Recovery started for me on October 20, 1986 at age 21 the morning after my last use. The night before ended with a DUI, the latest consequence of a serious problem that had been building over the prior decade. I had a rapidly escalating addiction to drugs and alcohol that was destroying my life. I was filled with shame and remorse, and I woke up that morning experiencing a clarity that I had never had prior to that day. I was able to see for the first time how bad things were – and there were things others could plainly see which I had carefully hidden from myself.
I have not used a drink or a drug since that day, which was just under 28 years ago. My life has been defined in profoundly positive ways by my recovery. As odd as it may sound, as painful as it was for me at the time, it was easily the most important day of my life. The recovery process that has occurred after that day and the things I learned have defined who I am – not the addiction, but the healing and growth process that came out of it.
The first few months were difficult, but empowering – it was 1986, I was the youngest person in my area seeking help at that time. I had plenty of role models around me who were rebuilding their own lives and we were helping each other. I learned so much. I had not known addiction was a disease, that there were others like me, and that recovery was a reality for so many people. I hung out in safe places with other people on the same journey as I was and I learned a great deal about myself. Most importantly, I learned that I was a good person and that in recovery I was capable of doing much more than I ever thought possible with my life. I learned that the only real failure in life is the failure to not try. That every day brings new possibility, and that nothing is ever as hopeless as it may seem in the moment. There is tremendous power in asking for help and reaching out to help others. Most importantly there are a whole lot of really great people out in the world willing to help someone who asks for it. I became one of them.
One of the things I learned early on is that you have to give it away to keep it – and I started on a lifelong quest to help others. In the first few months I was doing service work within a 12 step fellowship and doing volunteer work at the local Habitat for Humanity. I celebrated nine months of recovery in Paris where I was doing volunteer work in the summer of 1987 after learning of an opportunity to go there to help with a project and saving money to make the trip. I embraced recovery and become active in the community. I learned everything I could about the disease of addiction and how to help people get better. I ended up becoming involved in treatment efforts in my community. I ended up running an outpatient treatment program for nearly a decade and then a 36 bed residential facility for 14 years.
Along the way I worked my way through college on a part time basis, obtaining three degrees, all with high honors. I had no idea that inside this person who had not been able to follow through with anything there was a 4.0 student! I am now a licensed Social Worker. More importantly, I have had the fantastic opportunity to live a full life – I am married for 21 years to my life partner. We have traveled and are doing things I could not have dreamed possible while in my addiction. One of my self-care “therapies” is regularly getting out of myself – I go bird watching or hiking, and have done things like taken pilot and hang gliding lessons. Having lived through the darkness of addiction, I love to try new things and to experience opportunities I would not or could not do back in those dark days.
Not everything has been positive – I have seen terrible discrimination against individuals with the disease of addiction. Their medical benefits illegally denied by insurance companies, individuals being treated with contempt and indifferences in hospitals, and other settings where they went to seek help but don’t receive any. I have repeatedly run across people in the medical profession, human services, and within government that have highly prejudicial views against those of us who suffer from addiction. I learned that there are many people who are quite uneducated and biased around the issues of addiction and recovery.
One of the biggest misconceptions that I have run across is the notion that people chose to be addicts. This misconception comes without regard to factors like trauma, genetics, and early life exposure. We know there are reasons why some people become addicted and others do not, just the same as any other disease. Do people choose heart disease or diabetes? Would we ever suggest that any other similar medical condition with behavioral components was a conscious choice? Has there ever been any other condition that has caused so much devastation and death across our nation for which we have done so little to help those who suffer from it?
I have lost family members to this disease. I have lost many more people I have known from addiction than all other causes combined. Being in recovery for 28 years starting at age 21, has been like watching a slow motion train wreck as creative, talented, and productive persons I know have been brought down by the disease addiction. Unfortunately, my experience is not at all uncommon in this regard, but I know that rarely do people acknowledge the cause behind the loss when it is drug and alcohol related. Quiet despair is the norm, not the exception. I have learned that hiding in my fears is a sure recipe for failure, while confronting those fears leads to enlightenment, healing, growth, and fulfillment. I think that this is analogous to our national experience with addiction – we need to acknowledge what is happening to our friends and families and to recognize that addiction is not a moral failing or a character flaw, but a disease like all the other ones. We can only effectively deal with addiction when we stop vilifying those who have it, and to treat it with all the resources we would any other disease. This disease profoundly impacts so many of us.
These experiences and observations have led me to become more steadily involved in advocacy work to improve public policy around addiction. I advocate for help in our state and at the federal level, speaking out publicly and educating others about the scope of the problem and the importance of developing better polices around treatment and how we look at the recovery process. I have been doing advocacy work for well over two decades, working to get laws enforced to provide treatment for people with substance use disorder, to protect the rights of individuals and families who are dealing with a drug or alcohol problem, and working to change things by referencing my experience. My work has taken me across our state and around our nation and I am very grateful to be able to do my part to change the conversation about addiction and recovery.
The recovery movement has been my life’s work. Addiction showed me what I was capable of destroying in my life – more importantly recovery has shown me what I had not known, my capacity to do good, to help others and to be a positive force in my community. I am grateful everyday for the ability to grow, love, and to help others because these are the things I have learned that are truly most important in life. We are all paying it forward and I owe so much to many very remarkable people.
Today, my life is amazing. At age 49 I am running the state wide recovery advocacy organization for Pennsylvania, which is in and of itself a remarkable thing for a person who did not expect to live past 30. I have had the tremendous honor of assisting others to get help in many settings over the last 25 years. I plan on doing more of the same with whatever time and energy I have remaining over the next several decades. The one thing I know with certainty is that in recovery, the fruits of our efforts can exceed our dreams because there are so many of us working to change things. We can do this together and I am ready, willing, and able to do my part.