“When I started using OxyContin, as a 17-year-old kid, I didn’t really know what I was using and I certainly didn’t know I was going to become physically dependent on it.”
I was naive to what I was doing to my body. On days I didn’t have it I would experience withdrawal, and sleep all day, but I had this idea that because doctors made the drugs, they were safe. Not realizing at the time this was basically synthetic heroin.
I’m 34 now and have been in recovery from addiction to opioids, alcohol and other drugs for just over 16 years – I know how long I’ve been in recovery better than I know my age.
There are 23.5 million people in recovery like me, though the 22.7 million people in need of treatment for substance use disorders issues dominate the headlines. Addiction stories are important, but people should realize that recovery should be at minimum an equal part of the stories on the issue.
With tremendous tragedy surrounding the current headlines, there remain a great many things to be hopeful about. There’s a lot of things strategically, systematically and individually that can be done to manage addiction.
I feel lucky to be alive, but it also makes me angry. Throughout the journey of my own recovery, it’s been depressing, frustrating, and in some ways, motivating, to watch the opioid crisis become a pandemic in slow motion. It’s validating to finally hear the president declare a national public health emergency, but it’s also angering: why didn’t President Bush or President Obama take bolder action as the statistical trends became horrifying during their tenures.
Part of the reason we are beginning to see bolder responses from elected leaders across the country is mounting civic engagement from individuals and families affected by addiction.
When the President’s Commission on Opioids released their interim recommendations this summer recovery supports were a glaring omission. So the organization I co-founded in 2015, Facing Addiction, coordinated more than 15,000 people to comment on this vital missing component to a comprehensive response. This week in the final report recovery support was deeply integrated into a number of the final recommendations.
People in recovery need ongoing support because addiction is a chronic illness. You don’t go to five days of “detox” or 28 days of “rehab” or receive outpatient treatment and sail off into the sunset. There is a lot of talk about treatment, treatment, treatment but we haven’t spent enough time studying how people get it and stay for the long-term.
I found alcohol when I was 12 years old and immediately began to chase that experience – how it washed away my fear and anxiety. Marijuana entered the picture pretty quickly after and by the time I was 15 years old, I was using opioids and benzodiazepines – anti-anxiety drugs including Xanax and Valium – basically anything me and my friends could find in medicine cabinets to start, and then moved to buying the pills from dealers.
Addiction was a serious, serious problem for me: from near fatal car accidents, to run-ins with the law, to problems in school, to severe challenges with my family, who kept trying to intervene. They began drug testing me at the end of high school, but I’d make up a story about how it was just one time.
I was really defiant, but my family still put me in an outpatient program at 17, where I acknowledged that pills were a problem in my life. I left the program after 15 days and was convinced I could drink alcohol and smoke marijuana, telling myself I was done with the opioid painkillers. Within a week of trying to just “drink and smoke”, I was back to using them.
My family convinced me to go to a chemical dependency center for adolescents after I was in a near-fatal car crash in July of 2001. I was placed with peers my age who had lived through what I lived through, and developed a desire to stop using, for good. I even was blessed to find a recovery house for young men to transition into after leaving the treatment program. That support helped me learn how to hold down jobs and improve relationships with my family and others.
My social group became young people who were also in recovery and we had incredible fun and memorable experiences: bungee jumping, sky diving, snowboarding, traveling and just being present. It was great to remember what we did the night before. I liked the person I had become and I regained some self-esteem that I had lost. It helped me repair a lot of shame and baggage from my active addiction.
I was lucky to get the early intervention, quality treatment, recovery supports and family support that I did. Adolescents do better in addiction treatment services than any other age group. I was able to sit in counseling and talk about the exact onset of my illness. If I went through that process at 35, I’d have to play back 23 years of using – a lot of which I most likely wouldn’t remember. I also might not have my family to support me.
There are also still a lot of negative public attitudes surrounding those suffering from addiction. As a society, we cast a lot of blame and shame towards people who become addicted, but we don’t really educate people about how and when addiction starts. It is more complicated than one day I woke up, age 12, and made a rational independent choice to become addicted to opioids.
I’m in long-term recovery today in spite of the broken acute care system we have in place. I returned home from my treatment and recovery house, and I wasn’t discharged to check in with a doctor. I didn’t have a recovery coach or a cohesive recovery plan.
I had only been engaged in a formal system of supports for just four months (which is a very long time comparatively). But that’s just 2%t of my entire recovery journey. We wouldn’t deal with people who have diabetes, heart disease, or asthma that way. We can’t afford to deal with addiction with short-term focused approaches and then blame some individuals for not being able to stay well long term.
We have a system problem. Our system to deal with addiction is woefully lacking – we leave a lot of it up to luck and chance. We tell people to avoid driving past liquor stores, get honest with your doctor about your history, and to delete certain numbers from your cellphone.
We basically tell people with this chronic illness we might be able to help you initiate your recovery, but then you are on your own. Good luck! The journey to long-term recovery for the leading cause of death for those under 50 in America shouldn’t have to be all luck. It’s up to all of us to get involved.
- Greg Williams, co-founder Facing Addiction, a leading national addiction recovery advocacy organization