Tag Archives: Greg Williams

The Anonymous People

The Anonymous People

The Anonymous People

I am thrilled to tell you that I am hosting a screening of The Anonymous People in Champaign, Illinois. The Art Movie Theatre has generously agreed to screen the film.
It’s extraordinary to me, that over 23 million Americans are living in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, but we have no visibility at all.
The only stories we get to hear about are the ones where a celebrity publicly hits rock-bottom and is ushered into rehab. We don’t get to hear the other side of the story, where millions of us are going about our lives free of drugs and alcohol. The Anonymous People is a rallying cry for a public recovery movement that educates and informs others suffering from addiction, that recovery is possible!
I’ve interviewed Kristen Johnston, Chris Herren, Joe Schrank (U of I grad!) and the film maker Greg Williams about the movie, all of who are in long term recovery.
If you are in the Champaign area and would like to see this ground-breaking film then tickets are ONLY available through the Gathr website they are not available directly from The Art Theatre.
Hope to see you there.

An interview with Greg Williams – The Anonymous People

The Anonymous People

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

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.

Recovery Walk

Recovery Walk

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

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.

The Anonymous People

The Anonymous People is a move is by Greg Williams that examines the history of addiction and recovery in the USA. It particularly focuses on the culture of anonymity, secrecy and shame around the disease and how this impacts the health measures, or lack there of, for people suffering from addiction.

The Anonymous People

The Anonymous People

The film very smartly avoids justifying that addiction is a disease.
FACT: Addiction is a disease.
The evidence is overwhelming and if you are still not convinced I suggest you click here.
Addiction is not a moral failing or a choice, despite what some outspoken critics may try and assert.
The science is very conclusive.
Addiction, like diabetes, cancer or HIV is not an illness that ‘responds to ‘just say no.’ It is however a disease that can respond to treatment. But like many diseases left untreated, the results are pretty grim.

Instead the film makes the case for addiction coming out of the closet. Drawing parallels from the AIDS public health crisis of the 80’s, it highlights how the Gay community understood very quickly that silence = death. They had to mobilize and be public in order to educate and humanize the disease that was devastating their community. AIDS is not a ‘gay disease’ but it initially hit the gay community the hardest. Without a doubt this community advocacy led to a better understanding of the illness and led to improved health measures.

Unfortunately that is not the case with addiction.
It is still a disease with much stigma and shame attached to it. The key message of The Anonymous People is addiction suffers have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. It further asserts that the culture of secrecy is now impeding suffers from getting help.

Before getting too far in, the film deftly deals with the elephant in the room: Alcoholics Anonymous.
Respectfully and accurately it traces back the enormous impact that AA has had on the disease of addiction and the perception of alcoholism in the public. Early pioneers in AA did an incredible job of educating the government and public about the disease. This subsequently led to improved health measures and the growth of the fellowship of AA, resulting in many people getting help to get sober.
If you have been around recovery circles at all, you may be aware that folks get a little bit uncomfortable when the subjects of Alcoholics Anonymous, anonymity and publicity come up. All 12-step programs have a tradition of anonymity, it’s the 11th tradition and it reads like this:

“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.”
Tradition 11 of the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous

This is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts of the 12-step community. What it means is this; if you are a member of AA or any 12-step fellowship please do not publically announce (in the medium of press, radio and film) that you are a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, or any 12 step fellowship.

The 11th tradition does not imply however, that you cannot publically state you are a former alcoholic, recovered alcoholic, ex- addict, person in recovery or however you choose to identify yourself.
Do you see the difference?
The 11th tradition requests that you don’t state publically how you got sober (if indeed you did get sober through the AA 12-step program), it does not imply however, that you can’t say publically that you are sober.
This movie clears up this misunderstanding really well.

Shame and fear have kept people silent, kept them in the shadows, which is why public health policies are so badly failing to serve this horrendous disease.
The movie highlights how advocacy is the answer, but in order to lobby and advocate for more and better treatment, addicts and alcoholics are going to need to be public.
There is a lot of work to be done in just undoing some of the faulty and ineffective measures that still impact how addiction is seen today.
The 1980’s well meaning, but laughable policy of ‘just say no’ had the effect of ensuring that we meet the challenge of addiction by just locking people up.
‘Just say no’, implies there is a choice, and if you are using illegal drugs then you’re choosing to break the law and should suffer the consequences.
Hence the explosion in the prison population since the 1980’s, as the USA has tried to imprison the problem rather than treating it.
(As an aside, I would really like to see the figures on who is profiting from building all these prisons to keep all these addicts in, but that is probably a completely different movie).

Recovery Walk - a scene from The Anonymous People

Recovery Walk – a scene from The Anonymous People

The second half of the movie focuses positively on the shift in perception that is happening with the emergence of a visible recovery movement.
This is the part of the movie that I really want everyone to see.
It consciously chooses to show individuals in long-term recovery, living happy, positive and productive lives. As speakers in the movie state when a public figure implodes due to addiction it’s in all the headlines. However you don’t hear about someone who is 10 years sober and doing very well. That’s just not sexy.
The Anonymous People successfully moves away from rock bottom stories and instead focuses on what recovery really looks like.
The message of this movie is that addicts look like us; you and me, and with access to the right kind of help, many people can recover. That recovery is a glorious thing to behold and we should celebrate that recovery form addiction is possible.
It makes a very pertinent point that if more people could see what recovery looks like, then they would support the public health polices that are desperately needed.
I would urge anyone in recovery or interested in the subject of addiction to see this film. Its message is as important as the message that Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous took to Dr. Bob Smith all those years ago.