How To Make Recovery More Than Just About You
by Claire Rudy Foster, Regular Contributor to TIR
Recovery pride and recovery advocacy are powerful social change movements. I should know, because I take part in them. My activism is an important part of my recovery. I get to work with groups like Facing Addiction and the Portland Alano Club to make sure that people like me are visible, heard, and validated. I’ve shared my story many times in order to help break the stigma that surrounds addiction. I also lead writing workshops for people in recovery and teach others how to reclaim their power through their personal stories.
I’m in the middle, as much as I can be. I’m doing my part.
I know that what I contribute is helping to effect change, even in small ways. Every time I open my mouth, I’m validated. When I share my story, I get a lot of support and encouragement. Someone always reminds me that my honesty is helping someone else. Keep it up. People say that they relate.
I hope that’s true. After all, silence is what kills us. Less than 10% of people with substance use problems will seek any kind of medical attention, treatment, or therapy.
We are literally dying because we’re afraid to speak up. We’re taught that addiction is a dirty illness: advocating for ourselves puts us at risk. We could lose our homes, families, insurance coverage, jobs, and more if we speak up.
Yet, some of us are.
We are the lucky ones.
Those of us who have stepped forward to publicly self-identify as addicts—or people in recovery, or whatever you want to call yourself—tend to have a few things in common. We are usually white. We’re middle class. Educated. Overwhelmingly, we’re heterosexual.
Although there’s a 50/50 split between the sexes, women tend to be more vocal and more likely to interact with recovery-related content online. So, the odds are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re a smart, sober, white, cis woman. (Hi!)
People like me have the privilege of being visible.
Honestly, addiction is not a new phenomenon. Our attention is on it now, sure, but this is a recent development. We have a highly visible physical wellness culture: now, recovery is the hip new thing. As long as recovery is tied into health or spirituality, not a specific identity or political agenda, it gets plenty of media attention.
Glennon Doyle Melton holding hands with Oprah? Fine.
Recovery-positive rallies and 5K races? Fine.
But raising up a recovery that doesn’t belong to white, yoga-loving, coffee-sipping woman is a little dicey. As long as recovery paints a pretty, inclusive picture, we’re good with it. Show the ugly side, or the non-conforming side, and all of a sudden, nobody wants to participate.
Recovery is becoming a lifestyle brand, and its neatly packaged idea of what sobriety "should" look like hurts people who don’t have access to it.
The American drug epidemic has been happening for decades. We’ve suddenly started paying attention because, all of a sudden, opioid related deaths started affecting white, middle class people. People who look like me: young, white, suburban, feminine. People who are relatable.
Yet, the death tolls and related crime rates aren’t that different than the crack epidemic that destroyed black communities in the 80s and 90s. Because addiction, blackness, and poverty are criminalized in our culture, the black leaders who advocated for stricter drug laws were run down by the punitive War on Drugs.
Those "tough-on-crime" laws were used by white politicians to disproportionately arrest black men and keep them imprisoned for minor drug-related crimes. In 1989, nearly a million people were arrested on drug charges: more than twice the number just 7 years earlier. The people who were brave enough to raise their voices were shouted down as “radicals.”
And today, white advocates like me can share our stories publicly, with little risk. Our privilege protects us from the factors that keep so many people in active addiction. People like me are commended for our bravery when we “come out” about our drug use.
Yet, I beg to ask the question: how are we really brave? Comparatively, we have little to lose.
Recovery has hit the mainstream. The policy changes and political involvement at the grassroots level is notable: hundreds of thousands of parents, friends, and people in recovery are speaking up and demanding federal involvement in the drug crisis. Those voices are loud, and they are effective.
The White House has said that it may declare a state of emergency around the epidemic, which would unlock millions of federal dollars for groups, clinics, and nonprofits who are working to help people get into recovery. Everyone knows someone who’s experienced addiction. It’s an issue talked about everywhere, from living rooms to board rooms.
Recovery is trickling down. But I wonder if it will reach everyone who needs help, or pool around a few media-friendly faces.
Why does someone like me get to do that, and not a poor, crack-addicted person of color, who lives in a rural area? Why is my story held up, and not hers?
The truth is it's because addiction doesn’t discriminate, but recovery does.
I suggest that unless the recovery movement becomes truly inclusive, it will only repeat the oppressive patterns that have dogged all social justice movements. Until it is equally safe for a working class, queer, black, trans man to say “I am addicted” and have pride in himself as a person in recovery—as it is for a wealthy, straight, white woman who does the same thing—our movement cannot call itself a success.
Until we pass laws that protect all people with substance use disorder from police violence, workplace discrimination, and exclusion from social services, we cannot say our movement is about justice. Until we all have the ability to celebrate our recovery openly, without fear of recrimination, our movement will not be complete.
Recovery for some is not recovery for all.
Beyond Memes & White-Centric Workshops
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 80% of inmates have substance use problems, and over half of the population is clinically addicted. “Incarceration rates in the U.S. are nine times greater for young African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 years.” What are we—the vocal, predominantly white recovery mainstream—doing to help those young black men? Posting inspirational memes? Attending pink-washed consciousness-raising workshops?
Those things are not bad, but they barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done. It’s easy to cop out, and say, “I need to take care of myself.” Sure.
But where does self-care end, and community care begin? Those of us who are lucky enough to shed the stigma of addiction easily, with minimal consequences, must do more for the people who struggle with the same illness.
I’ve been in recovery for more than a decade, and I’m grateful for what I have. I also know in my heart that my happiness and security is not enough. Me, feeling good, is not enough. The minute I got sober, and decided to stay that way, I became part of the recovery movement. I may not have known it at the time, but my involvement in this movement is the thing that enables me to stay sober. “Service work,” as it’s known in the 12 Step programs, helped me grow in my recovery. It turns out that, if I want to stay sober, I must help build a world that makes it possible for other people to have what I’ve attained as well.
Now, I call my elected representatives regularly to make sure that addiction is a top issue for them. I have worked recovery hotlines, spoken to recovery groups, and helped connect others with the resources they need to stay sober. I march in rallies against oppression. I donate to groups that support recovery for diverse communities. I’m learning how to talk to outsiders about recovery, and help break the stigma of our illness.
I have a strong recovery community, but I recognize that it’s more important to talk to people I don’t know—people who haven’t heard the message yet. This keeps me on the front lines of the recovery movement and helps make sure I don’t backslide into addiction.
Trying to make recovery seem attractive isn’t sufficient for me. I am definitely not a Recovery Barbie. I need actual, real-life, hands-on experience. No hashtags. A selfie is not service, for me. What I do isn’t difficult, but it asks me to look outside my comfortable bubble and do something for someone whose life is very different from mine. Even someone like me—who is not exactly a shining beacon of spiritual purity—has opportunities to help, in large and small ways.
My recovery depends on helping another person, not just helping myself.
What if we changed the conversation from self-care to someone-else care? Radical self-acceptance is great, but it’s just the first step. Even one person can have a huge impact in their neighborhood, community, town, and state. All you have to do is look beyond your own yoga mat.
Ask yourself, what do I have that other people do not?
For example, what if we created recovery-positive, inclusive spaces for people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, HIV-positive people, young people, and other marginalized groups? What if we actively reached out to people whose experiences of addiction were totally different from our own, and listened to their needs and concerns? What if we thought, how can I help instead of what do I need?
If recovery is not “intersectional,” is in incomplete. I’m doing my part to see past my own horizons. I believe that the future of our movement—that’s my future, and yours too—depends on it.
*Editor's note: To read more about how recovery is more than just "recovery stuff," check out Daniel D. Maurer's new book Endure. You won't be disappointed!
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.