Meet formerly ‘Anonymous People’

Meet formerly Anonymous PeopleFound this article in the NewsTimes as Greg Williams’s tour with The Anonymous People draws to a close.

‘The first two were only fender benders. The third was a bit more serious. It wasn’t until his fourth car accident, a near-fatal one, that Greg Williams knew his life needed to change.

That fateful wreck landed the then-17-year-old Newtown youth in Danbury Hospital’s emergency room, with his parents insisting he needed to get help for his addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Williams ultimately sought in-patient treatment for his affliction, followed by time in a halfway house learning to live in recovery. He said he’s fortunate that his addiction was spotted and treated when he was still young. Not everyone is so lucky.

“Nine out of 10 people with a substance abuse disorder started using before they were 18,” Williams said. “So when people think of a 60-year-old homeless drunk, they should realize he probably was using alcohol from a young age. If that 60-year-old had gotten treatment earlier, he might not be homeless or drinking now.”

Addiction claims too many lives. But for millions of Americans, the story of addiction has a better resolution — living in recovery.

Williams, a filmmaker who lives in Danbury, wants people to know what that happier outcome looks like, and that it’s worth the attention and tax dollars to help maintain it. He also wants to change the conversation about addiction from problems to solutions.

Williams has made an engaging documentary, “The Anonymous People,” which will be screened Saturday, June 15, at the Palace Danbury. The film is only being shown in select locations now as part of a deal with its Kickstarter backers, but Williams hopes to have it in wider release in time for National Recovery Month in September.

The film features interviews with people all over the country who are living in recovery. Those interviewed include actress Kristen Johnston, best known for her award-winning role in the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” who speaks bluntly about her choice not to remain silent about her illness and life in recovery, and several political figures, such as Patrick J. Kennedy, Jim Ramstad, and Tom Corderre. But plenty of people from other walks of life are featured, also.

“There are 30 or so different faces of life in recovery, from every socio-economic background, gender and race,” Williams said. “The film humanizes people in recovery.”

Interspersed with glimpses of featured individuals in recovery are startling statistics showing that money spent on addiction treatment and recovery support services gives taxpayers a better return on their money than criminalizing addicts for their illness.

According to the film, $350 billion dollars per year are spent on lost productivity in the workplace, increased healthcare costs and criminal justice expenses. Of these dollars, only 2 percent are spent on preventing addiction or treating it like the health problem that many, including Williams, say it is.

“For every dollar spent on treatment, we get 10 times the return,” Williams said. “And for every dollar spent on prevention, we get 18 times the return.”

Once Williams got into recovery, he said, he found a lot of people in their late teens and early 20s like him who were “doing great things in life.” But this positive outcome wasn’t the case for everyone.

“I went to a lot of wakes,” he said. “My first six years in recovery, I went to six wakes. It frustrated me and angered me. The families were shamed. They wouldn’t write about (the cause of death) in the newspaper. They would hide it, keep it a secret. Addiction is so deadly, and we don’t talk about it.”

Williams understands the hesitation people may have about talking openly about their addiction and recovery.

“I didn’t talk about my own experience in a traditional 12-step group at first,” he said. “I was fearful of doors in life that might be closed to me. It took support and help from family and friends. I believe in recovery.”

The challenge that he and others in the recovery movement face is changing the public perception of addiction. Helping to put a face to the recovery movement is the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, a Hartford-based organization that provides a range of support services, including housing and employment help.

“We started as an advocate for recovery, and evolved to where we have three community recovery centers, in Hartford, Bridgeport and Willimantic,” said CCAR Executive Director Phillip Valentine, who is featured in Williams’ film. “We put a face on recovery and provide recovery support services.”

Valentine has lived in recovery for 25 years. Asked about the biggest issue for those in starting life in recovery, Valentine paused before offering an answer. “Embracing recovery,” he said. “The individual has to want and desire the lifestyle of recovery. It’s a way of life. There are significant barriers of stigma and discrimination. The person needs sober housing and meaningful work to do, a safe place to live.”

Valentine sees Connecticut as blessed to have good systems for initiating recovery, but once someone leaves treatment, they continue to need support to maintain their new lifestyle.

“Early indications are that recovery support services are a lot less expensive — I compare it to if someone tore up their knee, of course they’d have ACL surgery, but they need to go to physical therapy afterwards. Once someone leaves a treatment system, they need support to maintain their recovery. We’re a recovery-oriented sanctuary in the heart of the community,” Valentine said.’