OP-ED: ‘The Anonymous People’

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MoviePoster_Final_300dpi_vA_cropped"The Anonymous People" (2013)

Documentary - 15 August 2013 (USA)

The premise of the documentary, “The Anonymous People,” is that we need a new way of looking at addiction and recovery. Director Greg D. Williams, himself in recovery, argues that to describe someone who suffers from a debilitating medical condition known as addiction is to imply that the addict should be punished for his or her failure to just say no to drugs. Furthermore, because of the shame and resulting ostracism that comes with being identified as an addict, this particular disease is underserved as a public health concern. Ironically, the anonymity of addiction is accentuated by the otherwise outstanding work of Alcoholics Anonymous, which as part of its 12-step program and even in the name of the organization itself, emphasizes the personal and private nature of the addiction struggle. Thus, AA has unwittingly been a contributing factor to what Williams argues is a hidden public health epidemic.

And what an expensive epidemic it is. If 80 percent of those who are in jail have a substance abuse problem for which they are generally not being treated, addiction contributes to costs associated with crime, law enforcement, the courts, incarceration and recidivism, not to mention the medical costs of conditions related to addiction and lost productivity.  This drain on our economy should convince even the most dedicated bean counter that effective treatment of drug addiction is wildly cost effective. However, the fact of the matter is that addiction (and mental health problems in general) are hugely underfunded when compared to other diseases.

mentalhealth_graphic_v4-336x228I think Williams lays out these problems very well, but as to solutions, not so much. The problem with this documentary is that there is too much little picture at the expense of the broader view. Personal testimony is necessary to engage the audience but analysis is necessary to move an agenda.

From what I can tell, Williams would like to turn the recovery movement into a political force. If there are 30 million people addicted to drugs or in recovery in the United States, they and their families should constitute an interest group on the magnitude of the AARP, the most powerful lobbying group in Washington. But the recovery movement has never gained that sort of traction.

Williams suggest that it would be appropriate to use the movement for the cure and prevention of AIDS as a model, but I don’t think that will work. AIDS is caused by the HIV virus; an identifiable biologic agent for which there is presumably a cure. Yes, AIDS still exists somewhat in the shadows but it also can also victimize the “innocent.”

The best, proven treatment for drug addiction, on the other hand, is not taking drugs. Yes, the proclivity to addiction is a medical condition. But on a sliding scale, addiction is more of a function of personal responsibility than, say, is catching a cold. Thus, there is a tendency in our political culture, whether we like it or not, to attribute an individual’s condition whether it be health or personal to individual agency.

Even when it comes to cancer or heart disease, the first question many people ask is, “did he smoke, did he eat right, did he exercise?” — as if disease is something we bring upon ourselves. And in some sense an individual’s contribution to the cause and prevention of disease may be relevant. Some behaviors are riskier than others.

The problem with addiction is that it is hard to identify a cause other than personal choice. I would have liked to have seen more on that. That is how this documentary could be more effective. Individuals in recovery can describe their personal experience but they are still not experts on addiction. I suspect alcoholism is a genetic condition, but I’m not a doctor (not that kind of doctor) and if I’m going to make that argument, I’m going to need a little more ammunition.

Furthermore, besides the science on the study of substance abuse, there is a social problem as well. It’s all well and good to change the language of addiction but changing attitudes in a society that is not predisposed to do so, that is going to be more of a challenge.

Daniel Franklin is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and the author of "Politics and Film: The Political Culture of Film in the United States" (2006).

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