Monday, June 17, 2013

The Most Important Post I've Ever Written About Addiction and Recovery

I went to a screening of "The Anonymous People" movie on Saturday.  I met up with nine others, including my best friend and a co-host of The Bubble Hour, Amanda:

Amanda, Ellie, Holly, Jaclyn, Kylee
Here's where I could insert the usual rhetoric of "do they look like alcoholics or drug addicts to you?"

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. 
That last bullet point is the one I want to focus on. Changing the public's perception of addiction by TALKING ABOUT RECOVERY.  Because, everyone, RECOVERY WORKS.  There are more people in recovery from addiction than there are suffering from it.

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.


  1. Such an important post. As always, I'm in awe of your honesty and strength.

  2. Ellie, you are a force! love this post and you!

  3. Ellie, I am printing out your post and slipping it into some paperwork my son asked for. I hope he reads it when he sees it. I try and tell him I know the struggle that he is in with addiction but he won't talk to me about it. I want him to know that he's not alone.

  4. Ellie,I will share this post.I think that everybody suffering from addiction and the people that care about them should read this.
    I'm real colse to all the great ladies in the photo up top.I'm proud to call them friends and fellow people in recovery
    Thank you
    Paul DiVitto

  5. Operation Justice for JadenJune 17, 2013 at 4:49 PM

    I'd love for you to share our story, as your story was just shared on our page! We are the change we want to see. Thank you for inspiring others to learn from you and to challenge themselves. Recovering mommy's unite!

  6. I saw a screening, as well, and was so excited about it! Here was my comment on my Facebook Page the following day:

    Last night I attended the screening of The Anonymous People in Atherton, CA, and they've nailed it!!!!

    "Thank you" doesn't even describe my gratitude for what they've created with its spotlight on the modern addiction recovery movement (those seeing this film will likely be as surprised as I was by how far this effort had come before it fell off the cliff with Nixon's election and the policies that followed under subsequent administrations).

    The Anonymous People is sure to change societal views of addiction because it puts a face on addiction recovery, and as so many featured in the film so clearly, passionately, powerfully stated - we have no choice. Whether addiction touches you as an individual or you as a family member or you as a member of society experiencing its myriad of secondhand impacts - we must rally behind this effort to fight the stigma and shame that surround this disease. Only then can we stop its ravages and get to what really matters - intervening, treating and preventing this chronic, often relapsing brain disease.

    To find a screening coming to a city near you or to get involved, here's a link to their FB page,

  7. Your essay is the first I've seen to draw an analogy I've thought of often, but not seen in print: AIDS & addiction. Gay communities, in the 1970s & 1980s, were radicalized by righteous anger; they organized and acted up; they asserted their right to the franchise by demanding medical research and development. Public funerals, with open caskets, grieved America. Brave men (and some women, of course) were willing to dramatize a public shame. The real shame was on America, then and now, for standing by while people died. We need to learn some lessons from gay activism and bring a grievance to the streets. Neither addicts nor AIDS victims have anything to be ashamed of; but we both have plenty to grieve.

  8. I hope that this movie gets national release and the national attention it deserves. I don't know anyone who has seen it who isn't moved by it. We are all touched by addiction in some way. In my case it is my son who is now in recovery (1 year May 4!). I love the message and it is something needed in our country to turn the stigma around. I loved reading your post... you have a way with words and it's great that you are sharing this important message!

  9. Great post, Ellie. So important. Thank you.

  10. This is very exciting. You can definitely count on me for support. I have felt like I have battled the system with little to no impact. As an advocate for being "recovered" ... contingent upon spiritual growth AND as an author, coach, and speaker I see your work as invaluable and equally inspiring.

    Lisa Neumann
    (A recovered alcohol with long-term sobriety)

  11. Awesome! There are more and more voices and faces joining to emerge from the darkness of shame and stigma for the disease of addiction. Thrilled to find this and add to my list of heroes. Since 2007 we've been giving away wristbands: No Shame or Blame ~ Just Love! Together we are making a difference.

    Proud to be another voice and face in the exploding light,

    Jim's mom, Bill's sister and Amanda's aunt

  12. This sounds like a great project and I hope one day there will not be such a stigma associated with things like alcoholism, so people will be able to be better supported. My stepson passed away at the young age of 49 due to cirrhosis from alcoholism.

  13. Ellie, this is the first time I've read one of your articles. My 22-year-old daughter is an addict in recovery. The last three years have been an emotional rollercoaster. Watching her struggle with this disease and not directly being able to help her with it is painful and frustrating. I pray she keeps fighting to stay clean.

    I enjoyed your article and plan to keep visiting your site.
    I also wanted to ask you if you've ever heard of Heroes in Recovery?

  14. Excellent - the message and your voice are strong, impactful and life-giving.

  15. Wow! Kudos to all of you guys! I know it won’t be easy but I bet your mission will be successful one coz’ you have a righteous purpose. I just hope you will never lose the courage, passion and determination in living up for your belief and mission. Good luck guys!

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  16. Wonderful post! Thank you so much. I am really looking forward to seeing the film. I started speaking out about addiction over a year ago and have never regretted it. Here is my blog is you are interested:

  17. an awesome post. i really appreciate you for it. you have shared something really important. thanks a lot for it.

  18. This may very well be the most important post you've ever written about recovery....and it damn sure is one of the most powerful, concise & important post on recovery I've ever read. Thank you Ellie.

    I'm an actress, and I've never been prouder to be in a film in my life. The Anonymous People will change thousands of lives, and I believe will change how the world views addiction. One person at a time.

    Kristen Johnston

  19. This is a fine piece. I have just discovered your blog for the first time, doing research about the "Recovery Movement" which has not really taken hold in South africa, yet! However, we are screening The Anonymous People film here! Very excited by your response to it.
    Thank you

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