|Amanda, Ellie, Holly, Jaclyn, Kylee|
But I'm not.
Because The Anonymous People is at the front end of a movement - a Recovery Advocacy movement - and we're changing the vernacular, the way we talk about addiction.
That is a picture of people in Long Term Recovery.
The shining, smiling people in the photo above all have a chronic, progressive disease that if left untreated will kill us.
"Addiction is a disease without a cure, but WITH A SOLUTION." (William Cope Moyers)
When someone remarks on the fact that I'm not drinking and I say I'm an alcoholic, even if I quickly add "in recovery" right after, I already know that the word 'alcoholic' has connoted something for them. We all have a picture of what an alcoholic looks like in our mind's eye. If I say, however, "I don't drink because I'm in recovery", there is a smile and usually a "good for you!".
Everyone likes a good redemption story, and being in remission from addiction is right up there with being in remission from cancer or other chronic diseases.
Did you notice the word "remission"? That's because I'll never be cured. I am a Double Winner - someone with both cancer and alcoholism - and I know that I'll never be fully "cured" of either. But I also know my chances of staying in remission go up the longer BOTH my diseases are inactive.
Do you have a picture in your mind's eye about what recovery looks like? Most people don't, because recovery has long been kept in the shadows. Because of the stigma, most addicts and alcoholics do not speak openly about their recovery. The media is full of addiction horror stories, but there are very few recovery stories, and we're trying to change that.
Addiction is a disease. It has been recognized as a disease by the medical community for decades.
While the choice to take a drink or use a drug is voluntary, what happens to my brain vs. a "normal" person's brain is completely different. If a comparison to cancer or diabetes or other chronic diseases makes you uncomfortable, think of it like an allergy. My body reacts differently to alcohol, triggering compulsive behaviors (like wanting more) despite any negative consequences that may occur as a result of drinking.
So, people may say, "Just don't drink!! If you were allergic to peanuts, you'd stay away from peanuts!"
Here is the root of the stigma, I think, because the symptoms of the disease of alcoholism are behavioral. When someone is stuck in the cycle of addiction, they aren't trying to ruin their lives, or drink more than a normal person. They are trying to just have one or two, but since their bodies are hard-wired to respond differently, it just isn't possible. We call it "being born without an 'off' switch". It can take decades for the disease to take root, so evidence of addiction isn't always readily apparent.
By the time someone realizes there is a problem, they are usually caught in the emotional addiction (if not the physical one) and can't get out on their own. Their thinking is the problem - it's a brain disease - whether it's denial or the belief that if they try hard enough they can cut back or stop altogether.
An addict can no more think their way out of addiction than a cancer patient can think their way out of cancer.
Would you tell a cancer patient to 'stop' having cancer? Or a diabetic to start controlling their insulin on their own?
It sounds like I'm being facetious, but I'm not.
The "Just Say No" campaign in the eighties - arguably well intentioned- exacerbated the stigma of addiction in very harmful ways. While the campaign itself did little to curb addiction and addiction related problems in society and the economy, it cemented in the public's eye that it's possible to simply say NO to addiction. It furthered the belief that addiction is a moral failing or lack of willpower.
Willpower has absolutely nothing to do with addiction. If it did, addiction related issues wouldn't cost the US economy over $360 BILLION per year. If "just saying no" were enough, those of us suffering at the hands of addiction would have said no a long time ago.
What we need is vast policy change, healthcare reform, enough treatment beds and more reimbursement for treating addiction. The system is reluctant to "dump" money into rehabilitation, with the mistaken belief that addicts and alcoholics don't get better, or at least most of them don't. We should be treating the addiction problem in the US like any other health crisis, like cancer and obesity. But we aren't. WHY?
Here are some startling facts:
- 63% of Americans are impacted by addiction
- 67% of Americans observe a stigma towards addiction (this includes the addict themselves, who are trying desperately to 'cure' themselves of the problem, thinking they are weak or morally corrupt).
- 74% of addicts/alcoholics are ashamed to talk about addiction in their family
- 80% of people in prison are there due to addiction related issues
- Addiction (alcohol and illegal drugs) cost the US economy $366 BILLION in 2004. Add in prescription drug abuse which has reached EPIDEMIC proportions and that number goes WAY up.
- Over 20 million people struggle with addiction.
- THERE ARE OVER 23 MILLION PEOPLE IN LONG TERM RECOVERY IN AMERICA ALONE
Here's the rub, though. People don't recover on their own. Every single recovery program focuses on community - on finding other addicts and alcoholics who understand where you are and can help you navigate life without alcohol or drugs.
It doesn't matter what program of recovery you follow. Recovery advocacy is for EVERYONE.
You don't have to talk about HOW you recovery, just THAT you recover.
For those of us in programs that have anonymity as a tradition and who are confused about breaking this tradition, this point is KEY. How you stay sober isn't relevant. You do not have to be a mouthpiece for an individual program of recovery. You can talk about recovery without ever mentioning how you do it. When someone who is suffering asks you how you stay sober (and if you talk about recovery they will ask, I guarantee it), then you are free to share - in the sacredness of a one-on-one (or group) setting - how you do it.
But until the public understands that RECOVERY HAPPENS, people are going to stay stuck in addiction. People are going to misunderstand what addiction means. People aren't going to know it is quite literally on every street in America. Every street has someone stuck in the darkness and isolation of addiction, and every street has someone thriving in recovery. We have enough coverage of the destruction of addiction. We sensationalize the stories of celebrities crashing cars, going in and out of rehab. We condemn the havoc alcoholism and addiction bring to society.
We are sensationalizing the wrong thing. Let's sensationalize recovery.
How? How do we do this? Not everyone needs to stand on a hilltop and tell the world they are in recovery. For the same reason lots of people choose not to talk openly about their cancer, diabetes or other chronic illness, because it's personal. But usually a cancer or diabetes sufferer isn't ashamed (I know there are cases where shame comes into play in these diseases, too). An addict is almost always ashamed until - if they are lucky - they find their way into a program of recovery and discover they are NOT ALONE and there IS hope.
What we need are healthcare and policy changes that support an addict or alcoholic wanting help. If you decide you want help - even if you're forced to get help - it's astonishingly hard to get a bed in treatment. LONG TERM treatment is needed, whether it's inpatient or out, to start on the path to recovery. Even if you DO find a treatment program, it's usually prohibitively expensive.
To sum up: today in our society a person stuck in the cycle of addiction has to work their way past the stigma and shame, ask for help (and the statistic above shows that most people don't even want to tell their family) and then FIND that help. And then pay for it.
The system is BROKEN.
If we channeled money into prevention and treatment that $360 billion would go DOWN. Parents, this involves you, too. Prescription drug abuse is everywhere. Literally. Kids of every economic and ethnic background are trying these drugs, and for those that have the disease of addiction it is killing them. They don't just try an Oxy at a "Pharma-Party", they end up mere WEEKS later addicted to heroin. It's happening in YOUR community. It is not a reflection on your parenting.
It is an epidemic.
If you want to become involved in Recovery Advocacy, there are many places to go. Google recovery organizations in your state. Go to Faces and Voices of Recovery and see what they are doing there. Check out the trailer below for The Anonymous People.
There are other ways, too. If you have a family member who is struggling, open your heart and mind and realize they have a disease. This doesn't excuse behavior. Consequences of addiction needs to be acknowledge and amends to society and loved ones paid. I look at it this way:
Addiction is not my fault, but recovery is my responsibility.
Unless the public's perception of alcoholism and addiction changes, and more resources are dedicated to helping addicts as patients who have a disease, we will stay rooted in fear, stigma and reacting to this problem instead of being proactive.
Remember "Silence = Death"? The gay community recognized that the stigma surrounding their community was going to kill them unless they changed the public's perception of HIV. They came out of the shadows, stared down that stigma, and changed how the public (and policy makers) view HIV.
Addicts and alcoholics are in the same position. We DIE of this disease.. the one so may of us can't talk about. It will KILL us.
If you are an alcoholic in recovery, try changing the way you talk openly about your disease. You are a Person In Recovery. Even if you only have one day. Welcome. You are a miracle. Be proud.
Please watch this trailer- it's only 3 minutes. If you are in a position to do so - and I hope in the future many, many more of us will be in that position, SHOUT to everyone you know to watch this. If you have a loved one or friend who struggles or who is in recovery, this effects you, too. If you pay taxes this effects you.
Addiction impacts EVERYONE.
Get informed. Get active. Get well.