On April 23, The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, a nonprofit working to reduce addiction’s impact, will screen the film at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. The movie will be followed by a panel discussion.
Two of the panelists are out with regard to both their sexuality and their long-term recovery: Brooke Feldman, a community-outreach coordinator with the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and Christopher Whitney, former director of HIV/AIDS education and training with the Bucks County Health Department.
The film’s principle argument is that more people in recovery should speak out about their illness. Although respectful of the longstanding tradition of anonymity, a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous, everyone interviewed is adamant about the damage silence does.
The director, Greg Williams, notes many in recovery have already stopped labeling themselves as addicts, drunks or junkies.
“That’s because my friends and I are people with addiction who don’t use alcohol or other drugs anymore,” he said. “Actually, that’s why we prefer to describe ourselves more like this: My name is Greg Williams and I’m a person in long-term recovery.”
As the film makes clear, they are not alone: Addiction is a disease that cuts across barriers of class, gender and race. That diversity is reflected in the interviewees, who come from all walks of life.
Among the most eloquent are Michael Askew, a grassroots organizer at Bridgeport Recovery Community in Connecticut, and Kristen Johnston, the Emmy Award-winning actor best known for her role on “3rd Rock from the Sun.”
As the film frames the problem, the concept of anonymity has become misunderstood and misinterpreted. Although it creates a safe space where addicts and people in recovery can openly discuss their disease, it also has unintended consequences, the participants explain.
Interviewees note that the public’s perception of addiction lags far behind medical science. Furthermore, lawmakers overlook the needs of people in recovery in ways that would be unfathomable to, say, breast-cancer survivors. They suggest that both would happen less often if the public could put a face on the disease.
According to William White, author of “Slaying the Dragon,” a history of addiction treatment and recovery, when necessary, those in AA and other recovery groups have spoken publicly.
“This segregation between the issue of anonymity at the level of press and the issue of anonymity as a spiritual principle and a sort of an antidote to self-centeredness, those are serious concerns that continue to need to be addressed,” White said. “But anonymity is not secrecy, and anonymity does not prohibit the kind of advocacy that large numbers of people in these fellowships have done almost since their beginning.”
To underscore that point, the film includes footage from a landmark Congressional hearing convened by Sen. Harold Hughes in 1969. Both Bill W., the co-founder of AA, and Marty Mann, one of his early sponsees, are seen testifying before lawmakers and in front of reporters.
Throughout the film, interviewees acknowledge the debt they owe to AIDS activists. By the mid-1980s, zero-tolerance laws and “Just Say No” campaigns had frightened addicts away from seeking treatment and shamed those in recovery into keeping quiet.
In that context, the gay community’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis offered a positive example of how to respond to a public health crisis.
“I always looked to the gay community for guidance,” says Joe Schrank, who runs a sober-living facility in Brooklyn. “Because if they had said, ‘That’s anonymous, we can’t talk about HIV’ where would they be? So they really understood right away that silence was going to kill the entire community, that they had to organize and they had to demand a different approach to the problem of HIV.”
It is also worth noting the example of Marty Mann. In addition to being one of the first women to enter AA, she founded the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism. Mann, a vocal advocate for a medical approach to alcoholism, was also a lesbian who lived for many years with her partner, Priscilla.
The discussion after the screening is just as important as the film. Panelist Christopher Whitney hopes that the documentary acts as a catalyst to conversation.
“The entire premise of having these community-based showings, or for that matter any other Council activity, is to make people who in the past may have felt self-conscious, worried about who might see them because of the stigma of addiction, to just make this a very comfortable setting,” he said.
According to Whitney, the documentary restores hope and possibility in an area where there has often been chaos and hopelessness.
“I think the strength comes from allowing the viewer to see the potential that individuals have to make enduring, positive changes in their lives,” he said. “And for those who may be viewing the film who have had or do have a loved one with an active addiction, to leave with the possibility that this disease, once treated, is manageable.”
Whitney has seen the benefits of recovery first-hand. At 66, he says, he feels healthier and more energetic than ever before. More importantly, he has the love and support of his long-term partner and serves as president of the Bucks County Choral Society.
“But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober,” he said.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.councilsepa.org/events/the-anonymous-people/.