Recovery Journalism

Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter. –African Proverb

From Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Me: “Because I am.”                        

In the late 1990s, I experienced an epiphany of sorts—a sudden awareness that the addiction field had acquired a massive body of scientific and professional knowledge about alcohol and other drug problems and their clinical treatment but possessed little knowledge of the prevalence, pathways, styles, and stages of long-term personal and family recovery. Being over fifty seemed a strange time to plot a new career direction, but that is what I did. My decision was clear: whatever remaining time I had would be devoted to the scientific study of recovery and pushing the addiction field’s organizing center from a focus on pathology and the nuances of clinical intervention to a focus on the lived experience of long-term recovery. Fortunately, I was not alone in either this awareness or that commitment. The subsequent years witnessed the rise of recovery-focused research scientists and a new generation of recovery advocates. Today, recovery journalism–from the scientific journals to the growing legion of recovery blogs–is coming of age.

When I entered the addictions field in the 1960s, there were two distinct classes of workers:  “professionals” (doctors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers) and “paraprofessionals” (people with lived experience of addiction and recovery). There was little consideration that one could be both a professional AND a person in long-term recovery: you were one or the other. If you had a foot in each world, your legitimacy could be and often was questioned within each—seen as too broken in the professional world and not broken enough in the recovery world. Over time, people in recovery working in the field were extruded as addiction counseling became more professionalized and as those in recovery, as an act of self-protection, hid their recovery identity behind a smokescreen of increasing credentials.

Now for a present story. A lively discussion recently ensued among a group of people in recovery when the name of a prominent recovery advocate came up. The discussion entailed back and forth arguments over whether the person was a “real addict” [in recovery] or an “academic.” Again, notice the binary choice here—a remaining shadow of the past.

Historically disenfranchised people face the stigmatizing judgement of others in ways that limit the vision of their own potential as individuals and as a people. Black children who excel academically are castigated by some of their peers as “acting White” in oppressed, wounded worlds where Blackness and academic achievement are perceived as incongruent. In a similarly distorted worldview, a person with an advanced degree could not be a “real addict” or a “person in recovery.” In that view, academic achievement and eloquent writing are incompatible with the status of addiction recovery. The good news is that such warped views of self and the world are breaking down.

Under the influence of a vibrant recovery advocacy movement and new recovery support institutions (e.g., recovery high schools, collegiate recovery programs, recovery-focused academic mentoring), legions of people in recovery are pursuing college, university, and graduate training, and they are doing so as visible people in recovery. The result is an explosion in recovery-focused writing that spans memoirs, scientific studies, professional papers, popular journal articles, and social media posts. The perception that academic excellence and exemplary writing are incompatible with recovery status is fading among people in recovery, in the professional world of addiction treatment, and among the public. That is a remarkable achievement of historical significance.

I am part of a community of physicians, nurses, pharmacologists, psychologists, social workers, research scientists, historians, authors, educators, addiction professionals, and community activists. AND we are all people in  long-term addiction recovery. If you are a person in recovery, you can be anything you want to be—and still be a person in recovery. Recovery is a launching pad, not a restrictive cage. Don’t let anyone foist you into such a cage.