I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me is that I have not used any type of mood altering substance in over eight years. Recovery has allowed me to become a positive and contributing member of my family and community and to serve my state and our country in a variety of ways.
While I was actively in the grip of addiction, I thought that I was simply a bad person. I was filled with shame. I did not understand that I had a treatable condition. As a result, I hid my substance use and associated behavior, withdrew from family and friends, left college, and became very sick—to the point where any day could have been my last.
It was only when a person in recovery shared with me that I was not inherently bad and that I was more than my disease, that I became willing to seek and accept help. It is imperative that we educate both professionals and the public to understand that shame and stigma is particularly harmful because it does not reduce substance use, it merely pushes people facing addiction further into the shadows and away from pathways to health. Stigma is an ineffective deterrent and actually exacerbates the very condition people are trying to address by placing shame on themselves or others.
In recovery, I learned of a whole new question: should we keep our experiences with addiction and recovery as closely held secrets, or should we speak and write freely about our paths? Early in my recovery, I kept my journey and experiences very private. I was told that with my goal of becoming an attorney, publicly disclosing my substance use and incarceration could be detrimental to my career. I also had a misunderstanding regarding the 12-step tradition of anonymity. I thought that if I was speaking publicly in any way, I couldn’t talk about my recovery. I did not understand that the tradition of anonymity only asks that people do not identify themselves or others as members of a specific fellowship at the level of press, radio, or film.
I also wanted my work to stand on its own. When I began law school, I decided that I did not want or need to immediately be identified as “the guy who went from federal prison to law school.” I simply wanted to be a student among students, and if I were to emerge as a leader, it would be based on my work and leadership rather than my story. I do not regret this decision.
However, during my second year of law school, I found myself in a meeting with Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for President Obama. I had been appointed to the Mayor of Portland, Maine’s Substance Use Disorder Taskforce and Director Botticelli was at our meeting. The room included elected officials, law enforcement, advocates, and press. In his talk, Director Botticelli openly identified himself as a married gay man who was in long term recovery and who had been arrested in the past. It blew my mind that he was willing to share this publicly. There was no shame in his voice as he spoke these words. In fact, there was confidence.
This experience, and a subsequent experience in Washington, where I witnessed more people speak openly about recovery, made me reassess my decision to remain private about my path. I learned that advocacy is only effective when there is a visible constituency demanding change. The recovery movement, which consists of people and individuals dedicated to eliminating stigma and discrimination and increasing access to resources promoting prevention, treatment, and recovery is largely led by people open about being in recovery and our allies. We remain the minority among people in recovery. Millions of people in the United States are in recovery, but the vast majority stays silent. The changes we could make and number of lives we could save if even a fraction of these people became open would be phenomenal.
Many people still cling to the belief that they must publicly remain silent, whether due to personal or professional concerns or a misunderstanding of 12-step program traditions. Some also believe that writing, speaking, and sharing one’s story defeats the principal of humility. Whether one remains silent or speaks up is a personal choice and should be respected.
However, had I remained silent, had I kept quiet in an attempt to protect my career or personal relationships, I would not have received personal messages from two different mothers today asking for my guidance because both of their sons are now in recovery and being released from jail shortly. I would not have been invited to meet with children being held at correctional facilities, families grieving the loss of loved ones, or senators debating whether or not to fund a bill promoting recovery. I would not have interacted with thousands of people and families directly impacted by addiction and incarceration, had I remained silent. Change is effective and just when led by those directly impacted by the issue at hand. So long as the vast majority of people in recovery are unwilling to become a voice for advocacy, our battle to end discrimination and implement smart and humane policies will remain far more challenging than need be.
Whether to remain silent or join the fight remains a personal choice. But if we look to the root of the decision by many of us to remain in the shadows, is it not often simply based on fear?