When one thinks of the invisibility of addiction recovery, one first thinks of the legions of people in local anonymous and alternative recovery fellowships whose stories rarely penetrate public consciousness. But there is actually a larger population of hidden people who have resolved significant AOD problems in their lives without incorporating addiction and recovery into their personal identities.
For many people, the labeled experiences of “addiction” and “recovery” exert a profound influence on personal identity. Their life narratives are clearly cleaved into the categories of before (the addiction story) and after (the recovery story). In face-to-face and online interactions, these individuals fill secular, spiritual, and religious recovery mutual aid societies supporting each other in a life-enduring recovery process. Historically, members of each of these self-contained recovery communities embraced a shared history, iconic leaders, core values and ideas, a distinct language, and distinguishing rituals of mutual identification that buttressed the recovery identity. Participation in professionally-directed addiction treatment has also been a central theme within their collective stories.
What modern epidemiologic studies of AOD problems reveal will be something of a surprise to many people: the majority of people who resolve AOD problems do so without participation in specialized addiction treatment or a recovery support group. Those who have achieved such “natural recovery” often do not self-identify with the addiction or recovery language even when they once met but no longer meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. They are the truly anonymous people in recovery who claim no named recovery club—no shared founders, literature, slogans, symbols, rituals, or regular gatherings, but who have survived addiction to compose reasonably healthy and fulfilling lives. They include people who do not want to live as a category and who do not want to be boxed in by caricatured images of addiction or well-worn pathways of addiction recovery. And they include people who shun labels that bring significant social stigma and discrimination.
Differences between assisted/affiliated and unassisted/unaffiliated patterns of recovery often reflect variations in problem severity, problem complexity, and available recovery capital. It is time we stopped talking about differences in pathways and styles of AOD problem resolution within the lenses of superiority and inferiority and instead celebrated the growing varieties of recovery experience. I have spent much of my life researching the history of recovery mutual aid societies and studying the experiences of individuals and families who embraced addiction recovery as a life-saving catalyst of transformation. It is the sheer magnitude of the varieties of recovery experience that I find most compelling. Today is a shout out to all those who have resolved AOD problems without addiction treatment or mutual aid society affiliation and often without conscious “recovery” identification.
As discussions arise across the country about how best to resolve America’s drug problems, my hope is that we will also hear your voices. As recovery stories become more public, I hope you will add your stories to this oral quilt portraying how such transformations unfold. You can become part of the larger solution without being a self-identified member of a recovery community or claiming recovery as a central theme within your personal identity. There is much America and her addiction professionals, recovery support specialists, and recovery advocates can learn from you, but first we must acknowledge that you exist.
“Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances” must become our operational motto.
Post Date June 16, 2017 by Bill White
To many people, the history of alcoholic mutual aid societies begins in 1935 with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). A.A. history buffs are aware that there was another society, the Washingtonians, that existed almost a century before Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith first met. But few are aware of just how many pre-A.A. alcoholic mutual aid societies existed before 1935. There were early Native American recovery “circles” that date as early as 1750. Numerous recovery-focused fraternal temperance societies, many branches of the ribbon reform clubs, the United Order of Ex-Boozers, and many societies linked to 19th and early 20th century treatment institutions: The Ollapod Club, the Godwin Association, the Dashaways, the Keeley Leagues, and the Jacoby Club, all existed prior to A.A. A.A.’s survival takes on added historical significance in light of the demise of so many of its predecessors.
The fate of one of these pre-A.A. mutual aid societies is detailed in Charles Brace’s 1872 book, The Dangerous Classes of New York. Brace tells the story of Orville “Awful” Gardner, a prize-fighter, known for his drunken binges and his brutality in and outside the ring. (He once bit off a man’s nose.) Gardner experienced a profound religious conversion through which he became sober and experienced a call to help other “hard cases” like himself. Gardner opened a “Coffee and Reading Room” in a ward in New York City notorious for its drunkenness and vice. This small experiment evolved into what became known as “The Drunkard’s Club.” Brace describes:
The rooms are filled with reformed or reforming young men. The great difficulty with a man under vices is to make him believe that change for him is possible. The sight of Gardner always demonstrated this possibility. The place has become a kind of central point for all of those who have become more or less addicted to excessive drinking, and are desirous of escaping from the habit.
According to Brace, more than 700 men were sobered under the influence of the Club. The fate that befell the Drunkard’s Club was not atypical of pre-A.A. mutual aid societies. Gardner’s health began to fail from the “strain of his sins and his reform” and he was forced to retire to a quiet place in the country. Without his leadership, the Drunkard’s Club collapsed.
In an interesting twist of historical continuity, it was this same “Awful” Gardner who inspired the religious conversion of another alcoholic, Jerry McAuley, while both were in Sing Sing Prison. McAuley went on to found the Water Street Mission, the first urban mission that catered its message and services to the late stage alcoholic.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own pyre, new addiction recovery mutual aid societies followed the Drunkard’s Club until the first society arrived with the right combination of recovery principles and organizational practices that allowed it to outlive its founding generation.
For more stories from this early history, see the new edition of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
Post Date June 9, 2017 by Bill White
Of all the experiences I have had as a recovery advocate, none have been more heart-rending than receiving news that a person prominently involved in recovery advocacy efforts has died of a drug overdose. It reminds me once again that personal health and recovery are the foundation of all larger efforts to educate, advocate, and counsel within the alcohol and other drug problems arena.
This is not a new lesson. Consider, for example, the following stories. John Gough got sober in the Washingtonian revival of the early 1840s, but relapsed three times in the early period of his long career as America’s most charismatic temperance reformer. The lawyer Edward Uniac always stated that he was more vulnerable to the call of alcohol during extended periods of rest than when he was moving from town to town giving his temperance lectures. But Uniac suffered repeated drinking episodes and died in 1869 of an overdose of whiskey and opium while on a temperance lecture tour in Massachusetts. Luther Benson tried to use his own personal struggles with alcohol in the temperance lectures he gave across the country. His tales of continued binge drinking while on the lecture circuit were penned while he was residing in the Indiana Asylum for the Insane. His 1896 autobiography was entitled, Fifteen Years in Hell. Benson truly believed that throwing himself into temperance work could quell his own appetite for alcohol. In retrospect, he was forced to admit the following:
I learned too late that this was the very worst thing I could have done. I was all the time expending the very strength I so much needed for the restoration of my shattered system.
The stories of Gough, Uniac, and Benson are not unique. Similar tales were told by others who sought to cure themselves on the temperance lecture circuit. However, recovering people did achieve and maintain stable recovery working in the 19th century temperance movement and within treatment institutions of that era. An important lesson emerged out of the 19th century recovery movements: service activity, by itself, does not constitute a solid program for continued sobriety. This lesson was relearned throughout the 20th century, particularly within the modern rise of addiction counseling as a distinct profession.
A New Recovery Advocacy Movement is spreading across America and beyond, leaving in its wake new grassroots recovery advocacy organizations and a fresh generation of recovering people and their families seeking new ways to carry a message of hope to those still suffering. To prepare themselves, this new generation would do well to review the stories of old. The enduring message in all of these stories is clear: Working as an addictions educator, advocate, or counselor does not constitute a program of personal recovery. Those who forget that lesson court injury to themselves and to the very movements to which they claim allegiance. The key to effective recovery advocacy is first and foremost the primacy of personal recovery.
Post Date June 2, 2017 by Bill White