Addiction, public policy and the role of anonymity

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG
  • Updated: June 22, 2013 - 5:31 PM

There's a growing realization that policy cannot be shaped from the shadows.

A bunch of alcoholics and addicts mingled throughout the elegant galleries of the Walker Art Center on a recent evening.

They were there for a sold-out screening of a new documentary called “The Anonymous People.” The film’s title is — take your pick — a misnomer, ironic or a conundrum. Because these people, so universally and traditionally anonymous in American society for so long, were resolutely, even defiantly, not anonymous this night. Or anymore, for that matter.

In public, in front of God and everyone, they were celebrating their recovery from drugs and alcohol and saying to the world, in effect: Take a look — we wear neither horns nor tails; we’re here. Get used to it, because we want our place at the table where public policy is shaped. And we’re willing to go public to start shaping that policy.

“The idea here is there’s power in our stories that can change public perception about this issue of addiction,” said Greg Williams, director of “The Anonymous People.” “You’re talking about 10 percent of the American people who are sick, another 10 percent who’ve gotten well and are in long-term recovery. So everybody knows somebody who’s affected. We’re trying to open people’s hearts to the fact that maybe we’re not such bad people.”

Fact: There are an estimated 23 million Americans in some stage of recovery from their addictions, and nearly as many still suffering from the untreated chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol. In terms of health and public safety costs to the nation, the annual bill for this disease totals as much as $350 billion a year, more than $5 billion in Minnesota alone.

But nearly all of these people are, in effect, mostly invisible, leaving the public face of addiction in this country to the tabloids and TV snippets that revel in celebrities’ gory, booze-soaked train wrecks. “Here’s the thing,” Williams narrates in his film. “I’m not supposed to tell you about my addiction.”

The biggest reason for the invisibility is the fact that a cultural cornerstone to recovery has been anonymity, a founding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous, the grandfather of all 12-step programs and the literal lifeline to sobriety for millions of people. But anonymity, recovery advocates say, has been too often a handmaiden to shame, keeping recovering people hidden away, speaking only to one other.

That’s changing. As one recovering person in “The Anonymous People” puts it, “I’m so sick of being embarrassed about being an addict — I don’t want to have a meeting in a church basement. I want to have it in a boardroom.” Another points out: “There’s 30 of us standing in front of a church, smoking. What secret is this?”

The film, self-financed via the Internet by Williams, a 29-year-old recovering drug addict from Connecticut, raises the curtain on what is most vividly taking the form of political activism across the nation. In this state, with its deep roots in addiction treatment (“Minnesota Model,” anyone?) the most numerous boots on the ground have been mustered by members of the Minnesota Recovery Connection, a nonprofit organization that increasingly has been making its voice heard at the Capitol. As so many other advocacy groups do, members gather in the Capitol rotunda for an annual rally, buttonhole legislators on a weekly basis and, most notably, have thrust themselves deeply into the fractious debate over raising the state’s alcohol tax for the first time in a generation.

“Yes, Minnesota is a big state for recovery, and everyone here knows about treatment, but we seem to be behind in terms of the emerging recovery movement,” said Nell Hurley, executive director of the Minnesota Recovery Connection. “Politically, this has gone in cycles. For a long time, we were under a shroud, sharing invisibility. There have been shifts politically, then people have gone back in the shadows. But it’s been coming back again, and there’s more momentum, with this movement spreading across the country. It’s kind of a third iteration — maybe we’re at a tipping point.”

The first documented emergence of recovery advocacy, contained in the film, occurred in the 1960s, when Bill Wilson, who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, testified before Congress. More than a decade later, former Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes, himself a recovering alcoholic, chaired a committee focused specifically on the disease, which corresponded with a short-lived movement called “Operation Understanding,” a kind of coming-out party for those recovering from addiction, featuring luminaries at the time such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and comedian Dick Van Dyke.

Then, nothing. Hughes, considered the political godfather of the recovery movement, lamented after he left office, “tell America you got well. And if you can’t, please pray for us.”

Hughes’ mantle was taken up in Congress by former Rep. Jim Ramstad, now 31 years in recovery and long a prominent public advocate for the movement. “Harold Hughes went to his grave disappointed that more had not been done for the recovery community,” Ramstad said. “For a long time, people refused to share their stories. But there’s no question the influence is starting to grow.”

Most notably at the federal level, Ramstad points to the act first championed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and passed into law only in 2008. It places treatment for mental health and addiction treatment on equal footing with other medical conditions and diseases. And that parity of coverage is fully embedded within Obamacare.

All of this advocacy in the public square would seem to run headlong into the anonymity so essential to 12-step programs, creating what would appear to be an insurmountable hurdle. Not necessarily, Ramstad and others say, because both can be respected as long as they’re kept in distinctly separate spheres.

“I’ve been criticized for going public with my alcoholism, and that tension between the private and public will always exist,” Ramstad said. “But I never mention AA in a public venue — I identify myself as a member of the recovery community. The whole point is to reach the people who are still suffering and reduce the stigma.”

It requires reaching beyond what Ramstad calls his “fellow travelers” and taking a step past the 12th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous, which exhorts members to “carry the message to other alcoholics” and present a message to the far wider world.

“The general public doesn’t understand our code,” Hurley said. “I never identify myself as a recovering alcoholic. I’m in long-term recovery and only anonymous in the realm of AA. There’s room for advocacy for people who are not members. It’s important to explicate we’re not challenging the traditions, but are trying to make the recovery community more visible.”

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