Last May I watched The Anonymous People and heard producer, Greg Williams speak about his vision for this groundbreaking film.
It was refreshing to watch this documentary where people were openly discussing addiction, long-term recovery and to understand how important it is to raise the level of awareness in all of our communities.
The film has gained a large following and is weaving its way across America. I am so excited to share this interview with you.
It is my great pleasure to introduce Greg Williams!
What inspired you to make the movie “The Anonymous People?”
My own personal recovery certainly was the driver in my passion around this film project and my involvement in recovery advocacy work. I got into recovery when I was 17. I got very active in recovery with young people in mutual support groups. I did my best to try and help other young people and their families find and sustain recovery.
We struggled. It is not an easy system to navigate. It’s not an easy illness to navigate. I went to a lot of wakes. I got denied a lot of treatment beds because of health insurance discrimination. I wrote a lot of letters to jails to friends of mine who were getting sicker behind bars.
I would complain with my friends about these barriers and the system that we have, the frustration with it, but none of us would ever know what to do about it. We didn’t think we could do anything. We didn’t think we had any voice.
I didn’t talk about my recovery outside of recovery support groups for my first five years of recovery until I was 22. Eventually I got more and more angry at the system and more and more engaged in how individuals can use their personal stories to effect social change.
I learned more. I had some mentors and people who brought me along and actually showed me this emerging movement that had been in it’s infancy stages of growth over the last ten to twelve years. There were people in recovery who were really stepping out in a profound rebirth of The New Recovery Advocacy Movement.
It was meeting these people who are in the film, who have been the leaders of this movement who really inspired me to want to tell their story. They were teaching others through the study of other social health movements (Breast Cancer, HIV/AIDS, etc.) that by putting a human face and voice on recovery was such an important piece if we were really going to address the discriminatory barriers, and the public perception that really drives problematic addiction policy.
There is a great deal of societal shame that surrounds addiction. Sometimes people get upset that we talk about shame in the film. I don’t know what bubble people are living under, but I am not sure how you talk about addiction without talking about shame.
Confusion around what anonymity means and doesn’t mean prevents a great many people who would like to talk about their recovery status publicly from doing so. This silence continues to feed a great deal of societal shame towards people with addiction.
I didn’t talk about my recovery for the first five years because I was ashamed. It wasn’t necessarily personal shame all the time, but my society was ashamed of me, therefore it would interact with my personal shame. Even though I was proud of my recovery, I didn’t talk about my story to people I didn’t know, because of what they would think about this drug addict – I would be stripped of my humanity with a simple derogatory label and dismissed.
What led you to realize that this was a film that needed to be made now?
It is the leading cause of death for young people under 30. 25% of the world’s incarcerated population and 5% of the world’s population, and 80% of the increase in the federal prison population since 1985 is related to drugs and alcohol.
It is an epidemic and people don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to address it with robust public health interventions, similar to the way that we have reduced tobacco use by 50% or made nearly all of our public spaces accessible for people with disabilities.
At the system level, it certainly is drastically needed for people to step out and change the system. The system is broken. It’s failing our communities. It’s failing our families and we have stood idly aside and allowed people to shame individuals for a broken system.
The other piece is that if you study social health movements, women with breast cancer, people with HIV/AIDS, even the disability movement, and other public health social movements all require individuals, families and allies who were impacted directly with those illnesses, to step forward and tell their stories in order to advance the response to those issues.
Today, every woman in America gets a preventative mammogram. That wasn’t always the case. There was certainly a lot of stigma and shame in the 60’s and 70’s with that health condition.
It’s not that they shouldn’t have it, it’s that we must demand it just like they did. We should have a pink ribbon, a purple ribbon. You’ve got NFL Referee’s who are throwing pink flags on the turf and that’s great, but between traumatic brain injury and substance use disorders, they certainly have other important issues that hit close to home they should be educating the public about and raising money for as well.
People with HIV/AIDS, in the late 80’s and 90’s said, “Enough, our friends are dying.” That issue directly impacted at it’s peak, approximately one million Americans per year. We have an issue that impacts 23 million Americans who are still suffering. There are another 23 million in recovery, so if you include family members we have roughly about 100 million people who are directly impacted by this issue and we don’t talk about it and so it’s time. It’s time we talk. It’s time we demand more.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
To get permission, not just for people in recovery or family members, but to get permission in our communities to talk about addiction and include recovery as part of that conversation. That is the huge missing component. It is a complex public health issue.
I’m not going to simplify addiction. It certainly is not a simple issue. Recovery has probably been the one piece of the conversation with prevention, treatment and drug use stats, in general, where there has been a vacuum of silence.
Bill White often talks about how we can fill whole libraries with what we know about the pathology of addiction, but we can barely fill one shelf in our addiction studies library with what we know about the recovery experience.
We have just as many people in recovery as we do addicted, but we don’t really know how they got there. We don’t really know how to facilitate recovery in a very effective way for people.
On a personal note, how did your parents cope with your addiction? Was there anything that they did that was particularly helpful?
I wouldn’t be alive today without my family. One of the conversations that I’ve had with my family is about being a young person in recovery and speaking publicly. It was an important conversation. It obviously affected them in some way, shape or form.
They were proud of my recovery and they gave me permission to do it. During my active addiction, at first, my family was in the dark and they really pushed it under the rug and denied it, similar to many families. You never want to believe that your 13, 14, 15 year old kid is using drugs and alcohol in a harmful way.
We’re a typical family. My father was, “Oh, he’s just going through a phase,” when they would find a pot baggie or a pipe, and didn’t address it with great urgency early on.
Then things got bad. Money started missing out of their wallets, cars started to be wrecked and my entire circle of friends changed.
The fighting, the manipulating, the lying and all of that stuff started to come out in a really dysfunctional way, and ultimately by the time I was 16, they started drug testing me and then they tried to put me in an out patient program, when I became a high school senior. I always thought my problem was them. I personally was in deep denial about my addiction and didn’t want to believe that I was addicted.
They really pushed me and sought outside help. They brought me to therapists. They really pushed me towards dealing with this issue. I wasn’t particularly ready at the time. I thought that taking Oxycontin or prescription drugs was my problem. If I could just smoke pot and drink beer, I would be okay. I would tell them that, but it would just get bad again.
Ultimately, it was July 14, 2001. I had gotten in a near fatal car accident. We show a picture of the car in the beginning of the film. I ended up leaving the scene of the accident at 2:00 in the morning and going to the center of town. I was all bloody from the accident. The police picked me up there and brought me back to the scene of the accident where my mother was after getting a call from the police, “we found your son’s car it is crumpled against a tree and there is blood on the inside but we don’t know where your son is.” I was 17 years old.
I said, “Mom, sign me out. Sign me out.”
And she looked at me and she said, “Not this time.” She had signed me out of a few ambulances before. I couldn’t sign myself out, because I was under 18.
That was what really turned the tide in my addiction, because it was the end for them. They were done with co-signing my BS. I woke up in the hospital and they told me I needed to go inpatient, because I was driving and under the influence. I thought I could just do that and get them off my back and go to college. I would be away from my family, which I thought was my problem.
I ended up in this treatment program where I ultimately developed a desire to stay sober. My family did the education piece and they got really involved and supportive of my recovery.
I am incredibly grateful to be alive today, but also for the opportunities I was given. I am a product of a good adolescent addiction treatment program, a recovery-focused half way house, long-term involvement in mutual support groups, and strong family support. Many young people suffering from addiction don’t get those things – but it shouldn’t have to be about luck.
When I came home, my family was really supportive and they held certain boundaries. They helped me and got very involved in supporting my recovery.
I moved out of my house after about eight months. I wanted to live on my own, do my own thing and go to college. We had a better relationship, once I started to take on some independence in my recovery. Certainly, I had bumps along the road, but today my father is on the Board of Directors of the non-profit where we work on recovery supports issues for young people and families.
They were incredible supporters of the film project. They talk publicly about their son who had an addiction problem. They are a resource for other families who are seeking help, so they get called from friends, colleagues and people in their community whose children are going through this. Our families’ story is not unique. It’s a pediatric health epidemic.
Today, they live with a great deal of pride about my recovery and are not ashamed about what happened during my active addiction.
I wouldn’t be alive or sober today without them.
I work with a lot of young people who don’t come from families who are capable of strong support. Sometimes they come from families with active addiction in their house. I know that having strong family support is not the case for many, many young people, so I certainly appreciate how important family support is in helping young people stay in recovery.
How can people see your film and what can we do to carry the message forward?
There are many ways to get involved in the recovery advocacy movement. People who want to speak or learn more, whether it’s families, individuals or young people, we have tools, resources and even video vignettes now online at ManyFacesOneVoice.org.
That one site explains all the different ways to get involved. We have a Take Action area. There are many different ways to get involved. Some people are politically engaged, some people are not. Some people can give money, others can give their time.
There is a place in this movement for everybody, whether you just want to share your story at a school, share your story with your neighbor or you want to speak to your legislator about how important supporting addiction recovery is for our communities. We have tools, resources and even inspiring individuals who are examples of people who have chosen to speak out and want to address this issue.
One of the ways to do that is to bring a screening of The Anonymous People to your town and it’s a great way to convene a dialogue, bring in different folks from the recovery community, from your law enforcement community, from your education community, from your prevention community, and bring people together to watch the film and have a dialogue around the film and even some follow-up action meetings.
On the website, you can learn how to host a screening in your local theater. We are also offering the film as a community education resource to be used in treatment programs, libraries, recovery centers, churches, and any other group that needs to learn a bit more about addiction and recovery.
Please sign-up on our e-mail newsletter under Join The Movement to stay connected and get involved – we have a long road ahead to erode decades of problematic approaches to addiction – but we have hope – and our stories hold all the power we need to make sure future generations have a much better system in place.
What are your thoughts about how we can bring recovery into the conversation in our communities? Please share in comments.
Greg Williams is a person in long-term recovery from alcohol and other drugs since age seventeen. He is a health policy advocate, and documentary filmmaker who specializes in the creation of compelling and purposeful content. At age 30, The Anonymous People, is Greg’s first independent feature-length film. His new film is bringing lasting solutions to the screen for one of America’s top health problems.