Honoring Recovery Ancestors

Honoring Recovery Ancestors

Bill White

Posted in: William L. White Publications

It is all that we are: history, memory. –Walter Mosely, from John Woman

I have been thinking a good deal more than usual about the history of addiction recovery in the United States. Such ruminations are a reflection of my stage of life, but they have also been stirred by recent events, including the recent demise of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the passing of a generation of iconic leaders within the addictions field.

Most of my adult life has been dedicated to the collection, preservation, and presentation of the history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. My books, monographs, and collected papers and the creation of the Illinois Addiction Studies Archives collectively constitute a repository of documents and artifacts that chronicle the pathways our addicted citizens have traveled for more than two centuries in their search for freedom. I have earlier penned brief reflections on the import of this history (see HERE and HERE) and now add the following brief nuggets that may be of interest to recovery advocates.

Are People in Recovery a “People?”

What does it take for individuals to define themselves as “a people?” Such peoplehood arises from a common history, collective achievements and continued challenges arising from that history, as well as shared aspirations. These catalytic ingredients lead to embrace of a new identity—a “we-ness” that is often solidified in the face of a common enemy. In the case of recovery, that enemy may be defined as a drug, a process (addiction), exploitive institutions, or cultural norms that have resulted in one’s objectification and demonization. Recognition of oneself as part of a people comes in part because of a history in which one has been treated not as an individual but as a category. Individuals who have been mistreated as a category eventually assert themselves as a category, resist oppressive conditions, and reject the demeaning psychological baggage which has been forced upon them.

The current mobilization of people in addiction recovery is an example of such people-making. We are a people who first turned affliction into a fulcrum of personal transformation and who are now turning our deliverance into sustained cultural awakening and political mobilization. People in recovery are moving beyond their individual stories to discover their collective story—their story as a people—and to take control of the future of that story. To forge a movement, personal suffering must be transformed into a larger story—a dramatic narrative with its past and its own heroes and villains. Such narratives make sense of circumstance that are otherwise inexplicable. They contain the future promise of historical justice—people in recovery becoming active agents in their own liberation and service to others.

Heroic Individuals and Institutions

Historical consciousness helps spark, nurture, and sustain liberation movements. In our case, history is the set of records that document our indebtedness to those who opened the recovery frontier and marked the paths that have informed our own quests for freedom. History is all we have left when voices of the past have been silenced and our collective memories weaken. It thus falls upon us to find ways to keep that history alive. We must never forget days when addicted people in this country were subjected to fraudulent boxed and bottled cures; sequestered for prolonged periods in penal inebriate colonies,  the “foul cells” of public hospitals, and the “back wards” of festering state psychiatric asylums; subjected to prefrontal lobotomies and chemo- and electro-convulsive shock therapies and an endless array of lethal and debilitating drug insults, and faced prolonged incarceration for the status of addiction. People in recovery, their families, and visionary professionals spent decades advocating the end of such practices and to shift people with alcohol and other drug problems from systems of control and punishment to systems of compassion and care. Their stories—their commitment and courage—should be honored and not forgotten. Many of us would not have survived or thrived without the sacrifices of these men and women. Their stories must be regularly drawn upon as a reminder of who we are and how we have survived as individuals and as a people.

The Role of Recovery Advocacy Movement Elders

If we effectively mentor a new generation of leaders, then members of that generation will, out of necessity, need to push us off our pedestal to reach their own destiny. Such processes can be understood and accommodated. Reaching elder status within a social movement requires people once at the pinnacle of history to wholly embrace both their past import and their growing irrelevance. We each have a shelf life of optimal contribution—an expiration date on our most cherished assets and aspirations. When that date has arrived, we must let others we have mentored step forward to fill the space we have occupied. The final act of mentorship is to pass the torch and have faith in where that teaching will lead. It is then that we can become the collective memory and conscience of the movement, reminding those younger of the core values that brought us to this day—and appearing periodically as an admired relic.

Our recovery ancestors and elders of the current recovery advocacy movement were touched by history and stood together in an effort to write a new future. My wish for each of you is to be similarly blessed.