From Addict to Advocate
In just a few weeks, Saturday, September 17 to be exact —The Art of Recovery welcomes Greg Williams to Arizona for the 11th annual Expo. Greg is clean and sober since age 17; a powerful voice for recovery advocacy, and filmmaker of The Anonymous People and Generation Found.
It is my hope we join together as a community to welcome him and celebrate Recovery Month.
Describe your journey from addict to recovery advocate and background on your addiction and what took you to your bottom?
Once back home, I became very active in my community in Connecticut. I worked with young people in recovery and tried to do a lot of recovery-related service work. That continued while I was in college and working regular jobs. It was through that experience I ran into a lot of system-level barriers trying to help others get into recovery.
I had friends who didn’t have the opportunities I did to get treatment because of health insurance discrimination. I had friends who couldn’t find recovery housing, and friends I wrote letters to in jail who were getting even sicker behind bars, and then there were the friends who died of addiction. I attended a lot of wakes in my first five or six years of recovery.
As all of that was happening, my life is getting a lot — lot better, and I’m seeing thousands of other young people at conferences whose lives are also getting better and we often talked about the disconnect between the thousands of young people supporting each other in recovery and the system barriers we and our families had experienced on our way to recovery.
It was then I began to get angry with how we as a country deal with addiction. During that time, I met a special woman who became my mentor, Donna Aligata. Donna was very active in the formation of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) and was working on a grant project through The Department of Children and Families about family advocacy. We ultimately decided to create a non-profit organization called Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families (CTYF).
I did many short videos of young people in recovery for it and to get started, she introduced me to your work, and she introduced me to Faces and Voices of Recovery. She asked me to speak at the Connecticut Legislative Building. I went there with my father and we told our recovery story to legislators in this very public venue.
A Hartford Current reporter, the big newspaper there, came over and asked, “Can I write an article about you?” I said, “Yeah, you just can’t use my last name.”
I was 23, about six years in recovery and he looked at me confused and said, “You just testified in a public setting on the local cable access, but you can’t use your name in the article.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m not allowed to.”
He respected that and wrote a nice article about this young guy who got into recovery at 17. It was one of the nicest recovery articles that has ever been written about me.
The first line of the article refers to me as Greg W., and then it goes on to tell my recovery story. Donna called me when the article came out, and said, “If I didn’t understand anything about addiction or recovery or anonymity, what do I read in that first sentence of this article?” And I said, “I guess that I’m ashamed” and then she said, “Is that why you’re speaking out?” and I said, “No, of course not.” My friends in recovery understood why I didn’t use my last name, but that was not the reason in the eyes of the public.
After that, I ended up at one of the Recovery Message Trainings held by Faces and Voices of Recovery, and it was there I really began to understand the distinction between 12-Step Anonymity and being public about my recovery status. That unlocked the door, giving me a whole new language to become comfortable as a public advocate and helped me understand why putting a face and a voice on recovery is so important.
There has been a change in the perception of addiction as a disease, is it more widely accepted?
GW: This debate about whether addiction is a disease or a matter of choice continues to garner headlines and direct our collective discussion away from the only thing that really matters: “How do people enter recovery from addiction and stay well?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death, more than motor vehicle accidents. Bluntly put, each day a plane crashes in America full of young people and here we sit in 2016 rehashing the same circular argument about the nature of the problem?
We have debated whether addiction is a disease or choice since the signing of the Declaration of Independence when Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first published American to call chronic drunkenness “a distinct progressive disease” in 1784.
Regardless of whether any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a disease, people are dying. If any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a choice, people are still dying. I’d say it’s time for a new debate, wouldn’t you?
Why does addiction still carry so much shame and secrecy, even with well-known people speaking openly about their personal battles and recovery?
GW: The illness of addiction causes a great deal of isolation and the behaviors connected to the problem often appear in ways that don’t present like other illnesses. People suffering from addiction cause public safety issues and often times garner headlines for sensational things they’ve done under the influence. Overcoming the perception that people don’t get well is a challenge.
Families have suffered great pain as a result of addiction and celebrities often don’t connect their personal stories of triumph to something than their individual journeys. We have system problems and solutions must be systemic as well—the stories from prominent individuals are important, but when they are connected to a distinguishable movement then we will be making real progress.
What is the most important message we can offer families about alcoholism and addiction?
GW: Some 23.5 million Americans are living in recovery — 10 percent of all American adults 18 and older, according to New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
Regardless of how you want to categorize the nature of the problem, there is a solution. People get well. More than 23 million people have gotten well, and I am one of them.
Your movie The Anonymous People made a great impact on bringing stories of recovery to light, what are your hopes for the new film Generation Found?
GW: The number one issue discussed in our post-screening conversations around THE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE was how addiction impacts young people, and the needs for youth recovery support. Jeff Reilly and I decided this topic was so important we began working with an incredible community in Houston, Texas where we had the opportunity to spend the last two years capturing something most have never seen or even heard about!
Devastated by an epidemic of addiction, Houston faced the reality of burying and locking up its young people at an alarming rate. And so in one of the largest cities in America, visionary counselors, law school dropouts, aspiring rock musicians, retired football players, oil industry executives, and church leaders came together to build the world’s most comprehensive peer-driven youth and family recovery community.
You were very involved in the creation of Facingaddiction.org and the rally held last October in D.C. —a tremendous success; do you see the movement growing?
GW: History was made in Washington, D.C., on October 4th, 2015. Despite hurricane and flooding threats, tens of thousands of people from around the world joined to UNITE to Face Addiction in dramatic fashion for the first time in the “public eye.”
Oct. 4, 2015 was the first time that major musicians, politicians, actresses, athletes, models, journalists, authors, and advocates joined their voices together on the National Mall to push for addiction solutions for the health crisis impacting 85 million Americans.
Together we must continue to face addiction because no one should ever have to overcome addiction alone. No longer can we sit on the sidelines and let others worry about changing the system. While system and cultural change is harder for the press to write about than focusing on the problem, it is the only path forward if we are going to save lives.
When someone is diagnosed with a disease like cancer for instance, help and treatment is sought out immediately, why do you think addiction or behavioral health problems aren’t as readily addressed?
GW: Lack of understanding of the benefits. Today, I pay taxes, vote and have been contributing my share for more than 15 years, since I entered recovery when I was 17 years old, after nearly losing my life to addiction. You can refer to me as a drug-addicted junkie who made bad choices or as a good kid who got caught up with a bad illness.
Either way, my recovery from addiction is worth anywhere from $250,000 to $2.3 million dollars to you, the taxpayer. I no longer crash cars, have run-ins with the legal system or end up in emergency rooms.
I am not alone. In 2013, Faces & Voices of Recovery, a nonprofit organization, published “Life in Recovery,” the first-ever national survey documenting the dramatic improvement in the lives of those who are addicted and enter recovery. Of people who leave active addiction, findings include:
- Steady employment increases by more than 50 percent
- Planning for the future (e.g., saving for retirement) increases nearly threefold
- Twice as many people further their education or training
- Twice as many people start their own businesses
- Participation in family activities increases by 50 percent
- Volunteerism in the community increases nearly threefold
- Involvement in illegal acts and involvement with the criminal justice system (e.g., arrests, incarceration, DWIs) decreases about tenfold
But sadly for you the taxpayer, we have not invested in finding out how people get into or sustain long-term recovery the way we have done with remission from HIV/AIDS or cancer. If we only knew more about how these 23 million Americans got and stay well, then we would be making real progress. Pathology or behavior would then be the least of our concerns.
How can all of us get more involved with your efforts here in Arizona?
GW: The Facing Addiction Action Network will engage with individuals and organizations across the nation to tackle the addiction crisis facing our communities.
The first thing to do is to review the Facing Addiction Action Agenda. All Action Network member organizations agree to operate with respect to these goals and to share them as a part of any mobilizing and organizing efforts on behalf of Facing Addiction.
Join the action network here: https://www.facingaddiction.org/partner-update.
Meet Greg Williams on Saturday, September 17th at the Art of Recovery Expo, Phoenix Convention Center, South Building Hall G.
Greg takes the stage at 1:15 P.M.
Admission is FREE to the public. Please join us as we celebrate NATIONAL RECOVERY MONTH.