Back in 1969, Academy Award Winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, a woman in long-term recovery from addiction, spoke eloquently at the first ever senate hearing on Alcoholism led by Senator Harold Hughes, who was himself in long-term recovery. McCambridge said of Americans with the disease of addiction, “We write the poetry, we paint pictures, we compose music, we build bridges, we head corporations, we win the coveted prizes for the world’s great literature, and too often too many of us die from our disease. Not our sin. Not our weakness.”
This historic moment is captured in a new documentary The Anonymous People, a call to arms in in the continuing struggle to take addiction from the shadows into the mainstream, where 23 million Americans are suffering from the disease of addiction and another 23 million are in recovery from a disease that’s too often hidden.
Forty-five years after those groundbreaking senate hearings, prejudices remain. It’s been decades since the American Medical Association and other health organizations defined addiction as a disease, and yet many people still view the afflicted as weak and immoral. People with addiction are blamed and shamed. No wonder they hide. They are the anonymous people.
From other diseases – cancer, heart disease – we know that when an illness is hidden, it worsens. Addiction is a special kind of disease – a brain disease that, by definition, impacts thinking and judgment and often causes behavior that appears to be reprehensible choices—the lying and stealing often associated with addiction. But if the afflicted lived in a world in which they felt comfortable admitting they had a problem at the earliest signs, they would seek treatment before their disease worsens to the point that it causes the breakup of families, crime, and deaths.
In the meantime, addiction rages as America’s greatest plague —125,000 dying a year, and costing the nation more than $400 billion in healthcare, criminal justice, and lost productivity costs. Ninety percent of people who need treatment never get it.
For many of those effected, progress to bring this disease out of the shadows isn’t being made quickly enough. As a result, many of those impacted – the addicted and their families – have begun to organize and demand change. We refuse to stay silent and hidden, and instead are standing up and saying aloud, “My name is Greg Williams. I am a person in long-term recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction for over 12 years since age 17.” One hundred million family members are impacted by a loved one’s addiction. They’re standing up, too, shedding personal and societal shame, telling the world, “My name is David Sheff. I am a father of a son who suffers from addiction and is now in long-term recovery."
Ending stigma takes time. It wasn’t that long ago that people wouldn’t utter the word “cancer”—it was “the Big C.” Suffers of HIV/AIDS were judged and shunned. We are at the beginning of a time when addiction will take its place where it belongs: as one of many serious illnesses suffered by many of us and our friends, family members, and colleagues. We treat sufferers of diseases with compassion and help them get the best treatment available. It will happen with addiction, too.
As people in recovery and their loved ones, we are no longer anonymous. We are no longer the “other” who can be demonized and ignored. We are your neighbors and your colleagues.
Forty-five years after the bold steps McCambridge took at the first hearing ever held about addiction in the US Senate, the emerging movement captured in the documentary will bring the most pressing social health issue of our time front and center. No longer will we hide in the shadows. We are stepping out into the light, and joining the fight that will change addiction from a shame that we hide from and die from to what it is: an illness that we can prevent for millions of children and recovery from for millions of others.
Greg Williams, in long-term recovery since July 2001, is the producer and director of the documentary, for details on how to screen this new film in your program please visit ManFaces1Voice.org. David Sheff, father of a son in recovery, is the author of two books about addiction, Beautiful Boy and Clean.
ASAM has named Greg Williams its recipient of the 2014 Media Award and will screening The Anonymous People at its 2014 Annual Medical Scientific Conference.