A Recovery Renaissance (The Art of Recovery Revisited)

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A “renaissance” is a period of intense cultural renewal and innovation. Whether speaking of “The Renaissance” of the fourteen to sixteenth centuries or the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s in America, such eras mark dramatic shifts in cultural values and surges in scholarly, artistic, and technological advancement. This brief essay reviews the emergence of a recovery renaissance, identifies the conditions that spawned this renaissance, and comments on its potential historical import.

The recovery renaissance has, to date, spanned the first two decades of the twenty-first century, with its detonation point being the 2001 Recovery Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota at which recovery advocates from more than 30 states launched a “new recovery advocacy movement.” Early stages of this recovery renaissance included:

*The exponential growth and diversification of recovery mutual aid organizations,

*A rising “recovery consciousness” and the cultural and political mobilization of people in recovery and their families and allies,

*Public recovery storytelling and recovery celebration events,

*The creation of new recovery support institutions, e.g. digital recovery communities, recovery media (radio, television, film, theatre), recovery residences, recovery-friendly businesses, recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs, recovery community organizations, recovery community centers, recovery ministries, recovery cafes, recovery book clubs, recovery-focused leisure and travel businesses, recovery-focused sports and adventure programs, and on and on.

*The eclipse of older recovery advocacy organizations (e.g., NCADD, SOAR) by newer national organizations (e.g., Faces and Voices of Recovery, Young People in Recovery, Association of Recovery Community Organizations, Recovery Advocacy Project, African American Federation of Recovery Organizations, etc.),

*The emergence of recovery as an organizing paradigm within the alcohol and drug problems arena at both cultural and professional levels,

*Efforts to extend acute care models of addiction treatment to models of sustained recovery management (RM) nested within larger recovery oriented systems of care (ROSC),

*The proliferation of peer recovery support services (PRSS) as an adjunct and alternative to addiction treatment,

*Calls to integrate primary prevention, harm reduction, early intervention, addiction treatment, and sustained stage-appropriate recovery support services, and the

*Emergence of scientific research focused on the prevalence, stages, styles, and processes of personal, family, and community recovery across diverse populations and cultural contexts.

These milestones have been nurtured by the rise of an ecumenical culture of recovery—people in recovery seeing themselves as “a people” beyond their affiliation or non-affiliation with particular religious, spiritual, or secular mutual aid organizations.  This ecumenical culture, this recovery renaissance, is being expressed and extolled through multiple media:

*amateur and scholarly research on the history of recovery,

*interrogation of the ideas, words, and images that objectify, stigmatize, and criminalize people experiencing and recovering from alcohol and other drug-related problems,

*recovery-focused language, values, symbols, rituals, literature, art, music, and entertainment, and

*recovery-informed intellectual contributions within the arenas of medicine, pharmacology, psychology, sociology, public policy, and public service.

Anything that heats up within the American culture–as recovery is heating up—is a target for ideological, commercial, institutional, or personal exploitation. Such appropriation risks turning an authentic movement of potentially great significance into little more than a fading “flavor of the month” due to the inevitable cultural backlash such shallow exploitation triggers.    

Creators of this culture of recovery face a key question regarding how to prevent such exploitation: What distinguishes authentic cultural representation of recovery from the shallow facsimiles my mentor Ernie Kurtz often chastised as recovery porn?  The writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and other leaders of the Harlem Renaissance sought to define the essence of a flourishing Black arts movement. Their writings inspired my attempt below to do the same in characterizing authentic recovery cultural production—the emergence of a recovery esthetic and ethic. Such an esthetic/ethic contains several distinguishing qualities.

It springs from us.  Authentic recovery production draws upon the strength and stamina of recovery ancestors. It excavates the past to inform the present and envisions new future possibilities. It channels the unfulfilled dreams, aspirations, and achievements of those who came before us to empower our present contributions. Its benefactors and beneficiaries include individuals and organizations representing diverse recovery communities.

It is produced by us. Authentic recovery production is grounded in lived experience—the experiential knowledge—of individuals and families in recovery. Those with lived experience of recovery are its creators. It expresses and celebrates the recovery experience, literally and symbolically, from the inside rather than from external observation. (As the Nigerian proverb commands, “Don’t let the lion tell the giraffe’s story.”) It is simultaneously an act of personal and cultural creation. It is collaborative rather than competitive.

It is to, for, and about us and represents us to the world. Authentic recovery culture production is at once a balm for a wounded but resilient people and a call to action to assert the needs and capabilities of people seeking and in recovery. It conveys our stories and our aspirations at the same time it links us to the larger human community. Works rising from the recovery experience are personally and culturally informative, celebratory, and confrontational—the latter important in exposing social conditions and policies that contribute to addiction and constitute obstacles to recovery.

It reflects our diversity and our unity—the uniqueness of our recovery experiences and our shared experiences and values. It depicts aspects of recovery shaped by developmental age, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and problem severity across diverse cultural contexts. It portrays the growing varieties of recovery experience and the common ground that all pathways of recovery traverse. The recovery artist celebrates the center of the recovery experience AND explores the unexplored and unacknowledged boundaries of recovery.

It speaks to us in our own language.  Authentic recovery production is written to us in language of our own that reflects our own collective experience. If others find the work of value, that is wonderful, but that is not its central purpose, and they are not our primary audience. First and foremost, the works are insider art. These works are physically, financially, and linguistically accessible to us. The products of recovery culture production will be attractive to and benefit many other populations, but we must prevent their appropriation by other communities to the extent that they are no longer accessible to the community out of which they came and for whom they were produced.  

It is owned by us. The fruits of recovery cultural production remain within the recovery community with its future controlled by its creators and by the community. Everything in America becomes commodified and commercialized. Recovery cultural production is unlikely to be an exception. The question is whether the financial resources generated from such productions serve to enrich and expand the culture of recovery or drain resources from that culture to the  benefit of others. To the extent possible, the ownership and accrued benefits of products generated within the recovery culture must remain within and serve that culture.

It is of our time and for all time. It has an immediacy to it, yet reaches into and draws from the past and acts with full consciousness of its potential present and future effects. It reflects consciousness of recovery ancestors and future generations of people seeking and living in recovery.  It is at once generational (of its time) and transgenerational (for all time).

It is always a risk to write about boundaries and definitions in art. Artists (and people in recovery) are the very people most likely to breach such barriers. The criteria above are not rules, but a synthesis of those production values that seem closest to the heart of an emerging recovery aesthetic/ethic.

A new generation of fashion designers, filmmakers, poets, painters, photographers, sculptors, playwrights, actors, novelists, biographers, bloggers, comedians, songwriters, musicians, singers, dancers, scholars, teachers, and social activists are using their talents to carry a message of healing and hope through their creative endeavors. They are evidence of what appears to be a rising recovery renaissance—a recovery arts movement. Will this renaissance leave a lasting imprint? Will it endure? I suspect it will, but if not, for one bright shining moment people in recovery used their experiences as a palette for artistic achievement and service. For one bright moment, they created products and performances that will serve as a directional beacon for decades to come for those seeking escape from addiction and related wounds. Each renaissance, regardless of its duration, leaves behind foundations upon which the future can be constructed. 

Will this emerging aesthetic/ethic portend a golden age of recovery? It will if we make it so. Will we face risks of cultural appropriation and commercial profiteering? Of course, but such risks can and must be actively managed.

Recovery keeps rising. Our challenge is to rise with it to forge and amplify cultural landscapes in which it flourishes.