Something had to change. For many years, alcoholics and drug addicts felt unable to ask for help for their illnesses. Going to rehab was seen as a badge of shame – mainly because society was not prepared to acknowledge addiction as a medical disorder and not a mental failing.

Not only was the public and political attitude toward addiction an ineffective path to achieving sobriety and happiness, but it discouraged people who wanted to seek treatment. Rehabilitation was not understood as a way to freedom, transformation and a better life.

Roots of the Recovery Movement: William White and Marty Mann

While not an addict himself, William White was one of the first people to advocate for addicts. He had seen the harmful attitude of stigmatization and the problems caused by the government’s refusal to see addiction not as a health problem, but as a criminal one.

Marty Mann also deserves special mention for her tireless work in advocating health-orientated recovery, rather than punishment. Mann engaged E.M. Jellinek and Dr. Howard Haggard, both senior alcoholism researchers, in support of her vision of educating the public about alcoholism. In 1944, the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism was formed, with Mann as spokesperson.

The message they promoted was that alcoholism is a medical issue, alcoholics can be helped with the right treatment and they are worth helping. Their final tenet was that alcoholism is a public health problem, and therefore a public responsibility.

In 1976, only 52 prominent US citizens publicly announced their recovery from alcoholism at an event sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism. As William White pointed out, “They are coming together to publicly reaffirm the hope for recovery from addiction…How can addicted people experience hope when the legions of recovering people in this culture are not seen or heard? Where is the proof that permanent recovery from addiction is possible?…We must also find the personal roots of stigma. There are whole professions whose members share an extremely pessimistic view of recovery because they repeatedly see only those who fail to recover. The success stories are not visible in their daily professional lives.”

Modern Leading Recovery Advocates

23 million americans live in long-term recoveryWhite and Mann faced opposition when their campaign began, and White often wrote of his dismay in his papers. But, little by little, Mann and White’s message started to break through. Their demand for fundamental change has attracted millions of recovering addicts – and the professionals who support them make ever bolder strides to establish White’s vision: no more stigma toward addicts and caring, respectful treatment.

The Anonymous People, a film directed by Greg Williams in 2013, is a documentary about the 23.5 million Americans who live in long-term recovery. It features parents and children who have suffered from addiction, as well as celebrities who believe in telling their stories of addiction and recovery.

The point of the film was to change public and political perception about addiction and allow addicts to share their own stories of recovery and growth. Ultimately, the public response to this brave new world of honesty and hope has been extremely positive. Actress Kristen Johnston gave a particularly amazing interview in the film and has since been a strong advocate for recovery. The film has also had a huge impact on the recovery community. Political, celebrity, public and family support cannot be underestimated in strengthening personal recovery.

The Politics of the Recovery Movement Now

Thanks to these early proponents, thousands of men and women have devoted their lives to changing the way culture looked at a disorder and those who suffered from it. Recovering addicts were less inclined to hide away and more willing to live their lives openly, and indeed celebrate their lives in recovery.

Although previous diversion programs in the criminal justice system looked promising, they have rarely delivered. CARA, an act recently passed, looks more promising and includes a stipulation for Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration Programs. Perhaps this is a legacy of the recovery movement itself.

The Recovery Movement Today

Today there are a number of initiatives to break the stigma and promote recovery. Recovery Month (each September) has encouraged recovering addicts to celebrate their new lives and give hope to those who still struggle.

Individual groups have mobilized to create substance-free festivals, recovery walks and all manner of events aimed to celebrate life in recovery, promote hope through comprehensive treatment and stop the stigmatization, demedicalization and criminalization of addiction.

White’s vision of hope, inclusion and acceptance is finally bearing fruit. “Our goal must not be to speak with one voice, but to share a recovery identity out of which we will speak with thousands of voices that achieve harmony on one issue: the potential for transforming and enduring recovery from addiction.

All William White quotations from White, W. (2006). Chronicles of the New Addiction Recovery Advocacy Movement. Washington, D.C.
Written by Beth Burgess

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