Beyond Recovery Exceptionalism

Oppression involves objectification and rendering the targeted person or group as the ‘other.” That distinctive “otherness” is then conveyed in caricatured images that feed stigma, social exclusion, and, in its most extreme form, genocide. The first task of the social reformer is to illuminate the humanity of those objectified and break down barriers between “they” and “we.” The machinery of oppression and strategies of liberation rely on these opposing scaffolds of belief and perception.

By projecting recovery stories into the public arena, recovery advocates undermine the demonized addiction archetype. These stories are often first viewed by the public through a lens of exceptionalism—seeing these ennobled individuals as the rare exception to the rule, “Once an addict, always an addict.” As recovery advocates, we can inadvertently contribute to this perception by only thrusting our most attractive, most articulate, highest achieving members into the public eye and characterizing our own redemption as an uncommon miracle.

The goal of any social movement seeking to elevate a historically marginalized group is not to thrust a few remarkable individuals onto the larger cultural pedestal, but to instead elevate the group as a whole. What is needed within the recovery advocacy movement is not a handful of highly visible charismatic leaders, but thousands of people in recovery stepping together into the light to affirm the reality and transformative power of recovery. We do not need or desire all people in recovery to publicize their recovery status. Anti-stigma movements instead rely on a vanguard of people whose life circumstances and available supports allow taking such risks. The question is the extent to which that vanguard accurately portrays the diversity of people in recovery.

The recovery advocacy movement will have matured when we can ALL stand publicly to represent the diversity of our past brokenness and the extent of our present healing. Addiction is a spectrum disorder representing a broad continuum of severity and complexity; addiction recovery similarly represents broad levels of healing and social functioning. Every increment of that healing is cause for celebration, even among individuals who would not be the most obvious choice for the face and voice of recovery.

Enter multiple recovery mutual aid rooms and you will see the lowest and highest “bottoms” and everything in between, the most and least educated, all manner of professions, the most and least financially blessed, decades of age differences, a rainbow of colors, languages and accents of all varieties, and diverse gender and sexual identities. It is that very diversity united in common cause and mutual support that distinguishes communities of recovery across the globe. As worldwide recovery advocacy movements come of age, it is that diversity that must be reflected in the faces and voices of recovery we project across the globe.

If you don’t fit the iconic recovery poster image, you are still the face and voice of recovery, and your time in the sunshine is coming. Prepare yourself for that day.