The Risks of Public Recovery Storytelling (Bill White, Bill Stauffer, and Danielle Tarino)


The first blog in this series explored the value and limitations of recovery storytelling as an anti-stigma strategy. We suggested that public storytelling is best wedded to larger recovery community inclusive strategies that move beyond the goal of changing personal attitudes to the larger goal of dismantling the institutional machinery that perpetuates stigma and discrimination. Today, we explore the risks inherent within public recovery storytelling.

Public Recovery Storytelling: Spectrum of Risks

Individuals, family members, organizations, and the recovery advocacy movement reap benefits from public recovery storytelling, but these same parties are also at risk for injury as an inadvertent outcome of such public storytelling.

Individuals and family members may experience the therapeutic effects of their advocacy activities, but there are also accompanying risks of personal embarrassment or humiliation, exposure to acts of social shunning or discrimination, and, at worst, destabilization of personal and family recovery. Moving recovery from the private to public arena entails navigating these risks.

Youth and other individuals at early stages of recovery may be particularly vulnerable for such injuries. The media story of recovery is most often told from the perspective of the recovery initiate rather than from the perspective of long-term recovery. We best represent the story of recovery when we speak from panels representing diverse pathways, styles, and stages of addiction recovery. Young people and others in early recovery possess heightened vulnerability and should be carefully screened for public recovery advocacy activities. They should be oriented to the benefits and risks of public recovery disclosure via an informed consent process and given structure and support when involved in public recovery advocacy. If a person experiences a recurrence of AOD use and related problems who has earlier served as public recovery advocate, their prior experience as a visible recovery advocate can pose a significant obstacle (via shame, resentment, etc.) to recovery restabilization.

There is a zone of service and connection to community within advocacy work, and we must do a regular gut check to make sure we remain within that zone and not drift into advocacy as an assertion of ego. The intensity of camera lights, the proffered microphone, and seeing our published words and images can be as intoxicating and destructive as any drug if we allow ourselves to be seduced by them. If we shift our focus from the power of the message to our power as a messenger, we risk, like Icarus of myth, flying towards the sun and our own self-destruction. To avoid that, we have to speak as a community of recovering people and avoid becoming "recovery celebrities" even on the smallest of stages. (White, 2013)

The decision to pursue public recovery advocacy is best made in consideration of family and loved ones. While the zealous new recovery initiate may feel called to this public storytelling role, they must consider the potential effects of public disclosure on family members and loved ones. After considering such effects, some advocates have postponed their roles as public speakers until their children are at an age that minimizes any potentially negative effects upon them. Those involved in public recovery storytelling have found it helpful to orient family members and loved ones on the content of the story, the venues in which it will be shared, and how to best respond to questions that may arise from its presentation.

The reputations of organizations sponsoring public recovery storytelling and the larger recovery advocacy movement can be injured when speakers are not provided support, guidance, and vetting by the community for suitability and readiness for public recovery story sharing. This is particularly true in the case of the perceived "fall from grace" of a visible recovery advocate. In such circumstances, individuals and families suffering from addiction may be less hopeful and less likely to seek help because of such damaged reputations, and policymakers may be less amenable to supporting recovery advocacy organizations.

Recovery Storytelling: The Risk of Conflicting Agendas

Information related to addiction and recovery is disseminated through a wide variety of public venues: television, film, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and through a broad spectrum of public and professional meetings. Representatives from these venues often approach recovery advocates for interviews or presentations related to their recovery experiences. Such opportunities are a means of carrying a message of hope to those affected by alcohol and other drug problems and a platform for advocating pro-recovery social policies and programs.

In spite of the potential benefits of public recovery storytelling, public recovery disclosure as we have noted can pose risks to multiple parties. A starting point for risk management related to public recovery story-sharing is the recognition that the interests of the multiple parties involved in such events may be congruent or in conflict.

Requests for interviews or presentations often come with hidden agendas--planned narratives that meet the interests of those doing the inviting. Those inviting our stories may distort them to support agendas and talking points incongruent with the goals of recovery advocacy.

For example, distorted media coverage of active addiction fuels social stigma and contributes to the discrimination that many people in recovery face as they enter the recovery process. When media representatives interview people in recovery, they often want the most dramatic, traumatic, and sensationalist details related to one's addiction but seek or report few details on the actual processes of recovery or the regenerative and transformative effects of long-term personal and family recovery.

It is said that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. This has never been any truer than with the use of our stories. We must have pointed dialogue about how our narratives are used while having meaningful discussions across our diverse community on the messages we are trying to convey. These discussions must include how our stories can have unintended consequences and we must work together to ensure that our stories serve our common interests and our shared vision of an inclusive world free from stigma and discrimination.

This is all a way of saying there is much to consider in the decision to share our story, our decisions on how that story can be best presented to different audiences, and how we can best protect ourselves and other parties through this process.

Coming Next: The Pillars of Stigma and Recovery Storytelling