You've heard the punch line that a sober horse thief is still a horse thief.
The same is true for sober people who are angry. They're still angry, and anger is a tricky and oft-risky emotion for those of us who are adept at wrapping it in self-righteous indignation because it is always easier to find fault with others than in ourselves. Sometimes we even use it as an excuse to stick with sobriety.
Still, my friend and filmmaker Greg Williams has a point in his provocative op-ed making the rounds on the Internet right now. After attending a Washington, D.C., rally for people who have lost loved ones to addiction, he laments the absence of similar sentiment among the larger recovery community. He writes:
"It is apparently OK for those family members to angrily demand a better response from the federal government to the current health crisis (of drug overdoses). But when the addiction recovery community — more than 23 million Americans and their families — gathers to walk, speak and put a face on recovery there doesn't seem to be much anger at the current state of affairs that is costing us more than 100 American lives every day."
In this context, let me add, too, my own frustration — and, yes, even admit to a tinge of anger — regarding the hysteria over Ebola in the United States. To date, this serious disease has killed one person in America. One! Think about what could be accomplished if the media and politicians paid attention with firm resolve and soapbox aplomb to the real public health epidemic of addiction. Addicts and alcoholics would no longer be quarantined in hopelessness or despair. They would finally benefit from a comprehensive, unified and effectively funded plan that gives them a realistic opportunity to access treatment to support life without alcohol or other drugs. Lives saved, families restored, communities strengthened — sounds like a fine rallying cry to me.
That won't happen, though, until we overcome ambivalence. Before we can be angry, we must stop assuming that our own survival and personal route to recovery are available for others to follow. Because for those who make it, many more don't or haven't yet had the opportunity, for reasons that are as complicated as the war on drugs, as unfair as dumb luck and as simple as not knowing how or where to ask for help. In the same way that women with breast cancer and gay men with HIV or AIDS stepped beyond their own illnesses to stand up for others like them, addicts and alcoholics cannot be content merely surviving on their own. There are too many others who still suffer in private shame and public intolerance and society's failure to meet their needs. That's simply not acceptable, which also gives us good reason to be angry.
Anger is like fuel on a fire. But by itself, it won't keep our cause burning. It needs to be channeled or harnessed into action based on tangible goals. Think about it. What do you want for the still-suffering alcoholic or addict in your life? What would help a family to recover? How should we teach these issues in elementary schools and medical schools? Is there a way to enforce existing laws to prevent insurance companies from denying benefits to people in treatment? Could a statewide tax on alcohol products be used to fund prevention and recovery programs? Is the legalization of marijuana really worthwhile? Could more drug courts reduce recidivism and ease overcrowded jails? How can a community incorporate sober housing into the rest of the neighborhood?
There are enough questions to go around. Alcohol and other drug problems pervade our society, so find the cause that matters to you and overcome your ambivalence that you cannot make a difference; add a dash of anger, and take action — on your own, with others who recover with you, or where you live.
Then do one more thing. Watch Greg's 85-minute film, "The Anonymous People." It will prove that anger is OK, as long as it helps others overcome their obstacles.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.