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September is National Recovery Month; how many people who don’t work in the addiction field or are addiction advocates do you think are aware of this? I can tell you that until a few months ago, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a National Recovery Month. Why is that?!

 How is it that the disease of addiction which affects about 23 million people in the U.S. (and millions more when you add in their family members and friends) gets a whole month dedicated to it and hardly anyone knows about it? I mean we all know that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is in October, American Heart Month is in February, American Diabetes Month is in November, and World AIDS Day is in December. So why isn’t National Recovery Month more widely known?

Breaking the Stigma of Addiction

I think a huge reason is because of the stigma attached to addiction. Addiction is a complicated disease that isn’t easily understood or treated, and because of that it can be hard to get people to come together and support it in the same way they do for other diseases. Another reason is because some people don’t think of addiction as a disease so they won’t acknowledge anything having to do with it. So how do we break the stigma surrounding addiction, educate people about it, and build support? We do this by speaking up!

By sharing our stories, we give people an insider’s view of what living with addiction is really like. Whether it is from the addict’s perspective, the family member or friend, the emotions that we go through while our loved one is in active addiction are all the same. Even if you’ve never been touched personally by the disease of addiction, the helplessness, fear, guilt, shame, sadness, and loss are feelings everyone can relate to. Addiction does not discriminate; it is not unique to a location, it is happening everywhere and many people are suffering in silence. By talking about addiction and bringing it out of shadows, we take away the shame and feelings of loneliness; we encourage, support and educate which takes away the stigma and misconceptions about the disease.

By sharing our stories, we also show that there is life after addiction. There is a tendency in the media to portray addiction as a doomed way of life that only leads to desolation or death and while sadly that does happen; those are not the only two options available when it comes to addiction. There is something called recovery and it is a beautiful thing!

The Beauty of Recovery

I looked up the word recovery and the definitions that struck me the most were: “a return to a normal state of health, mind and strength” and “the action or process of regaining possession of something stolen or lost” - Oxford Dictionary. When my family members were in active addiction it really did seem as if they lost their mind; I didn't know who these people were anymore, they had lost all control and were completely taken over by their addiction. While my brother lost his battle with addiction, my sister and husband were able to return to a normal state of health, mind and strength and regain possession of their lives through recovery. By going through treatment, and attending 12-step programs, my sister and husband were able to turn their lives around and are now thriving. Recovery not only gave them their lives back, but it also brought them back to the family and for that I will be forever grateful.

Recovery has also benefited me because I realized that I needed help as the family member of addicts. After 14 years, I went back to Al-Anon and it has truly been life changing for me. Now that my family members are in long-term recovery, I am learning to deal with emotions and issues I kept buried for years and while it hasn't been easy, it's been necessary and very healing!

Advocating for Addiction

The other piece that needs to be done to spread awareness about addiction and National Recovery Month is to increase advocacy. There was an excellent quote from an article about the heroin epidemic in the Telegraph-Forum by Dierdre Shesgreen recently that addresses the lack of resources to battle the problem. The article states in part: 'Treatment is expensive, and lawmakers are reluctant to shift limited federal dollars from law enforcement to public health programs. And there's no powerful lobby for addicts, most of whom want to stay anonymous and rebuild broken lives, not become a poster child for drug policy reform.'

The article also goes on to quote Stuart Gitlow, past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a physician in Rhode Island: “We don't have a pink ribbon. There is no nationwide 'Walk for Addiction', no celebrity spokesperson. We're not that kind of disease.” When I read this, I couldn't stop nodding my head in agreement because this is so true!

One of the ways the issue of lobbying can be addressed is to speak to your local elected officials and share your story of addiction with them to help them understand what addiction really is. Once they are educated, you can work with them to increase outreach, treatment and funding in your community. Another option is to work with local law enforcement to address how they deal with addicts. Treatment versus incarceration is a huge issue going on across the country and criminal justice reform is desperately needed, along with a shift in mindset by police to deal with the issue. Finally, holding public events to talk about addiction and recovery will go a long way to educate the community, as well as bring addicts and their families out of hiding to show that there is help, support, hope and encouragement for those dealing with addiction and that recovery is possible.

When we speak up and come together as one voice to talk about addiction, powerful things can happen and we can literally save lives!

Nadine Herring is the owner of Virtually Nadine, a virtual assistant company that provides online administrative support and social media management to addiction specialists and social service organizations. I specialize in working with this undervalued and overworked field to help them deal with the time consuming process of running an organization.

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