Who am I? A woman. An activist, believer in women’s empowerment, Jamerican. Progressive. I’m also a two-time breast cancer survivor. That last one is the most important to me. I want people to know me as a survivor. The road from discovery to recovery for me was not easy, but I’m proud to say that I’m on the other side. However, the story I want to share isn’t solely about the battles that I’ve gone through personally, but about the issue we’ve chosen to ignore for so long: support for our brothers and sisters facing addiction.
Years ago, a very close friend of mine was dealing with prescription drug issues. I was ill-prepared to address and deal with this problem, because of the way society and culture treated addiction. In hindsight, I was naïve. Nothing about my friend said, “He has a problem.” He was laid back and chill, like a surfer. He’d accomplished a lot in his young life. Over a six month period, I saw my friend go through so much. I didn’t realize it yet, but my friend’s path was formed by his substance abuse disorder. When I met him, he was living in a home—but then, he moved at least three times, arriving at each new place with fewer clothes and personal items than before. He ended up on my couch with only a small duffle bag. Even up close, I didn’t realize there was a problem. I just thought that my friend was just a dramatic and interesting person with some wild stories. I loved being entertained. I didn’t realize what was truly taking place.
Then one day, I came home early from work; my friend was passed out on the couch. There was a belt on the floor, a spoon that was bent and burnt. My heart stopped. I woke my friend up and asked him to quickly pack his bags and leave. I was terrified to see the problem up close, when it had been under my nose all along. I turned my back on my friend because I didn’t know how to deal with someone who was facing addiction.
Why wasn’t I ready for this, when I myself struggled with a chronic, life threatening disease? My experience as a breast cancer survivor could not have been more different than my friend’s. When I was first diagnosed in 2012, I had a moment of clarity. I used my social media platform to share my story. I kept my family and friends informed of the road I would be trudging. My message was that we must stay vigilant with our health, especially women. It’s so important to get screened early! The overwhelming support I received during my journey helped me recover quickly and helped me understand how precious our time here on earth is.
I found support at the national level, too. I started volunteering as speaker with Susan G. Komen. I got involved in the Race for the Cure, attended American Cancer Society events, and stayed vocal and active in causes that I care for. I was surrounded by so many opportunities and people willing to support and help me. It made a world of difference for me. I still use this platform to help as many women and share my experiences as much as possible.
Yet my journey wasn’t over yet. I worked as an independent contractor on multiple political campaigns. Often, these jobs left me without health insurance. I ended up being diagnosed again with a recurrence of my breast cancer in 2016. Again, I received support from my community. They helped guide me to low income based medical programs; eventually, I was able to get on Medicaid while working on a Congressional race in South Florida. My doctors through the second time around were and are phenomenal. I can’t express enough how supportive everyone in my life has been.
Every step of the way, I enjoyed the love and support of my community. It was the key ingredient in my recovery, and it’s what people with addiction are often not fortunate to have. Addiction is still frowned upon as a “moral failing” and not treated with the same urgency as cancer. After witnessing first hand how serious drug addiction is, I had to clearly reassess my own misgivings. My friends in recovery need the same amounts of care and support from family and friends that I did, when I was fighting cancer. People facing addiction should have access to recovery facilities. They should have the same medical resources and social services available to them that I did. These things are crucial to their survival. Why should they be treated any differently than I was?
The addiction epidemic is real. My friends, their stories, and the progression of this health crisis need to be handled with the same care as any other issue. Are cancer and drug addiction the same? No, but there is a human element that we must not ignore. Why do we shame our brothers and sisters when they seek help for their issues with drugs and alcohol? Nobody facing this challenge should feel helpless, ashamed, or embarrassed. Nor can we blame the people who are sick: I have seen how prescription-happy doctors can be with their patients. That could have been me, after all. At one point, when I was in remission from breast cancer, I was depressed, struggled with anxiety, and was experiencing pain. I was given prescriptions for all of my ailments—all kinds of pills, all at the same time. That could have been my one-way ticket down the road to my own addictions.
Nobody is above addiction: it is a health issue that affects everyone in our society. Turning a blind eye to it or blaming the people who suffer from this illness is not the solution. We must do better: we must work harder. The need to address and treat addiction is urgent and complex. It’s never as simple as the drink or drug. There may be bigger underlying problems leading potential addicts into active addiction: job loss, losing a loved one, ending a relationship, or the discovery of cancer.
We must find solutions to this epidemic. We must stay strong and support our loved ones that are going through these battles. So many face it alone. My wish is to continue the dialogue, create plans to help people with addiction, and start the healing process. We must look at the bigger picture and take steps to help the people who so desperately need it. We do it for people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, HIV and AIDS, and so many other chronic illnesses. Why should addiction be any different? Every addict is a person, and they should get the help and support we would give to anyone else.