Living recovery out loud is not something that’s possible for everyone. Anonymity is a personal choice and should always remain up to the individual. I want to make that absolutely clear, since there may be those who will disagree with what I have to say about choosing to live my recovery out loud.
Because, let’s face it, even though it must always remain a personal choice, I do believe the main reason many individuals choose to keep their recovery a secret is due to the potential repercussions caused by shame and stigma. A stigma that persists in our society towards individuals who have or have had a substance use disorder. The shame and stigma that’s associated with all mental illnesses, not just addiction.
By choosing to live my recovery out loud, I hope to make some sort of positive movement toward compassion over shame and stigma. If you understand addiction at all, you know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and that the individual struggling with this disorder is suffering. And if you don’t, I hope that I can help you come to understand . . .
Growing up as a little girl in New York, I was raised in what some might consider an ideal environment. I was raised in a small, charming town on Long Island, attended church every Sunday, was taught fundamental morals and values, and was provided with every opportunity a child could want. For me it was gymnastics, ballet, tennis, volleyball, track and field, and horse-back riding. My home life was equally picturesque, with lots of parties with family and friends.
My grandfather was a musician and every time we had a family party, my father, along with his brother and three sisters, would gather around the piano and sing together, as my grandfather played his favorite tunes. My brothers, cousins, and I were also encouraged to perform whatever instrument we happened to be playing at the time. We would put on other entertaining performances for the family, like comedy sketches, dance routines or acrobatics. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I realized just how Norman Rockwell my upbringing truly was.
My parents also raised me to believe that I could do and become anything I put my mind to, anything I chose, and that there was no limit to my ability for success, even as a woman (I hate having to add that last part, but it’s true). Yet, I also learned that my career choice was not exactly my “choice” as much as my choice from my parent’s list of acceptable choices. I once told my Mom, after a visit to the local beauty salon, that I wanted to be a hairdresser. She scoffed and told me that I was meant for greater things. I was baffled. I remember sitting in the car wondering what was wrong with being a hairdresser. Then I decided an airline stewardess sounded like fun. Afterall, they get to travel the world. Nope, that wouldn’t do either. Both my parents were educators and placed a very high value on higher education. A big problem with the career choices that were interesting to me at that time is that they didn’t require a college education. And this was the true crux of the problem because I was going to college and there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. I was going whether I wanted to or not.
It makes me laugh every time I think of it now and just how ironic it is today. It’s ironic because not once during my childhood did I, nor my poor parents for that matter, ever imagine I would become an “alcoholic.” I think there’s still a part of them that refuses to fully believe it’s true. And I can’t blame them. Aside from the fact that no parent wants to face that kind of reality, no child aspires to become an “alcoholic” or ‘drug addict.” Labels, which I believe add more insult to injury. I also don’t fit the general depiction of what I learned about someone who becomes alcoholic.
In my parent’s generation, and my generation as well, you’re taught to believe that alcoholics and drug addicts are homeless people who live under a bridge. The kind of people we would pass on our trips into the city. The ones who would beg for money as we walked by on the way to the theater. This was the message being conveyed throughout society. A message that’s unfortunately still perpetuated by way too many people who remain ignorant to the reality that is addiction.
Back then, what I knew about alcoholism and drug addiction was based upon an inaccurate illustration and a false depiction of what I would come to learn is a very complicated mental illness. Part of what I’ve come to know is that the folks who are homeless, some of whom may in fact live under a bridge, are the minority who struggle with addiction. More typically, these folks are struggling with other mental illnesses aside from addiction. The truth is they are not the majority in this country.
The majority are living within our communities in nice homes with nice cars and good jobs. In fact, they could be your doctor, lawyer, hairdresser, friend, sister, brother, husband, wife, or child. Believe it or not, they include people who are showing up for work every day. Addiction does not discriminate, but unfortunately people do. And generally, our discrimination is based upon what we’ve been taught to believe. Beliefs that we never question, and continue to pass on from generation to generation.
The truth is that under certain conditions, some outside of the person’s own control, developing an addiction to alcohol or other drugs can happen to anyone. The truth is that people struggling with addiction are suffering with a mental illness. A mental illness characterized by denial and destructive behavior. A mental illness that we can contribute to making worse or better. Yes, it’s true. We play a part. As a loved one and as a society!
Thinking back to that conversation with my mother, she was actually right! I was meant for greater things. Only not the “thing” or “things” she may have initially been referring to. The greater thing being a greater “purpose.” A greater purpose that came from overcoming an illness that nearly killed me. That greater purpose being my goal and mission to educate those that don’t know what they don’t know about addiction. That purpose being to help as many people as I possibly can, especially family members, to understand just how destructive condemnation, judgement and shame are to those who are afflicted with these issues.
The way to recovery is through compassion and compassionate confrontation. I have a colleague who shared with me something I’ve never forgotten, “Confrontation without compassion, is abuse!” I believe this is especially true of someone who is experiencing active addiction.
I also believe in, and am passionately committed to, living my recovery out loud. My hope is that one day this will be something that no human being is afraid to do. There are so many people who have successfully recovered from their addiction experience, and the sharing of that experience is what gives others hope and guidance to achieve the same.