When I remember the thousands who died, many whose stories were never recorded in history, I bow my head. And when my wailing is done, I get up and carry on, not in my name, but in theirs….When you know your history, you know your value. You know the price that has been paid for you to be here. You recognize what those who came before you built and sacrificed for you to inhabit the space in which you dwell. –Cicely Tyson (with Michelle Burford), Just as I am
We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. –Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Those seeking and in recovery owe a great debt of gratitude to earlier generations of people whose life discoveries opened and charted pathways to addiction recovery and built the recovery support organizations available to us today. Much of my (BW) past work focuses on excavating and celebrating the lost stories of these recovery pioneers.
The stories of many of our recovery ancestors remain publicly shrouded behind a veil of stigma. For generations, others who sought our control or cure spoke on our behalf while our own faces and voices remained hidden and silent. Actually, those who spoke for us spoke their stories—their perceptions of us and their work on our behalf, but authentic, first-person narratives of addiction and recovery remained obscured and sometimes misrepresented by such accounts.
Today, we are rediscovering lost recovery stories and declaring that we can now speak for ourselves. Every stigmatized and oppressed people must liberate their history and take control of their own stories. As the African proverb suggests, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”
We as a people can assure that the stories of our recovery ancestors are preserved and called forth at critical times to illuminate our present circumstances. Here are few potential possibilities.
*Designating and training archivists and archival skills within recovery-focused organizations
*Creating formal recovery archives for historical preservation and research
*Digitizing historical materials and creating virtual libraries filled with resources on the history of addiction recovery
*Creating and disseminating histories of recovery, recovery mutual aid and advocacy organizations, and key recovery figures via articles, books, films, plays, and photo exhibits.
*Creating and disseminating the history of recovery among special populations, e.g., women, youth, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.
*Preserving iconic historical sites
*Creating forums for communication between people interested in the history of recovery, e.g. AA History Lovers, NA History Lovers
*Creating oral history projects through which the stories of local recovery elders are recorded and preserved
*Hosting symposia on the history of addiction recovery and related organizations, and
*Ancestor consultations: Consulting with local recovery elders and regularly asking ourselves how recovery ancestors responded to challenges and opportunities similar to those we are currently facing.
Our recovery ancestors have provided a body of historical lessons. They have endowed an intellectual and emotional inheritance on how to best navigate the complexities, challenges, and opportunities within the experience of addiction recovery. They have also forged values and traditions that can best guide our collective life within recovery-missioned organizations. We honor our ancestors by letting their lessons inform our current circumstances. We show up to assert our own needs and aspirations, but we also show up to honor the ancestors that make our survival possible.
You cannot know yourself without knowing the history of your people. We bear the scarred wounds of past recovery generations—the emotional memory of objectification, demonization, maltreatment, and mass incarceration, but we also possess within us the inherited capacity to survive and thrive if we draw upon it.
We must all become students of our history as a people. Once we become students of history, the wisdom of our recovery ancestors lives inside us. We can then elicit the voiced guidance of our ancestors when we most need it. We are but one link in this chain of history. What we as a people achieve today are the fulfilled dreams of our ancestors. What we do today in preparing those who will follow us will shape the future of recovery for generations to come.
We must show up and do our part to prevent a break in this historical chain of personal healing and social progress. We do that for ourselves and in payment for our ancestors’ sacrifices. Our ancestors do not die until we last speak their names. In honor of what they have bequeathed to us and as aide to our own survival and health, we must continue to speak their names.