Today marks the fourth Thanksgiving where there will be an empty chair at our table. It also marks my son, Austin’s, 25th birthday. But he won’t be joining us, because he died of a drug overdose four years ago. A part of me died that day, too. My life, and my family’s, will never be the same because addiction ravaged us just as it ravages millions of families – of every color, religion, education, economic status, and moral code.
Austin began using alcohol when he was 14. By 15 he had moved on to marijuana and by 16 was using prescription drugs. From there it only got worse. Throughout our journey with Austin’s addiction – through countless therapists, interventions, therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness programs and ER visits – we were terrified and lost.
We were uncertain where to turn next, because there was no roadmap. Instead, there was a profound sense of hopelessness and helplessness. And, of course, the staggering expenses. Also through it all there was the stigma… and shame. Austin was ashamed he suffered from addiction, and could not overcome its grip. It is imponderable and so very sad to imagine someone being ashamed of having a serious illness.
After nearly six years, Austin was in a much better place. Finally, his life seemed settled, and there was a real sense of optimism and purpose. There was talk of a bright future…finishing college and on to grad school. And then I got the phone call that brings any parent to his or her knees: my beautiful boy was dead of a drug overdose. Even though we talked or texted every single day, I’m sure my son was too ashamed to call me and say, “Dad… I’m struggling again and I need your help.” And so, ours is just another sad story, and my son is only a memory.
Our country loses nearly 150,000 people – mostly young adults – each year to alcohol and other drugs. And then there are the more than 20 million who suffer every day from addiction. And only one in ten every receives any treatment. Can you imagine if only one in ten people suffering from cancer or diabetes ever received treatment? I suspect you can’t…because it is unimaginable…and unconscionable.
Last week the Surgeon General issued a history-making report on the addiction crisis in America. His message was clear: Addiction is a chronic illness, not a matter of moral failing. He told us addiction is preventable, addiction is treatable, and recovery is possible. But the Surgeon General also said science tells us how to solve this problem. Now we need to marshal the resources and will to address addiction in our communities. How we respond to this crisis is a moral test of America.
We all view the world through our own lenses, and too often we see and hear only the facts that reinforce our worldview. But just like going to the eye doctor, lenses can be changed. And when they are, we suddenly see the world differently. And that opens possibilities.
Because of the Surgeon General’s report, we have a new lens.
· Now we can see addiction for what it really is – an illness – and not a matter of moral failing. This changes everything.
· Now that we can see that people suffering from addiction are hurting and in need, rather than weak, everything changes.
· Now that we understand addiction demands a health care response, not a criminal justice response, it changes everything.
We need to see the people who are suffering from addiction for who they really are — our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, friends, neighbors and co-workers — people who did not ask or want to become ill, and who simply want and deserve our love and support on the journey to getting better and living their lives. If we all see addiction through this new lens, it truly changes everything.
Facing Addiction is proud to be partnering with the Surgeon General to turn the tide against addiction in America, but to succeed we need to build a massive movement of people who will help fight this fight. Not just people who are concerned about the addiction crisis, but people willing to step up and do something about it. To accomplish the tremendous amount of work that is needed in education, prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery, we need tens of millions to lend their help and financial support – just as they do every day with other major health issues such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on. We absolutely can defeat addiction, but we all need to do our part.
There is much to be thankful for this and every Thanksgiving. But there is also much to be concerned about. There is a health and human rights crisis that is crippling our nation and stealing our youth. With one in every three households impacted by addiction, everybody knows somebody whose life has been turned upside down – or worse.
If there is someone at your Thanksgiving table who is (or might be) struggling, don’t be afraid to show your love and compassion. It’s the first step in helping someone get better… and maybe even saving a life.
That first, small step is how we can all do our part to begin Facing Addiction in America. God knows… it’s time.