Thursday night, Fairbanks held its Fourteenth Annual Circle of Hope Dinner. I am pretty connected around town, so I got to attend for the second year in a row. Last year, NFL Hall of Famer Chris Carter shared his personal story of addiction and recovery. It was fascinating and motivational. But this year, the folks at Fairbanks outdid themselves. The featured speaker was none other than Greg Williams!
Never heard of him? Well I certainly hope that is about to change.
Williams is a 29-year-old filmmaker and social entrepreneur that is in long term recovery. For him, that last descriptive means he has been free from drugs and alcohol for 12 years. For the rest of us, his recovery might mean the beginning of a revolutionary change in the way our culture views addiction.
He produced and directed the 2014 documentary, “The Anonymous People,” an eye opening film about addiction and recovery in America. The eye opening parts of it became clear very quickly, starting with the size and scope of the problem here. First, 23 million Americans currently live in long term recovery from addiction. Ironically, 22 million currently still struggle with it. That 45 million people represents the beginning of a demographic that Williams and others want to see become a voting bloc. And they absolutely should.
Our healthcare system and our criminal justice system are working together to make our addiction problem the greatest health crisis of the last century. How? On the healthcare side, it is still commonplace for addiction recovery services to be scarce and treatment is often not covered by traditional insurance coverage. I live in one of the largest cities in the country, and Indianapolis falls woefully short of having ample treatment options to which those with addiction have true access. I wonder where the people of Scott County are hoping to go.
On the criminal justice side, 80% of our increased prison population over the last thirty years are offenders that are there for drug, alcohol, and addiction related issues. Does that mean they shouldn’t do time? Of course not. In the film however, a discussion of simple math details how the “war on drugs” failed. It has been far more expensive and far less successful than a path that invests more in treatment and less in hard, wasted time.
Simply put, America is doing it wrong.
Drug and alcohol use is not a disease. Addiction is. The debate over this in the medical community is over. Politicians that cling to the bad personal choices of those with this disease as justification for inaction could soon find themselves in a lonely place: out of office.
Which leads us to the good news. Mr. Williams is at the front of a movement that I believe has the ability to turn the ship. Think about the demographic just in numbers: 45 million people. That represents 14% of all Americans. For context, our Hispanic/Latino population is 17.1 and our African Americans represent 13.2 percent respectfully. One provocative additional difference in these numbers is that addiction is a family disease. This matters because for each of the 45 million people in the addiction/recovery group, there is a family that loves them. That makes the demographic gigantic. Honestly, who among us does not have a loved one that has struggled, is struggling, or is lucky enough to be in long term recovery from addiction?
Now, the challenge for the movement as the name of the movie so aptly addresses, is that the bulk of the successful recovery community succeeded in part through its commitment to anonymity. Anonymity serves monumental purposes in the process of recovery. First, almost all addicts begin the process of recovery from a place of profound shame. The assurance of privacy in whatever path they choose is important for their initial participation.
Anonymity serves another principle that proves to be a larger obstacle though. You see, the practice of anonymity in recovery is vital in attaining real humility as a way of life. Humility is the key to successful recovery, which means that large numbers of those in recovery will be torn about involving themselves in any political movement. It is counterintuitive to the process. This will likely serve as the greatest obstacle of the movement.
After listening to him Thursday night, and watching his film on Friday night, I have faith that Williams will find a way through this part of the challenge.
Addiction and recovery is a personal topic for me. I think it is important to note that it is personal for most of us. “The Anonymous People” should signify the end of the failed war on drugs, and the beginning of the declaration of war on addiction.
With the annual cost of our current approach conservatively estimated at $350 billion, Americans should spend more time arguing about how to spend that money with hope of a more productive outcome.
We can do this. Much like a six hour wait in an emergency room, or a two year prison term for a crime that isn’t even uniformly illegal nationally, the time for wasting time is over. We have run out of reasons to wait.