The Great Hidden Secret: How ‘The Anonymous People’ is Changing Recovery Culture

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Documentary filmmaker Greg Williams screens "The Anonymous People" at Goodwin College in East Hartford, Conn., January 18.

Documentary filmmaker Greg Williams screens "The Anonymous People" at Goodwin College in East Hartford, Conn., January 18."

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — On a recent grey Saturday morning, a quiet fell over the sparse audience seated in a vocational school assembly hall as Kimberly Beauregard stepped up to the stage. She was introducing the movie to a small audience of three dozen, who had endured a brutally cold morning and a wicked ice storm.

After a few words greeting the crowd and thanking them for their intrepid spirit braving the treacherous conditions to make it to the screening, she praised the movie they were about to see. After that Beauregard, the president of InterCommunity, an East Hartford-based health organization that provides addiction and mental health care, bowed her head and collected herself for a moment. And then she told the crowd something she had never spoken of publicly before: She was one of the Anonymous People.

new york logo 01“I have never said that before in public,” she said, her voice cracking. “And after you see the movie you will understand why I am.”

The movie was “The Anonymous People,” a spunky profile of the burgeoning grassroots drug and alcohol recovery movement by a 30-year-old first time feature length filmmaker named Greg Williams, who himself has been in recovery since he was 17-years-old.

After a few moments, the lights dimmed and the movie began.

The Great Hidden Secret

Williams, who has participated in dozens of screenings of his film, was sitting in the back row of the theater fiddling with his laptop when he looked up as Beauregard delivered her short, emotional introduction.

“I have to say, I got chills,” he said. “That’s why I made the film. The way she did what she did and who she is — she’s an incredible woman who has led this important Connecticut  nonprofit — for her to talk about her recovery, and how her experience with her own recovery is why she did this work, it’s incredibly humbling.”

In touring with the film for more than a year, from big cities on the coasts to tiny hamlets in middle America, he said he has seen all kinds of visceral reactions.

mentalhealth_graphic_v4-336x228“The great hidden secret in this country is what’s happening in the recovery movement,” he said.

Williams, who describes himself as a hybrid between a social justice advocate and a filmmaker — what he calls a “creative activist” — said he has seen other moving reactions at screenings all over the county. After seeing the movie three times in her hometown in Ohio, Megan Forney wrote Williams to say she quit her high-paying full-time job to dedicate herself to the recovery movement. She took a job making minimum wage at a women’s sober house. Forney wrote that the movie not only transformed her life, but her hometown as well.

Leah Nelson watches "The Anonymous People at Goodwin College Saturday morning."

Robert Stolarick / JJIE

Leah Nelson watches "The Anonymous People at Goodwin College Saturday morning."

“This movie revolutionized my city,” she wrote. “The city commissioners came to see it and are now working on possibly getting us a treatment center since the closest one is nearly an hour away east or west. There is an epidemic on our hands and it’s up to us to make that known and provide solutions for that problem."

But none of the reactions moved him in the same way Beauregard’s did.

“You create a piece of art and someone watches it and something as deep as their own personal identity, something as intimate as their own personal shame — it was her own personal shame she got in touch with and she decided to share it with the community and acknowledge that that’s why she doesn’t talk about her own recovery,” he said. “Here’s a woman every day of the week talking about mental health and addiction issues and how we improve them — it changes everything when someone opens up on that personal level.”

“The Anonymous People,” which is having its theatrical opening at the Quad Cinema in Union Square in New York City on March 14, is a film that looks at the history of the recovery movement and the anonymity that is central to 12-step programs. But it also looks at the growing movement of people in recovery who are coming out publicly to shed the stigma that Williams says is preventing an estimated 23 million addicts from getting treatment.

The Anonymous People - Official Film Trailer from Greg Williams on Vimeo.

More importantly, he says, he wants his movie to alter the the perceptions that drive public policy.

In an interview for the film, Bill White, an addiction recovery historian, told Williams: “We could fill whole libraries on what we know about the pathology of addiction, but we could barely fill one shelf with what we know about the solution.”

It’s hard to imagine that Williams, a baby-faced 30-year-old with sparkling grey eyes and a teenager’s enthusiasm, is old enough to have completed a feature length film, or that he’s old enough to already be in the 13th year of his recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Williams is acutely aware of the effect he has on people, and he uses the impression to drive home the message of his movie. He is what an addict looks like. When the movie opens he introduces himself, a businessman, an athlete, an actress, to dispel the myth that an addict is a junkie living under an overpass clutching a paper bag of cheap booze.

“It’s really purposeful how I start the film, it’s the whole reframing of the language,” he said from a table in a bookstore coffee shop in a strip mall after the screening. “Where did I get the perception of a drug addict and alcoholic? The image I got wasn’t my face, and wasn’t my age, you know — brown paper bags on the street, ethnic people under bridges, that’s what our culture says about addiction. Cocaine use in the 80’s was overwhelming white and the images on TV were people of color selling drugs on street corners and African American crack babies -- that’s ingrained in our culture. When it really looks like us!”

He hopes the movie alters perceptions and leads to deep changes in how experts look at finding a solution. He said society is so preoccupied with the disease versus change debate that they do not look at what toll addiction is taking on everything from education to juvenile justice.

“We’ve been stuck on, is addiction a choice or is it a pathology, and frankly it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We have this huge, giant public health and criminal justice issue, we got to find better solutions.”

This Is Just the Beginning

Susan Broderick had never met anyone who became sober the same day as she — July 15, 2001 — until she met Williams. Broderick, who was an assistant district attorney under Robert M. Morgenthau’s tutelage in Manhattan, is now the project director for Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform where she provides training for prosecutors in implementing reform.

“Very often the juvenile justice system can be an opportunity if a kid gets referred in for whatever reason. It’s an opportunity if there is underlying substance abuse problem,” she said. “We need to educate those on the frontlines so we can intervene earlier. We need to have the program in place and the proper training — that’s why I’m trying to open their eyes. It’s an epidemic right now.”

She said “The Anonymous People” does an effective job at underlining how the country’s addiction problem is inextricably mixed with the juvenile justice system, which could help fix the problem with more training and programs.

“This is a contact point that is an opportunity to raise awareness. That’s not to say we put them in there for that, but if he’s coming into the system we’re missing an opportunity to talk about it,” said Broderick, who is the former deputy bureau chief of the Family Violence and Child Abuse Bureau for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. “They might not be addicts but they may be abusing and they need to know that they are facing serious consequences beyond any legal ones.”

The first time she met Williams they were attending a Joint Meeting on Adolescent Treatment Effectiveness in Baltimore. She remembers that he was the youngest member on the panel, but easily the most enthusiastic. Shortly after, she asked Williams to join her in making a presentation to a group of social workers in New York. It was then that she learned that they shared the same recovery date.

“To me, it was a pretty strong signal that we were meant to work together in some capacity,” she said.

On that trip Williams shared his idea of the movie with her. Broderick, who is an associate producer on the film, said she is excited but not surprised by the intense reaction “The Anonymous People” has received.

“For too long we have focused on the problem of addiction and basically ignored the solution of recovery. This is a film whose time has come,” she said. “Those of us who have been graced with sobriety feel very lucky and do our best to carry the message to others.”

Broderick said prosecutors play an important role not only as members of the criminal justice system, but as activists in their communities.

She has one colleague, a prosecutor in New Jersey, who sponsors forums in local high schools, covering the same facts about addiction and children that Williams talks about in his movie, such as the likelihood of becoming an addict rises sharply the earlier you start using as a child. She said the last forum drew 2,000 parents and children.

“If you look at the numbers in terms of treatment referrals, a lot of the kids are getting younger,” she said. “One of the biggest rites of passage of using drugs or alcohol, what used to be in your late teens, is now happening at 11 and 12, and it’s really scary.”

Williams’ movie has taken a conversation that is happening piecemeal across the country by people in the recovery community and shared it with a wider audience.

“This is done informally in communities across the country every day,” Broderick said. “But Greg Williams has found a way to utilize his talent as a filmmaker as a way to share his excitement about recovery in an entirely different way and to an entirely new level. And considering that he just turned 30, this is just the beginning.”

The Power of Peers

Williams squirms when he hears someone use the phrase “substance abuse.” It’s one of the changes he’s made since he started his mission to transform the language around drug addiction and recovery. He said he only uses the phrase “substance use” — and he said it is the central factor in the juvenile justice system.

“The leading driver of criminal offense for the juvenile justice population is substance use,” he said. “That doesn’t mean everyone of them is addicted, but it’s certainly something we need to get assertive about.”

Recent studies show that 40 percent of girls and more than half of boys who end up in the juvenile justice system have an addiction. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2011 revealed that more than 90 percent of adults with current substance use disorders starting using before the age of 18; half of those began before 15. Individuals who begin drinking before the age of 14 are seven times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at 21.

The stigma and the shame are tied to the paucity of smart policy fixes, Williams contends. In his film he features recovery high schools in Massachusetts and youth recovery programs at Rutgers University in New Jersey that work with students on their disease instead of threatening them or pretending it’s a problem that doesn’t exist. Using peers to influence more successful outcomes is key to permanently changing the affliction of addiction, he said.

Greg Williams (L) , Phillip Valentine, executive director of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (C), and Paul Acker, coordinator of social rehabilitation Inter Community (R) speak to the audience after the screening of the documentary.

Robert Stolarick / JJIE

Greg Williams (L) , Phillip Valentine, executive director of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (C), and Paul Acker, coordinator of social rehabilitation Inter Community (R) speak to the audience after the screening of the documentary.

“Most people don’t believe that addiction is a pediatric illness,” he said. “The reason most pediatricians don’t ask kids if they have a drug or alcohol problems is that they don’t know what they would do if they got the wrong answer.”

He said it is crucial to remove the shame that dominates the cultural conversation around addiction and recovery so that those types of peer solutions for children and teenagers are ubiquitous.

“We just don’t have the recovery institutions in place to help the young people who answer yes in a pediatricians office or in a school,” he said. “How many people in the adult criminal justice system started in the juvenile justice system and how many juvenile young people were introduced to recovery? It’s about time we started to use the power of positive peer influence.”

One middle-aged woman, white with long, blonde hair, stood up with tears streaking her face when the movie ended. She was consoled by her two friends who hugged her and placed their hands on her shoulder whispering words of encouragement. She never had a drug or alcohol addiction, but her younger brother did. He had a problem, like Williams, since he was a teenager.

He murdered someone during a drug robbery that went bad. He was sentenced to a Connecticut prison for the rest of his life, which ended one night when he killed himself in his cell.

Lucky to be Alive

It started beneath a tree, and would end smashed into one. Williams was ripped on pills and staggering beneath a tree covered in blood, his teeth knocked out. Instead of looking for help he and his friend decided to head to the Dunkin Donuts to sell drugs.

Williams life irrevocably changed on the same night his parents thought, for a few terrible hours, their only son was dead. That was the night his parents received a phone call from a police officer. We have found your son’s car, he said, it’s smashed against a tree and covered in blood, but your son is nowhere to be found.

Williams had his first drink when he was 12. He and a friend stole a bottle of gin from the friend’s father’s liquor cabinet and snuck off in the woods and drank it.

“What I remember is hating the way it tasted and hating the process of drinking it and getting very sick,” he said. “But at the same time there was a moment where I felt good. And I got really sick the next day and I woke up and said I want to do that again.”

That led to a five more years of a slow but steady descent into addiction that started with alcohol and marijuana, and ended when he was 17, ripped on valium and ecstasy standing in a Dunkin Donuts in downtown Newtown covered in blood trying to sell drugs.

Two weeks before the car accident that would alter his life, Williams had thought he had a breakthrough in a dingy, smoke filled room. When he was 16, Williams was in a recovery program in Danbury, Conn., when a counselor convinced him to attend a 12-step program. He was reluctant at first but eventually relented. Up until that point, he did not think he had a problem. He had convinced himself that he wasn’t a junkie. Even though he would sweat and sleep all day if he didn’t have an Oxycontin for a day, he thought he had it all figured out. He knew what a junkie looked like, and it wasn’t him.

“I thought I was smart because I wasn’t buying bags of street drugs off the corner and knew exactly what was in them,” he said. “So I convinced myself that I was being smart since I wasn’t  gambling with some bag off the street. I would use that as a justification.”

But in that church basement he met three teenagers, all of them 19, who were celebrating their second year of recovery. One night the three friends had drank GHB, a popular club drug, and overdosed. Two of them were pronounced dead until they were revived at the hospital. They made a pact that they would stay sober when they got out of the hospital.

“Hearing that story, that’s where the denial got snatched from me that I was too young to have a problem,” Williams said. Watching them celebrate their sobriety and hearing their stories.”

That led to 15-days of sobriety for Williams. He finally was getting better, he thought. He decided to attend a keg party at a friend’s house. He had a few beers, but that’s it. He was proud of himself. He thought he finally had his disease under control.

“Look,” he thought to himself. “I can do this!”

The next party he went to he had a few more beers and a joint. After awhile he said: “I was back running hard.”

And then one day he came across a bag of about 10 Klonopins, an anti-anxiety drug, lost in the cushions of his big hippy couch. He popped them and went out. Early on the morning of July 14, 2001, Williams was at a party with someone he described as a “fellow using buddy” of his when they decided to go into town and sell some pills they had. They were both “rolling on ecstasy and out of our minds with benzos” but they decided to get into his Mitsubishi Eclipse. At about 2 a.m. they slammed into a tree traveling 45 m.p.h. Williams was injured in the crash and lost two front teeth, but said he felt fine so they headed downtown.

“Here I am, rolling on E, not feeling a thing, and I’m in a Dunkin Donuts in the center of town trying to sell drugs,” he said grinning at the sheer outrageousness of the memory. Someone called the cops: ‘There’s this kid with missing teeth and blood all over himself here.’”

Williams gave the responding officers fake birthdates and phone numbers, all the while knowing he left drugs in the car he left smashed on the side of the road. Officers took him back to the scene of the accident where he was met by his parents. Williams said he suspects his friend went back and took the drugs out of his car or else he might be in prison to this day. Williams saw the friend at a gas station a few years later and he thanked him.

This wasn’t Williams’ first accident. In the past his mother had always signed him out to take custody of him from the paramedics.

“Sign me out, mom, sign me out,” Williams pleaded with his mother.

“Not this time,” she replied.

He was tossed into the back of the ambulance and at some point passed out and woke up in the Danbury Hospital emergency room. A few days later, he was placed in the psychiatric ward with girls who cut themselves. The staff took away his shoelaces and and his belt. He thought it was a matter of time before the police found the drugs in the car and threw him in prison for years. His parents and his older sister came and had an intervention.

“I’ll never forget it,” Williams said. “My sister told me I’d rather you go to jail then come back home. Then at least I’d know that you were safe.”

Williams is confident he would be dead today if he hadn’t crashed that night.

“I had opportunities in outpatient programs and interventions,” he said. “I was on a path of destruction. I should’ve been dead. I’m lucky to be alive talking to you guys. The amount of things I did I’m really lucky to be alive.”

Selling Hope to People in Despair

Williams credits a robust adolescent treatment for his recovery. He attended a halfway house in Scranton. He was able to attend a recovery support group. He was able to get a job shoveling mud for $7 an hour building a Staples.

“That house really set me on the path of chasing my recovery almost as hard as I chased my addiction,” he said. “And, you know, not many young people are lucky enough to have those kind of opportunities.”

Williams said having access to that robust recovery infrastructure allowed him to transform his experience with addiction into something meaningful.

“I found a usefulness for my story,” he said. “I figured out how I could help other young people."

Ten years into his recovery, carrying this message forward to others evolved into making a movie.

“If we put our faces and voices out there we’ll have more halfway houses than prisons, we’ll have more recovery programs and we’ll intervene earlier and have more school based stuff,” Williams said, his optimistic voice reaching a crescendo after a nearly hour-and-a-half-long interview. “The missing factor in how we deal with addiction is hope. We need to start selling hope and if we don’t start selling hope to people in despair than we’re doing a great disservice to those still struggling.”

During the the Q-and-A after the screening, one young woman in the crowd stood up and asked a question about Williams and his lobbying to change the language surrounding drug and alcohol use and how to frame recovery in a positive light. She was a young woman, like Williams: white, middle class, college educated. She had come to the screening alone. Her name was Lean. She said she was is in recovery herself for alcohol and prescription drugs, and said she was inspired by the movie.

“We need to start thinking about this problem with a new type of language,” she said. “If we don’t do something nothing is going to change. We’re just going to have people who feel like they’re living with a secret, like their lives are something to be ashamed of.”

She wore a necklace around her neck that had a heart shaped pendant hanging from it. On it was the word “hope.”

However, when she was asked for her last name, she asked that it not be used. She wished to remain anonymous.

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