The Recovery Movement is a People’s Health Care Liberation Movement*

Alexander Lynn

As part of my training at the health care agency at which I once worked, I attended a ten week workshop on Family Planning hosted by the state Department of Public Health (DPH). The participants were HIV outreach workers, substance abuse counselors, case managers, and staff from other health care agencies, clinics, shelters and therapeutic communities (TC’s) from around the state. The large majority of us were from the largest urban centers in Massachusetts. Twenty-five out of the thirty of us were either Latino (Puerto Rican, Dominican or from Latin America) or Black (from the Caribbean, West African, or African American). The presenter/facilitator, DPH rep, was Italian.

Early in the first session it became clear that the majority of the participants were devotees of the Recovery Movement. While in most health care agencies, even in the middle of African American or Latino communities, the top management will be disproportionately White, in White neighborhoods the rest of the agency will be staffed by people who are coming out of the various schools — medical school, nursing, psych, counseling, with doctorates, masters degrees, at least bachelor’s degrees, and “experience” in the field — experience coming from previous employment or from on-site training from school. (White people have far more opportunity for each of these options — school and “experience” — than do People of Color).

The way a large section of the work force in half-way houses, TC’s or substance abuse programs, and battered women’s shelters in urban communities of Color gains employment is through the recovery movement. In other words, these types of clinics and agencies, when staffing counseling for substance abuse, battered women programs, HIV/AIDS support, and so on, tend to hire people who are in recovery and have successfully maintained sobriety from their self-abusive behaviors by working the Twelve Step programs. The largest health care agency in Boston’s African American community publicly states that 60% of their employees are in recovery.

In the first session, the convener/facilitator began laying out the basics of Family Planning, which focused on such things as pregnancy prevention devices, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, and other birth control methods, when one of the “students” broke in and asked that the term “family” be defined. She suggested that the definition of family served up by the dominant culture and the state was not particularly useful when taking up the health care needs of peoples who do not live in that family mode.

This led to an open redefining of family by the majority of people in the room. In addition to the People of Color as the large majority, women were also the majority, there were men and women of various sexual persuasions, and of the five White people there, at least two identified as Lesbians.

This personal information about the sexual identities of the participants came out as a result of a process which those of us from the recovery movement asserted. We openly shared our own experiences, personal as well as professional, as a way of teaching ourselves and each other.

Fortunately, for us and the convener, the convener was open to this process — she abandoned the teacher/student mode and adopted the position of helpful bystander.

In the first session it was established that our methods of counseling for family planning must flow from our values and those of our constituents with regard to what family is.

In the third session an African American Sister from our group was the facilitator of work on HIV/AIDS. She began by explaining that her teaching method was self-disclosure. She then proceeded to tell her story. It was on the basis of her recovery from substance abuse, from being a “sex worker,” and from battering that she was informed in her counseling of people at risk for, and people testing positive for, HIV, and people with AIDS.

In this session she addressed very personal issues in an appropriate, not exhibitionist, way. At one point, the subject of breast feeding was raised. She explained that as a child affection from her mother was withheld, leaving her with feelings of abandonment and shame, and resulting patterns of seeking affection in inappropriate and unhealthy ways. Today, her children are curious about her breasts after breast feeding is no longer necessary. She explained to us that she does not discourage her children from their curiosity; that her childhood experience informs her that to err on the side of “too much” intimacy is not as harmful as to deny her children closeness to her. Her recovery from shame with regard to intimacy informed her in her intimate contact with her children. She explained very effectively that she was not prescribing anything here. Sigmund Freud was not in the room; she was merely sharing her experience, strength and hope, and wanted to get the same from the rest of us so that she may continue to move forward in her recovery of herself.

This openness led to a discussion by African American men about affection with their sons. The widespread deprivation of Black males of affection with each other was explored in a free flowing exchange. These men were talking about holding their son’s hands as they cross the street, holding these boys in our arms; having them sit on our laps, even when they become ten, eleven and thirteen years old.

One Brother talked about the sense of admiration that comes over him as he watches Sisters braid each other’s hair, one sitting beneath the other, the knees of the braider up against the shoulders of the woman whose hair is being braided, the head of the braided in the lap of the Sister doing the braiding. The Brother spoke of a sense of admiration, on one hand, and a sense of deprivation, a sense of loss, on the other, that Black men are not able to do this with each other, to share each other’s physical affection without negative sexual connotation or judgment coming from the entrenched, proscribed role for men as “hard,” and untouchable for each other.

Another Black Brother talked about his observation of Haitian men: their way of unselfconsciously touching and holding each other. He spoke of seeing Haitian men walking down the street holding each other’s hands in Boston; that this behavior is not an indication of a sexual preference.

A basic element of healthy parenting is non-sexualized physical closeness. The Sister, because of her frankness and honesty about physical closeness, made a gift to the Brothers, who were then able to get support for their desire to touch, hold, and physically nurture their sons.

In the next session an African American Sister insisted that women’s vaginas need to be thoroughly scrubbed down before sexual contact with a man. She focused specifically on the smell and was adamant that men could not bear the smell of a woman’s vagina, that it was unclean if it had any odor, and, in a very directive way, she insisted that his was objective body/health information.

An African American Brother responded to the process of this Sister’s testimony. Without going into detail about his own personal life, he pointed out that the Sister testified as if she knew what all men and all women’s experience was with regard to the smell of the vagina. He said he didn’t trust information that came in this form. Because the method of discourse, the language used, and the process by which we spoke to each other, came from the recovery model, this Brother’s apprehension was heard by the Sister and the rest of the room.

A Lesbian White woman shared that the media, and the male dominated health care industry, push a fantasy about the vagina — that it is this real dirty place for which Ajax, Lysol and various other household cleaning agents were the only “cure.”

A Venezuelan Sister added that human beings are a species of the animal kingdom. All bodily odor is as natural as animals are natural, and the majority of products which are passing as hygiene related products in this context are in fact inventions arising from the effort to engineer the public into buying something that they do not really need.

An African American Brother followed this Sister by explaining that he has had his present partner, with whom he is deeply in love and committed to, before showering, after showering, in the morning when they wake up, at night before they go to sleep, and “she tastes good to me all the time.” He explained that, for him not to respond to the directive view presented about the foulness of vaginas would relegate him to a position of an unhealthy and strange person. “If what you are saying is healthy, then I guess that makes me unhealthy…”

In the sixth session a White woman with AIDS was the presenter. She was in recovery from drug addiction, and her recovery from AIDS was directly informed by her participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

This person was a high level manager at a large multinational corporation when she discovered she had the virus. At one point in her continued employment at this corporation she was able to get the company to sponsor a forum on the subject of AIDS and recovery. She said of those few hundred employees who turned out, not one upper level manager, and almost no-one from management at all, showed up. One of the executives explained to her that, “This is a preppy company…. There’s no Gays here,… There’s no intravenous drug users here….”

Only the workers showed up, once again showing the class basis of the recovery movement. The managers are in denial. They are not susceptible to addiction or AIDS, and if they were they could not let anyone know. Besides, in that unlikely event, they can get private health care and psychological counseling — they would not have to share their “secret” with “lowly” everyday workers.

It is also an issue of social class — informing differences in nationality — that health care workers of Color in of Color community health care centers are in the recovery movement and access their jobs because of these diplomas derived from the University of Recovery. The “middle class” in the African American community, that is, management in a health care agency, for example, has wages and power in their sphere not much different from the average White working class person. There is much more harmony of interests between working class and “middle class” African Americans — as members of a group whose entire nationality is abused and exploited by the imperialist system — than there is between poor White working class people and the management class in White establishments. And there is more actual, objective, harmony of interests between poor White working class people and of Color nationalities as a whole, than any of these groups has with the owning class of the White nation. Racism is necessary for the owning class to cloud this fact.

The recovery movement is a health care people’s liberation movement, and all liberation movements, as the people develop them, have a merging of interests and mutual support for each other. The African American people’s freedom movement informs the Recovery Movement, which informs the working-class movement, and, in its turn, informs the Women’s Movements, which inform the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgender people’s liberation movement informs the liberation movements of the oppressed nations and peoples inform the people’s health care liberation movement informs the equal rights movement of people with disabilities.

During the seventh session of the Family Planning course sexuality was being discussed. An African America Sister began discussing graphically her experience with “premature ejaculation” with her partners. Her form of disclosure was inappropriate, as the depth of detail she volunteered was deeper than was necessary for the purpose of gaining the information she sought. Her content betrayed what we would call internalized sexism. She revealed that when she went to bed on her first or second dates with some men, that is, with men who she did not know well, “they would cum too fast.” Her response to them, she told us, was to get rid of them immediately, as they were not good lovers.

Other participants in the group tried to offer their opinions on this experience, but she continually cut them off, persisting in her detailed description. The form of this disclosure was over-disclosure and constituted acting out. It appeared from the form of her testimony that this person, while in recovery from drug addiction, was not in recovery from compulsive sexual acting out. She was getting a sexual/intrigue “hit” by over-disclosing.

Another Sister “ended the madness” by talking over her. She said “premature ejaculation” is a loaded, disassociated term from a society which militates against intimacy. When two people who do not know each other take off all of their clothes and try to be sexual with each other, they are in fact avoiding intimacy. Gaining intimacy is the process by which we get to know ourselves and each other. This culture sells us many ways of getting away from ourselves, many ways of avoiding intimacy. Sex addiction is one of them, she explained.

Sex addiction is not, at its base, having too much sex. No addiction is defined by “too much.” Sex addiction is defined by the behavior of misinterpreting and distorting the meaning of one’s sexual behavior. This is how we are identifying her behavior (over-disclosure) in this meeting — she was getting a “charge” out of being inappropriately graphic, and may have been sending a message that if there was a man in the room who would not “cum too fast” she would be available.

The second Sister went on to suggest that the concept that the man is a “no good” lover because he has a “premature ejaculation” is skewed meaning. The standpoint is from that of objectifying into an event or an act, something that is intrinsically a process. This standpoint does not see humans engaging ourselves and each other as subjects, as beings with lived value systems, purposes in our lives and love in our hearts. Separating the sex act from love leads to quantifying the experience — “good lover,” “cums too fast,” and so on. Real love making is a quality, part of a spiritual process, and cannot be quantified, weighed or measured.

The man who has a “premature ejaculation,” the second sister maintained, is one who, in most cases, is scared of intimacy. This may take the form of not caring about the feelings of his partner, or it may be an open reaction to taking his clothes off with someone who he does not know. That is generally a scary thing to do.

By cutting off the Sister’s acting out, the second Sister opened the way for a more honest discussion of sexuality as an expression of our deepest selves, as a central part of our spiritual identity.

Acting out on this level is very rare inside a recovery meeting. It is hard to imagine anyone going into an Overeaters meeting with a pile of unhealthy food. No one shows up to an NA meeting with the intention of using drugs at the meeting — it is simply the last place where a drug user would want to do such a thing. An Incest Survivors Anonymous meeting or a Parents Anonymous meeting are the last places someone would go to try to perpetrate a child. The definition or purport of a recovery meeting is the creation of the safest possible environment for common sufferers to not have to act on their common compulsions. This is the meaning of a recovery meeting.

While this person was acting out intrigue addiction on a level greater than it is likely to be seen in a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting, nevertheless, she was “brought back down” by the recovering people in the meeting. She was supported in letting go of her provocative behavior. This was a case of the recovery movement directly intervening in a real life situation outside of the recovery hall, outside of a recovery meeting.

The entire ten weeks were dominated by the recovery model, by health care workers who are the real experts on the issues of substance abuse, HIV outreach, sexual addiction, sex workers, parenting — the real experts on “family planning” in our communities. This confluence of working class people, People of Color, women, and people of varying sexual persuasions combined with the recovery way to transform a school class into an object lesson in oppressed people taking their own power on health care issues of major importance to us.


* Excerpted from A. Lynn. (2013). The Community Teacher’s Guide to Liberation Pedagogy, Boston, MA: Boston Women’s Fund Publishers.