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Vitka Eisen, MSW, Ed.D.

President and CEO of HealthRIGHT 360, and a board member of the National Council for Behavioral Health

Reflections on Recovery: What Brad Pitt and I Have in Common

September 30, 2019 | Addiction Treatment | Comments
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Brad Pitt recently told The New York Times, “I had taken things as far as I could take it, so I removed my drinking privileges.”

As a former injection heroin user and the CEO of an organization that has treated tens of thousands of people for substance use disorder, I appreciate his candor. It helps normalize his struggles with alcohol use, something he shares with millions of Americans. But significantly more meaningful to me is his willingness to characterize his situation in terms that work for him.

After participating in treatment in the early 1980s, I never used heroin again. For more than three decades, I have described myself as a person in long-term recovery – mostly because it felt like the best option out of the terminology available to me.

I don’t drink alcohol or use drugs, and because I want to be around as long as possible for my family, I quit smoking some 20 years ago. That said, I would never describe myself today as “clean” because I don’t agree that, even in my darkest days, I was ever “dirty.” And I reject the idea that anyone should ever be thought of that way.

Unlike some of the people I admire most in this world, I don’t consciously strive on a daily basis to refrain from drug use. I have never personally felt connected with fellowship meetings and the only people who keep track of my time away from heroin are my staff who occasionally drop the detail into grant applications.

I take no pride in my decades away from heroin use when compared to a person who is celebrating 24 drug-free hours. In fact, I speculate that I have worked less hard in the past day to refrain from drug use than that person and many like them. So, am I a person in recovery?

This week a dear colleague declared on Facebook that his cancer was officially five years in remission. Remission is defined as “time when a disease becomes less severe” (I looked it up). The internet resounded that he is a cancer survivor. Do I also have license to use that term?

The treatment industry is inching away from accusatory terms like “clean” and ”dirty” in an effort to decrease stigma associated with substance use. This includes embracing harm reduction strategies that support each individual’s goals around drug or alcohol use.

Is the person who steps down from smoking methamphetamine daily to using cannabis (while maintaining a home and a job) “dirty,” or are they entitled to claim a personal victory? Are they in recovery from meth use? If that is a definition that works for them, then yes.

Like Brad Pitt, my journey is my own. I honor and respect those who feel a personal connection to terms like “clean” or “sober,” but to my treatment provider colleagues who are lighting the way for others, I encourage flexibility with language, free from hierarchy or judgement.