The only way that the deadly trend of addiction will reverse itself in this country is if addicts feel comfortable asking for help.
On an uneventful Tuesday evening in the mid-fall, the sun fading behind the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, I went to the store after work and bought a six-pack of one of my favorite craft beers. Approaching the store refrigerator, I looked around, ensuring no one I knew was in there. No one was, so I proceeded with the purchase. As I put the sixer on the floor in the rear of the car, my mouth salivated—a tinge of excitement running through my midsection. The promise of relieved anxiety, stress, and racing thoughts made me feel better already.
I wanted to have only a couple—to get that relief—but then came the phenomenon of craving. I could not stop. Work might as well have been a week in the future, and the notion of responsibilities and consequences retreated. I had forgotten that just the prior week, I’d come off of a four-day spree that had left me emotionally and psychologically broken. A few days after the end of a binge, I become a minimizer: I forget how bad it was. Once I start drinking again, however, I catastrophize the world around: I feel as if I’ve ruined my life, and so might as well keep drinking. On that Tuesday night after drinking two or three beers, I went back out to the store and purchased what I really wanted: an 18-pack. I would continue drinking for nearly eight days straight. By the end of the spree, rooftops were looking pretty enticing. I chose going to treatment again, instead.
I am an addict and an alcoholic. To me, they’re one and the same, but some people differentiate. I haven’t done hard drugs in nearly a decade, but I’m pretty sure that a little sniff of cocaine would have my face in a pile of blow within a couple of hours. I stopped, for the most part, drinking hard alcohol. I tried drinking only after dinner, only on the weekends, never in the morning, never at work functions, only to celebrate, etc., etc., etc. None of it worked. Over the past year, every time I picked up a drink, it got worse. It’s a progressive disease, I was told, but I couldn’t keep up with how progressive it really had become. I couldn’t get sober, though I desperately wanted to. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. Even in the wake of having gone to five detoxes and two treatment facilities, I couldn’t make any sense of the notion that a single drink would lead me back to detox or treatment. But that’s what was happening and I was emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted. I wanted to die.
I have made thousands of poor choices because of drugs and alcohol (like urinating on the hood of a police car with the female police officer, unbeknownst to me, inside). Somehow or another—good fortune, mostly, and the ability to burn the candle at both ends for the better part of a decade—I made it through my twenties relatively unscathed by the legal system. I went to college and then graduate school. They gave me teaching fellowships. I published articles. All the while, I held down a professional job. But then I couldn’t keep it together anymore.
Since I got out of treatment for the second time a few months back (and really, whenever I’ve had stints of sobriety in the past—and I have had them), I’m a supportive boyfriend, a family man, and a hard worker. I have to come to terms with—to surrender to, if you don’t mind the lingo—the fact that I have a condition, a disorder, a disease that I’ll have to grapple with each day for the rest of my life. I’m able to do that—to mount a fight today—because of my ability to get to treatment.
Treatment may not have worked the first time. My first counselor might not have been the best fit. The first antidepressant I was prescribed my not have been the most effective. But I kept trying. And my ability to have access to the services I needed put me on a path. Many people in recovery who I’ve met did not get sober immediately. It takes what it takes. That doesn’t make addicts and alcoholics a group of morally bankrupt people. On the contrary: in my experience, addicts and alcoholics are good people who have behaved poorly due to a disease that keeps them in active addiction; yet, once emotional sobriety is attained, addicts are some of the most helpful and successful people among us. There is something to be said for an addict or alcoholic in recovery: how many of us have been pushed to the end of the road of despair?
In treatment, one of my roommates was a 37-year-old Iraq veteran who was married to a woman he incessantly talked about. He had struggled with the death of a friend when he was on a tour, got addicted to crystal meth soon after coming back to the States, and couldn’t quit on his own even though he desperately wanted to.
I met an 18-year-old skater from south Boston, back to treatment for the second-time, who made everyone laugh, was quick witted, and played an acoustic guitar with poignancy I’ve rarely heard come from a musical instrument. His mother had to Narcan (an opioid antagonist) his blue body to bring him back to life after he overdosed on heroin in his childhood bedroom.
I met a 44-year-old former pro baseball player who recognized he had a problem when he was taking shots of vodka in the morning before going to work. He had two beautiful little girls, whom he missed terribly, and whom he didn’t want to grow up with a father in active alcoholism.
I met a beautiful 23-year-old woman who painted pictures that ought to have been hung in a gallery, although she’d never had any formal training. She was the mother of a 10-month old little girl, but couldn’t get the needle out of her arm.
I met a 32-year-old financial advisor who first got hooked on opiates after a back surgery, and then sniffed heroin until his marriage was at the edge of the precipice; in treatment he, like almost all of us, hoped to be able to transform his life back to goals, aspirations, and dreams, instead of the mounting grotesque nightmare it had become.
It’s time, in this ever-growing divisive culture of crippling terroristic fear, for our leaders on both sides of the aisle to implement substantial legislation to deal with one of the deadliest epidemics in America: addiction. We are not bad people; we are sick. And we need as much help as we can get; we’ll give it back to society tenfold.
In the early stages of debate season, it seems that there is bipartisan support for additional legislation for addiction and mental health treatment—a right all Americans should have. In the last democratic debate of 2015, Bernie Sanders stated that addiction is a disease. Not a criminal activity. New Jersey Republican hopeful, Chris Christie, has made similar pleas, sharing an anecdote about a law school friend who succumbed to a Percocet addition: “When I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral, and looked across the pew at his three daughters, sobbing because their dad is gone –there but before the grace of God go I…It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them.” Hilary Clinton has proposed a $10 billion plan to combat addiction. Martin O’Malley has proposed a plan similar in scope. Vanity Fair reports that “Carly Fiorina had her own take on drug legalization, noting that one of her stepchildren lost her life to drug addiction. ‘We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having beer,’ she said, calling for criminal-justice reform and more money invested in treatment. Not all candidates have the same perspective (see Donald Trump’s rapidly changing views on drugs and addition), but the conversation is finally being had.
The United States is a country full of addicts. Dr. Kima Joy Taylor, who was the Director of the Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap (CATG) initiative, stated, in 2010, that “23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 – roughly equal to the entire population of Texas.” According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. Between From 2002 to 2013, ABC News reported that “the number of heroin deaths in the United States nearly quadrupled.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of heroin deaths reached “…nearly 8,300 in 2013…” Much of this drastic rise in heroin use and overdose is due to the overprescribing of opioids by doctors who simply don’t have enough addiction training to always know when they’re overprescribing, thus getting patients hooked—patients who may eventually look to the less expensive opiate option: heroin.
Michael Botticelli, the Director of National Drug Control Policy, has been in recovery for 27 years. He stated, in the December 13, 2015 edition of 60 Minutes, that he was comfortable talking about being a gay man “before I was comfortable talking about being an alcoholic…even kind of feeling that moment of hesitation about saying that I’m in recovery and not about being a gay man shows to me that we still have more work to do to really de-stigmatize addiction.” The first step towards serious reform in this country is not feeling embarrassed about your disease.
I write this not as someone who has made it through some spiritual journey to long-term sobriety and something like salvation. I write this as someone in the early stages of sobriety, trying, every day, to do the right thing, and then do it better tomorrow. I refuse to surrender to a disease that wants me dead. I write this with hope and faith in the process—with a firm belief that by coming out from the shadows I’ll be able to move forward to brighter days.
I’m exhausted from having to struggle in silence and secret behind closed doors. I’m exhausted from having to manufacture a medical condition—to lie—in order to keep my job because I was fearful that if I was honest I would have been told to clear out my desk. I’m exhausted from living a double life. Addiction doesn’t define me, but it is a part of who I am, and will always influence the way that I see the world.
The only way that the deadly trend of addiction will reverse itself in this country is if addicts feel comfortable asking for help—for no longer feeling like they are alone. Because battling addiction is one lonely endeavor. This movement can all start with a single action.
If you’ve read this far, you care about this issue at least a little bit. So take a small action. Sign the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act petition; the signatures are sent to the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thousands of small actions build momentum. And it’s momentum that this country needs to combat the epidemic that is addiction: better insurance, better treatment, better training for caretakers and parents, and better support services. The financial burden on the backs of many seeking treatment (I met a few people who paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket) makes it impossible to get worthwhile treatment. Let’s strengthen the infrastructure for addiction health services, and push our government to make treatment easily accessible to everyone who wants it.
If we don’t do something, and do it fast, this is an epidemic that will kill a generation—a generation that has so much to offer if we’re healthy. We’re all responsible for that health. At least one-tenth of this nation is sick with the same disease. What have we been waiting for?
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Photo: Getty Images