Real Leaders

Opioids: Either America Changes, or we Change America

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” — Martin Luther King Jr., March 8, 1965

How we choose to act once we know what’s right reveals our character. Integrity is when our actions match our ideals — when our “insides” match our “outsides.” It’s a spiritual principle that has guided me through the last few years of my recovery from heroin addiction. Now that I know better, I can do better. And as I’ve learned more about the opioid crisis — who’s responsible for it, and who’s standing up to fight — I know what side of history I need to be on.

I was led into activism by the stories of the people I met — ordinary, everyday people whose lives were indelibly changed by addiction. Their voices speak loudly about the injustice of the opioid epidemic. Why are people with substance use disorder treated like second-class citizens? Why are we ignoring the genocide-level deaths that happen every day in every community across our nation? Why has the federal government been so slow to acknowledge the crisis, and even slower to take action? Why do we keep pretending that addiction is someone else’s problem? As I’ve listened, traveled, talked, and learned, the answers are more clear. 

We didn’t ask for these problems. We didn’t create them. But, we are empowered to end them. You, too, are empowered to do this work. You can save lives, just by taking a few simple steps. What looks to us like an insignificant change, as small as a single mustard seed, can grow into something great. As you make these changes and scatter these seeds, you never know what is going to take hold.

For me, it was a Facebook Live video of the Facing Addiction rally in Washington, DC, in 2015. That one-minute clip of people marching on the National Mall, holding signs and openly identifying themselves as being in recovery, changed my life forever. Because of that video, you’re reading this story. If you’re waiting for a sign, this is it. Today is your day. It’s time to rise up. How do we create change? We start with ourselves. Simply building awareness of substance use disorder can have a positive effect. I help raise awareness by putting myself out there, sharing what I’ve been through, and identifying myself as a person in recovery. I’m loud and proud. Although this was intimidating at first, I quickly connected with other people who had been through similar experiences.

I learned that the more I told my story, the less shame I felt. I also didn’t realize how much shame I was carrying until I started shedding it by being vocal. I decided I wasn’t going to hide anything I had been through. I didn’t want to be silent anymore. Telling my story gave me pride in who I am. Instead of weakening me, those experiences are a source of strength. I can express gratitude for what I’ve endured and be thankful for the many people who have helped me on my journey.

Having the courage to say “Yes, addiction affects me” also makes it possible for someone else to say “Me, too.” Telling your story opens the door for the person who is still living in the dark, silenced by stigma, sick and afraid. When we openly admit that our son or daughter is struggling with substance use, we help other people. Talking about substance use disorder the same way we talk about heart disease and breast cancer helps make it feel “normal.” My dream is that one day I’ll walk into a bookstore, and the rack of greeting cards will have a section for recovery anniversaries, right next to birthdays and graduations. 

We don’t need to have the answers; we just need to speak up. We need to share, without fear or shame. Once that barrier is broken, it creates so much freedom! Sharing allows other people to see us, love us, help us. It also gives a new face and a new voice to substance use disorder. Instead of old, harmful stereotypes, we can say, “This is what a person in recovery looks like.” 

Addiction dehumanized us — but we are people, too. Our leaders, and even our neighbors, seem to have forgotten that we are human beings. We are still Americans. We live here, too. We work, raise kids, and vote here. We deserve to be supported, just like anyone else affected by a chronic illness. We deserve that visibility, that respect, and that love. But, we’re not going to get it unless we reach out and demand it. We must rise up.

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