Today, large addiction recovery celebration events have become an annual public ritual in many communities. Recovery rallies that a decade ago attracted a few hundred now attract tens of thousands of individuals and families in recovery and their allies. The modern era of mass recovery celebrations (at a public level rather than in closed recovery fellowship conventions or conferences) began with two iconic events in 1976: Operation Understanding and Freedom Fest.
Operation Understanding, sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism (NCA), was the brain-child of NCA's Walter Murphy, who believed that a televised event in which prominent people disclosed their long-term recovery from alcoholism would exert a profound effect on public perceptions of alcoholism. On May 8, 1976, in Washington, D.C., 52 prominent citizens from all walks of life publicly proclaimed their recovery from alcoholism. Those present included political leaders (Senator Harold Hughes, Congressman Wilbur Mills), physicians (Dr. John Mooney), authors (William Borchert), journalists (Adela Rogers St. John), film stars (Lillian Roth, Mercedes McCambridge), television celebrities (Dick Van Dyke, Gary Moore, Jan Clayton), an astronaut (Buzz Aldrin), professional athletes (Don Newcomb), a Native American Tribal leader (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation), and key alcoholism policy advocates (Marty Mann). For people in recovery and those working in the treatment field in 1976, Operation Understanding would be forever fixed as a flashbulb memory-- something we did not expect to see in our lifetimes given the stigma attached to alcoholism at that time. It was a turning point in the collective consciousness of America, forever breaking the stereotype of alcoholism as the hopeless Skid Row wino.
Operation Understanding was quickly followed by a mass public recovery celebration event held June 26, 1976, at the Metro Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. Led by Wheelock Whitney and Chair Bill Milota and emceed by Dick Van Dyke, more than 20,000 recovering men and women attended Freedom Fest. The daylong event included a hot air balloon race; musical entertainment provided by Michael Johnson, Natalie Cole, and Tony Orlando; educational workshops; and numerous speakers, including Senator Harold Hughes, Senator Walter Mondale, Senator Hubert Humphrey, Carl Eller; Fran Tarkenton, Janet Woititz, and Don Shelby. Songwriter Hal Atkinson contributed a song, Together, celebrating the theme of Freedom Fest. The film One Day commemorated the event.
During this same time, a small group of volunteers near Philadelphia began a grassroots effort to raise awareness of issues associated with alcoholism and other drug addictions and the importance of advocacy, education, and prevention. The spirit of this group, emboldened by the national mobilizing efforts, was contagious, and grew into what is now the The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania and its recovery community initiative, Pennsylvania Recovery Organization--Achieving Community Together (PRO-ACT) with over 60 professionals and 400 volunteers. The Council is one of the most vital and respected alcohol and drug advocacy, prevention, and recovery support organizations in the nation. This year, the Council, an affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), will celebrate its 40th Anniversary by launching a year-long public awareness campaign honoring those from the original Operation Understanding event. The "Thriving in Recovery" campaign kickoff will be a gala on May 5th at Normandy Farm Hotel and Conference Center in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Over the last year, the Council has been capturing stories of local individuals who are thriving in recovery. The intent is to show that, while recovery is hard work, long-term recovery is a reality for over 23 million other Americans. In addition to raising funds and awareness, the gala program will feature an award ceremony and reflections on Operation Understanding by William Borchert and others. For more information about the campaign or this event, go to www.councilsepa.org or call 215-345-6644.
Events like the above organized by people in recovery serve many purposes. They provide a forum for recovering individuals and families to collectively honor their survival and health. They illustrate and celebrate diverse pathways and styles of long-term addiction recovery. They challenge the stigma, stereotypes, and pessimism long associated with severe alcohol and other drug problems. They provide a venue for advocating pro-recovery social policies and programs. They expand the community space in which recovery can flourish. And they send a beacon of hope into the community that no one need die from addiction, that permanent recovery is possible, and that individuals and families in recovery can live full, meaningful, and contributing lives. As we celebrate the anniversary of the first of these iconic recovery celebration events, it is fitting that we pause to honor the brave men and women who first stepped into the public light to share their experience, strength, and hope with the world.