The Anonymous People
If you are in the recovery community then you would have heard of the movie The Anonymous People. A ground breaking movie that highlights the need for more advocacy and more access to treatment for addicts and alcoholics. Many of the participants of the movie have been interviewed for my Recovery Rocks series: Emmy award winning actress and NYT best selling author Kristen Johnston
, former NBA basketball player Chris Herron
, Recovery advocate and media commentator Joe Schrank
This week I interviewed the film maker Greg Williams about what drove him to make the film and his experience of recovery.
Greg Williams filming The Anonymous People
1. What prompted you to make the movie?
My own personal recovery experience was certainly the driver in my personal passion around this film project and my involvement in recovery advocacy work. I got into recovery when I was 17 and I became very active in recovery with young people in recovery in and around mutual support groups. I did my best to try and help other young people and their families find and sustain their recovery from addiction.
We struggled. It is not an easy system to navigate. It’s not an easy illness to navigate. I went to a lot of wakes. I got denied a lot of treatment beds. I wrote a lot of letters to jails to friends of mine who were getting sicker behind bars.
I would complain with my friends about these barriers and the system that we have for addiction, the frustration with it, but none of us would ever do anything about it. We didn’t think we could. We didn’t think we had a voice.
Through great mentorship I stumbled upon the New Recovery Advocacy Movement being championed by Faces & Voices of Recovery and powerful advocates across the country. It was meeting these transformative people in recovery that led me down the path of wanting to tell their story in a film. My primary motivation was that so my friends and family in my community could understand the importance of advocacy and this emerging movement.
2. What have been the reactions in your own personal recovery community?
The reactions have been similar in my personal circle of recovery, as well as across the world. There is considerable skepticism about the film prior to seeing it because there is widespread confusion about people in recovery being in a film, “isn’t breaking the traditions of anonymity?” However, once people have an opportunity to watch the full film they learn incredible things about recovery advocacy history and most are thrilled with the inspiring message laid out in the film. No matter what side of the fence people sit on – the most exciting part for me has been that the film has sparked a renewed debate on the purpose, utility, function, intention, and understanding of anonymity as it relates to addiction recovery. If you are curious how passionate people are about this – take a spin on our IMDB reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2571226.
3. What changes would like to see as the result of the film?
I will keep this one very simple: That the Recovery Story becomes a part (maybe even an equal part) of the wider problem-centric addiction story. From that place a total transformation in how we deal with this epidemic is possible.
4. One of the reasons that the culture of secrecy has prevailed around addiction is because of the fear of relapse. How do you think we can deal with that if someone publically talks about recovery and then relapses?
I often get asked this question in Q&A’s. My response to this is that if we continue to hide behind the fear of potential relapse we are doing a giant disservice to the honesty of the addiction conversation. One fact we must start from in this dialogue: We are dealing with a challenging chronic illness, not an infectious disease. Therefore if we continue to only perpetuate the idea of permanent success or failure we are not only swimming up the Niagara Falls of decades of scientific research, but we are also un-intentionally disconnecting addiction from the way our culture talks about and treats other chronic illness. In my experience, a person with heart disease, diabetes, or asthma (other chronic illnesses with behavioral components similar to addiction) does not hide this status out of possible fear of a setback with their condition. In fact I would argue the more people that know the better their outcomes of behavior change are. Lastly, I usually make the point that recovery is much bigger and widespread today than it was early on in the development of the idea that if someone public were to relapse then perhaps people would think that recovery doesn’t work. Well, each and every day our news stories, tabloids, and cultural conversation is laid with this idea, as we are astounding by so-and-so going to rehab or saddened by the tragic death of a beloved star.
5. Now that you have become a father I was wondering how you feel reflecting back on your own active addiction and what your parents went through.
I am still in the early stages of fatherhood – still reveling in the innocent, the pure, and the simple beauty of a new life. I certainly can only imagine what my parents went through, and I have great empathy for playing a role in such a difficult time in our lives. However, similar to what Karyn Zaorski says in the film about why she stands up and speaks out even after losing her son to addiction – “I do this (speaking out today) so that you don’t have to know what this like for me.” – I have great faith that this emerging movement I am deeply involved in will hopefully produce far better tools and answers than exist today surrounding addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery for parents by the time I may need them in a few years. This is a tough illness, just as cancer, I certainly pray my immediate family doesn’t get hit with, but if we are (and we have higher risk factors as the result of my addiction) I promise to seek the most effective solutions with the same vigor and urgency as I would if I was the parent of a child with leukemia.
6. With that in mind, what is the message we need to give young people about alcoholism and addiction?
First, let me say that there are no simple answers to this one, and no holy grail I have to offer here. However, we certainly can do better, and I will keep my response to this one very simple as well: The Whole Truth! We have told young people to not use alcohol and other drugs and the harmful effects these might have on their body or life. But what we haven’t done is arm them the facts in regards to what we know about addiction today. This is a pediatric health issue that 90% of the time begins in adolescents, and the highest risks factors we know about today are age of first use, and genetic heritability – I am willing to bet if we polled young people across the country they could tell us what Meth may do to their bodies – but I doubt they could tell us what their personal risk factor of becoming addicted is or who they know / look up to that is in recovery from addiction. It allows for the persistence of the “It Can’t Happen To Me” syndrome for young people, families, and whole communities. The problem is – part of the whole truth – is it is ALREADY happening in every community and we allow this continued denial as the result of our collective silence.
7. I wonder if you saw the recent news about the news presenter Elizabeth Vargas seeking help for her alcohol addiction? I thought it was a courageous thing to do.
I did see this and I thought it was a terrific moment – now I hope she will share her recovery journey with her viewers in the same open and honest way that many public figures have chosen to share their cancer journey’s. I couldn’t help but wonder how interviewing Kristen Johnston (who is also featured in The Anonymous People) about her addiction and recovery a few months back for 20/20 in a very open and honest way may have impacted Elizabeth Vargas personally. We’re getting closer and closer to having honest conversations about addiction in the media and I hope The Anonymous People proves to be an important step in this direction.
Greg Williams filming Kristen Johnston for the Anonymous People
Recovery is contagious and it is certainly time we spread it through our media. It’s all about talking about the solution as well as the problem. We saw this happen, just recently, when Matthew Perry was on the cover of People Magazine
for nothing other than being in recovery. It wasn’t about ratings, it wasn’t about sensationalizing addiction. It was, “Here’s a guy five or six years in recovery, let’s put him on the cover because he’s doing great and helping others.” Telling both sides of the story is crucial, but so many people never hear both sides. The media covers the car accidents, the overdoses, the deaths—but when someone celebrates five years or ten years in recovery, we don’t hear about it. Tragedy and disaster are easy, sensational stories, we’ve told the easy story for years. It’s time to focus on the drama of recovery instead of the problem.