It's National Recovery Month. Which, for a lot of us, is every month.
Two years ago this month, I started getting sober. (It had nothing to do with an awareness campaign. Just timing.) A year ago I wrote about sobriety publicly for the first time. So I have spent a lot of time learning about this space, and this year I want to share five things I believe about recovery right now, September 2017.
I write this as someone who has lived one part of this story; a person who spent the better part of a decade covering health issues, and one who, because of the these two things, accidentally started writing about sobriety, recovery, and addiction.
These are five themes that rise to the surface for me this month. Points within may change next month, next week, or tomorrow. But these do seem to be overarching themes that I'm coming back to again and again:
1. We’re in the midst of an epidemic. We are dying in record numbers every day.
21.7 million Americans currently struggle with some sort of substance abuse disorder. You have probably, surely by now heard of the opioid crisis, and the fact that deaths from drug overdoses is now the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
And though opiods like heroin, fentynyl and myriad pain pills are receiving more attention, an estimated 88,000 people each die year from alcohol-related causes. High risk drinking is up, and alcohol use disorder is up by 50 percent. As a population, some of the greatest increases are among women. According to research reported in JAMA, alcohol use disorder is up among women by 84 percent (Story here).
We are dying in record numbers: moms, dads, black, white, this epidemic slashes through socio-economic, geographic and cultural divides. It is not a “them” problem: it is an us problem.
2. The causes are complex.
This is not a simple story. It’s a story about neurobiology, genetics, big pharma, big marketing, cultural messaging, and a world in chaos. It’s about what we were born with, what we were taught, coping mechanisms, a world that continues to foster shame and stigma. It’s about people desperately seeking a way out: of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. And seeking a way in: for connection, for feeling “alive,” for belonging and freedom. It’s about complex socioeconomic and cultural factors. It is not an easy story to understand, unpack, or tell.
As with other complex issues, there are many good sources of information and many not so good sources. As one digs into the literature, blogs, and media, one must do it with discernment. A few questions to ask when evaluating stories around use and addiction: what is the author or creator’s viewpoint? What foundation is he or she grounded in? What research has been done to back up the information?
3. We do recover. There is hope.
1 in 10 Americans are in recovery -- more than 20 million Americans. There are many, many pathways to recovery. However, not everyone gets the help he or she needs, and recovery, as complex as it is, doesn't have a one-sized fits all solution.
Recovery today is both similar and different than in the past. Similar: the need for care, community, support, and work by the individual and his or her support network. Different: the way we connect with others (e.g., the rise of digital social networks), less stigma (in some cases), and more multi-modality systems of treatment. However, access to care continues to a complex barrier.
Judgement about why a person chooses one avenue of recovery over another is not helpful. Supporting, resourcing and loving people is.
4. We are waking up.
All over the place. People are engaging in discussions about what it is in the first place that draws us to tuning out. What is it that’s led us to a culture where it’s “the norm” to pair yoga with wine, children’s birthday parties with beer, signature cocktails with ... everything. People are noticing how drugs (yes, including the kind you can get in bottles at the grocery store) make them feel, look, and act lesser than their true nature. Some are starting to opt out long before use becomes “a problem.” Some younger people are opting out and choosing sobriety before they even start drinking or using. Sobriety is even becoming something to aspire too (see: the rise in sober social events, and allusions to sobriety in celebrity culture).
Again, the digital age has aided in this, with information sharing happening faster than ever before, with safe spaces for a person to explore what it means to life an alcohol/drug-free life. Today there are tons of blogs, podcasts, Instafeeds that celebrate sobriety. And the fact that this life is big, full, and actually better than when we were using.
5. How we (you, me, media and social media) talk about alcohol and other drugs matters
This is a big one, one that unfolds and evolves each day. One thing is for sure: the language we used to describe alcohol and drug use matters. Earlier this year the Associated Press stylebook issued new guidelines for journalists, like not using “addict” as a noun. “When the media start treating people with addiction with the same respect that they use for other patients— and when we cover addiction care with the same skepticism about possible quackery used in other health reporting— perhaps the rest of America will start to accept that addiction is a medical problem and that moralizing and punishment have failed.”
There is no consensus about the language around use and addiction. It’s a subject widely discussed in the recovery community, particularly the age old question of to identify or not to identify as an addict or alcoholic, and in what spaces (e.g., in anonymous 12-step rooms vs. to the world at large). Furthermore, some people who have given up alcohol or drugs don't self-identify as alcoholics, alcoholics, or being in recovery.
The most important thing is that we think about this language, and that people in recovery have a seat at the table in the creation of media accounts surrounding drug and alcohol use and/or addiction. It's a complex, present, and every day discussion. Ask them to be a part of it. Ask us. Because this is an "us" issue, not a them.