In late September, more than 1,000 family members who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses rallied in Washington with an angry message: We’re Fed Up! with the epidemic of drug addiction in this country and the soaring number of overdose deaths.
Those family members have every right to be angry. They have every right to use their First Amendment rights to direct that anger toward the federal government and the current status quo.
I get it. I’m angry too; in fact, the Fed Up! rally made me angrier. It stood in stark contrast to the tenor and tone of the many other Recovery Month events I had the privilege to attend this past September.
It is apparently OK for those family members to angrily demand a better response from the federal government to the current health crisis. But when the addiction recovery community — more than 23 million Americans and their families — gathers to walk, speak and put a face on recovery there doesn’t seem to be much anger at the current state of affairs that is costing us more than 100 American lives every day.
Apparently, anger is a frightening emotion for many in the recovery community. Perhaps rightfully so when looking at it through individual personal recovery needs. Even the most famous recovery book in history, "Alcoholics Anonymous," named by the Library of Congress as one of the books that shaped America, suggests, “If we were to live, we had to be free of anger … [it] may be the dubious luxury for normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.”
But how else are we going to collectively move the needle on the current epidemic without using the prime emotion that has been at the forefront of all other advocacy movements in American history?
Floating balloons and celebrating that recovery is possible has been a great start in many communities. But when we look around at other marginalized health populations in history like the HIV/AIDs movement and the disability movement, they get a capital M on “Movement” in our cultural reflections only because they got angry.
Is it not OK to express outrage over the blatant discrimination against many of us when we try to access health services, buy insurance, apply for a job or complete a housing rental application?
There’s a distinct difference between interpersonal fear-driven anger (that “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous” warns against), and anger related to advocacy on behalf of your community using your citizenship. That kind of anger is actually the opposite of fear, because it takes great courage for marginalized individuals to organize and fight for their individual and collective civil and human rights.
People in recovery must get angry. We must take some lessons from the families who are fed up and join them in this emotion. For those of us who can take a stand, we owe it to those who cannot to channel this emotion into action.
As Stacia Murphy says in my documentary “The Anonymous People” about Marty Mann’s driving force (the first woman to ever achieve long-term recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous who chose to use her personal story publicly for social change), “Advocacy is about anger.” Our stories do have power!
Anger is the single missing component that will gel the entire addiction advocacy movement together. When recovery advocates embrace anger as its ally, we’ll create an overpowering force against public shame, stigmatization and discrimination.
Talking about mobilizing a constituency of consequence during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal except its faith, no currency but its conscience.”
Fifty years from now, will people look upon this new emergence of public recovery advocates with a capital “M” in their mind? Time will tell.
Greg Williams, a person in long-term recovery for more than 12 years from addiction to alcohol and other drugs, is the filmmaker of the award-winning documentary "The Anonymous People." Williams received his master’s in addiction public policy and documentary film from New York University.