiotics, then blaming them when the infection comes back." What other illness do we approach this way?

When people do recover, White said, a fundamental misunderstanding of the anonymous traditions of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous keep many from sharing their stories. The point of these traditions is not to inhibit people from speaking publicly about their recovery, but for people to refrain from identifying themselves as AA or NA members to shield the organizations from controversy -- and the occasional relapse of leaders.

Yet America has a centuries-long tradition here. In the 1730s, more than 200 years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, American Indian tribes established abstinence-based recovery circles, White said. Recovery in America should be celebrated, not hidden.

Williams hopes his documentary will help do that. He's aiming to complete it by April. And although he's convinced me, shedding anonymity might not be the right decision for every recovering person. "It's not about telling everyone to do it," he said. "If it's right for you, though, maybe you should join us and change the course of history."

Maura Casey, a former editorial writer for the New York Times, wrote this article for the Hartford Courant.

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