Raising the Curtain on Recovery
The most important thing to know about me is that I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction. That means that this month – June 2017 – I celebrate 25 continuous years without mind-altering substances.
But my life in recovery has meant so much more than not using substances. It’s meant being comfortable in my own skin, secure in my sexuality, engaging with my family and community, accepting new roles and responsibilities and moving closer to a potential that I was previously unable to imagine for myself before recovery.
I am living proof that recovery is possible, and my mission is to ensure that my story is not an anomaly. Recovery must be the expectation – not the exception – for every individual who experiences active addiction.
Telling the Truth
That’s why I’m pleased to be the National Council’s vice president for addiction and recovery. If it’s true that you should never let a good crisis go to waste, we haven’t a moment to lose. We are currently in the midst of a sweeping opioid epidemic. Estimates are that as many as 65,000 people died of a drug overdose in the United States in 2016.
To be truthful, unleashed addiction has been devastating our communities for decades. It is getting media and public attention because now it is taking place in middle class, white, suburban communities. If that’s what it takes to get attention, let’s leverage it strategically.
We’ll use it to say it’s unacceptable that people with the chronic disease of addiction are offered short and inadequate episodes of treatment, then blamed when they return to using substances. That it’s unacceptable that people are still locked up for having the chronic disease of addiction, then face multiple barriers when they reenter the community. That it’s unacceptable that people from a range of backgrounds, cultures and communities are dying from a preventable and treatable condition from which they can recover.
Just substitute the words “diabetes” or “heart disease” in place of “addiction” and think about how ridiculous the previous sentences sound. We provide people with diabetes and heart disease evidence-based treatments for as long as they need them. We offer both preventive and self-management measures – including support for managing diet and exercise – to help them recover and lead productive, healthy, satisfying lives.
Once we begin to address addiction as a chronic disease and revamp systems to offer prevention, treatment and recovery, we will see the needle move from despair to hope. I have seen the power of hope in my own life and in the lives of others. Every day, we see people connect to purpose and potential, moving toward wellness and self-realization. The hope of recovery is a spark that ignites and changes all of our lives.
Lighting the Spark
So, how do we ignite that spark? First, and foremost, we must honor the lived experience of people in recovery and make ample room for their stories to be heard. If people don’t believe that long-term recovery is possible, it’s because they don’t see it. We must raise the curtain on recovery as the best kept secret in America!
Second, to help people in recovery be seen and heard, we must remove barriers to recovery.
When I got into recovery, my recovery capital (internal and external supports) was pretty high: a college degree, employable skills and a secure place to live in an urban area with a vast network of recovery supports. Plus, I did not have a criminal record. In my work in communities across the country, I’ve encountered far too many people who have poor recovery capital, including a combination of lack of a high school diploma, poor job experience, no stable housing, debt and bad credit, criminal justice involvement and more.
Third, to help remove barriers to recovery, we must give adequate resources to build capacity in communities, because that is where recovery is cultivated and nourished. I am told there are people who recover from addiction all by themselves, but I personally don’t know any of them. People recover best when they recover together, in community settings that prioritize ongoing recovery by offering resources, support and common space.
Recovery and prevention are more closely linked than people realize. Both are fully grounded in community experience and require a full response from multiple community stakeholders. And like recovery supports, prevention initiatives need to be embedded throughout the continuum of care and accessible to everyone.
A final point about treatment. For many, good treatment is the initial pathway to recovery. For treatment to be effective, it needs to address addiction as a chronic disease. More importantly, people seeking recovery need access to a full menu of evidence-based practices, modalities and interventions, including medication. Many need assistance choosing what is right for them, at what time, for how long and in their own community. And, in light of an opioid epidemic, no one should be turned away from treatment for any reason.
Sustaining our Progress
Our understanding of addiction, treatment and recovery have evolved considerably in recent years. Recovery communities are flourishing, peers are an accepted part of health care teams, prevention efforts are being successfully implemented in diverse communities, and treatment is becoming more responsive to addressing addiction as a chronic brain disease. But just when we have so much to celebrate, we are in danger of turning back the clock on our progress. Increasing efforts to criminalize addiction, to strip individuals of life-saving insurance benefits and to ratchet up stigma and shame cannot be allowed to take hold. I’ll examine these issues in my next blog post.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at Tom H@TheNationalCouncil.org. Let me know what recovery means to you and how the National Council can support your efforts to spread the hope that recovery is real. The clock is ticking.