Radical Recovery Revisited


2013 PRO-ACT Recovery Celebration.jpg

In 2004, I penned an essay that opened with the following sentences:

"Something is reawakening inside America. People whose stigmatized condition left them hiding alone or cloistered in subterranean subcultures are stepping into the light to tell the stories of their wounds and their redemption. They are offering their time, talents, and testimonies to address alcohol and other drug-related problems in their local communities and in the country as a whole. They exemplify a transition from self-healing to social activism that could aptly be described as a style of radical recovery."

That essay went on to describe this style of recovery in considerable detail. Here are a few more excerpts.

"Radical recovery is the use of one's recovery from addiction as a platform to advocate social change related to the sources of and solutions to community-wide AOD problems....Radical recovery is making amends and expressing gratitude through the vehicle of social action. It is mobilizing communities of recovery to build relationships of influence with other community institutions. It is a vision to reshape the ecology of addiction and recovery in America."

"Radical recovery recognizes that visibility and voice come at a price within a society that continues to stigmatize those linked to AOD problems. It seeks only a vanguard of recovered and recovering people whose personal circumstances allow them to stand as living proof of the proposition that recovery is a reality for millions of people around the world. It is the use of the personal testimonies of that vanguard to convey hope to individuals, families, and communities. It is the recognition that recovery is a gift bringing duties and obligations that transcend the self."

"Radical recovery recognizes the existence of predatory industries that promote and profit from addictive products. When those with AOD problems are sequestered in ever-increasing numbers in jails and prisons, radical recovery asks: what individuals and institutions profit from such circumstances? It openly confronts the ways in which public health can be sacrificed for corporate gain. Radical recovery is the recognition that young men and women of color and disenfranchised whites have become the raw materials that feed the institutional (prison) economies of many communities. Radical recovery is willing to confront treatment professionals and treatment institutions that view people with AOD problems as a crop to be harvested for personal and institutional profit."

"Radical recovery is inclusive (in its tolerance and celebration of the multiple pathways and innumerable varieties of recovery experience) and respectful (of the traditions and folkways of various communities of recovery). Radical recovery frees one from the need to have the single recovery answer and allows one to celebrate the diverse pathways that foster escape from the addiction quagmire. It allows one to respond to such differences not out of defensive criticalness but out of true joy for another's freedom. Radical recovery makes no claim other than one's own experience and is not threatened by experiences that are different. It affirms choice in recovery and celebrates the diversity of those choices. Stated simply, its motto is 'recovery by any means necessary'."

"People in recovery are looking beyond their own addiction and recovery experiences to the broader social conditions within which AOD problems arise and are sustained. A radicalized vanguard of people in recovery is using personal transformation as a fulcrum for social change. They are living Gandhi's challenge to become the change they wish to see in the world."

The 2004 essay ended with an invitation: "Prophetic voices are rising from communities of recovery across America. Voices of the formerly hopeless are becoming instruments of personal healing and community renewal and redemption. If you share this call to a larger platform of service and believe that your personal/family story can touch others, come join us. Become part of this movement."

What has changed in the decade since my essay on radical recovery was first published is the degree of mobilization of recovering people in the United States who are extending their personal recoveries and traditional service work to this larger arena of recovery-focused social action. New and renewed grassroots recovery advocacy organizations are rising across the U.S., as they are internationally. New recovery support institutions (recovery centers, homes, schools, industries, ministries, and cafes) are spreading. An ecumenical culture of recovery is being constructed. Recovery is emerging as a new organizing paradigm within the alcohol and drugs problem arena. Last year, more than 120,000 people in recovery and their families and allies participated in public recovery celebration events across the U.S.--something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Greg Williams' award-winning film, The Anonymous People, is inspiring people in recovery worldwide to embrace this new style of recovery activism. The opening two decades of the twentieth century may well be noted historically as the era when people who were once part of the problem of addiction became a significant part of its solution.

As a treatment and recovery historian, I have noted with great fascination the potential link between personal destiny and historical progress. Some of you may not yet be aware of it, but you were born for this moment in time. Some of you may still be wondering why you achieved recovery against so many odds. There may be a larger purpose buried within the answer to that question. Are you ready to help make some history?