Unite to Face Addiction

Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy

A lifelong music guy nine years into recovery, I've enjoyed many concerts and festivals sober.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, where I work, even hosts its own great recovery festival, HazelFest, every summer.

Yet, for a number of reasons, nothing before compares to the "Unite to Face Addiction" concert, which on Oct. 4 drew tens of thousands of sober people to the National Mall in Washington, DC, to celebrate recovery and promote supportive public policy.

Hurricane Joaquin threatened but never came, clearing the way for an unprecedented weekend of advocacy in the nation's capital. The Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy was proud to be among 700 organizations involved in the historic event to advance the cause of smashing stigma, an effort our organization has been helping to lead for years. We also were able to host and participate in a number of related events over the long weekend, including a spirited pep rally the morning of the concert and a Capitol Hill symposium two days later. (Click here for photos, videos, and recaps of our surrounding activities.)

The whole experience was unforgettable, starting with the incredible music from Steven Tyler of Aerosmith; Joe Walsh of the Eagles; Sheryl Crow; one of my music heroes, Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive By Truckers; Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls; popular rock band The Fray; and uplifting and amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Butler, who performed with legendary bassist Nathan East, Grammy-winning songwriter Tommy Sims and Alex Newell of "Glee" fame. The whole gang capped off the night with a rousing ensemble performance of "Come Together" by The Beatles.

Unite to Face Addiction Concert

All of those performances were packed into an elaborate four-hour production that also included prominent speakers from all walks of life—pro sports, Hollywood, politics, comedy, business, grassroots organizations—you name it. The evening even included a video-taped message from President Obama and a nice letter from former President George W. Bush, read by our friend Ivana Grahovac from Transforming Youth Recovery.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy also broke some significant news, confirming on the concert stage that his office will release the first-ever Substance Use, Addiction and Health report in 2016.

Social media was bonkers all weekend, with Tweets and other messages from celebrities, public officials and other recovering people and allies throughout the country, including music stars like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Ringo Starr, Brad Paisley and Macklemore. This incredible video, shown at the concert, features more of the high-profile faces and voices supporting the event.

It was a huge milestone in a recovery advocacy movement that has been well documented by historian William White.

That history includes a landmark event in 1976 called Operation Understanding, at which 52 prominent Americans publicly proclaimed their recovery from alcoholism. A few years later, our namesake, Betty Ford, advanced the cause further by going public with her story of recovery—perhaps the most prominent American ever to do so. Our early president Dan Anderson also laid some important groundwork when he said it was our responsibility to educate every future generation about the promise and possibility of recovery. More recently, in 2001, our organization helped convene several key advocacy leaders in St. Paul, Minn., to lay out a strategy for eradicating stigma and influencing policies like the "Parity" legislation aimed at ensuring fair insurance benefits for substance use and mental health disorders.

William Moyers, our Vice President of Public Affairs and Community Relations and a mentor to me, was at that summit in St. Paul and has been a tireless leader in the ensuing years, working with others to sustain the energy launched in 2001. The modern recovery advocacy movement led to passage of the Parity law in 2008. And it led to these potent remarks by William on the Unite to Face Addiction stage, just prior to Steven Tyler's headlining performance.

William Moyers at National Mall William Moyers Speaks at Unite Concert

"For too long, addiction has been an illness of isolation. For too long, addiction has been cloaked in the stigma of private shame ... the stigma of public intolerance … the stigma of discriminating public policy. For too long, too many people have known addiction as nothing more than a lonely, lost condition of hopelessness and helplessness.

"But today … today TOO LONG…IS NO LONGER. Because today … HERE WE ARE!

"Today on this national mall we stand TOGETHER as the antidote to addiction. Today in our nation's capital we stand up together ... for those across our nation, who cannot yet stand. Today we speak out on behalf of those who have no voice. And yes, today we sing aloud in celebration of the promise and possibility of recovery. WE stand for hope. WE stand for help. WE stand for healing. WE stand together … United.

"WE unite to face addiction. WE unite to prove with our faces and our voices and our lives that addiction does not discriminate. ... And to prove that recovery should not discriminate either. Because WE are the fortunate ones. The ones who got well. And it is our responsibility, our opportunity … to come together as one, for the the sake of those who still suffer. For the sake of those who are not here today. WE unite to let them know, that they are not alone. WE unite to reassure them—that it is okay to ask for help. WE unite to tell their families that there is hope. WE unite, to keep the doors of treatment open ... and open wide, no matter how often those who suffer need to walk through them again. Most of all, we UNITE to let those who still suffer know that we stand ready to help them join our ranks.

"NO longer do we simply dream on about the promise and possibility of recovery. Today we live on, in our reality that recovery is real. Because it sounds and looks and lives like us. All of us. United."

The event drew much needed press coverage in Washington and throughout the country. I even got to spread the word on Minnesota's pre-eminent news radio station—WCCO (see the Oct. 1, 4 p.m. broadcast at 14:05 mark). And my colleague Buster Ross wrote a poignant piece for the Huffington Post.

For months, Unite to Face Addiction prompted widespread "standing up and speaking out" among my colleagues around the country. And it will keep people talking for some time, which is exactly what we need.

William White, the historian, has shared some important thoughts on what's next for the recovery advocacy movement. My own thoughts—we need to take the message to the recovery front lines. That's my mission where I work. The recovery advocacy world is, at present, but a sliver of the larger recovery world. We have millions more to engage—starting with our amazing and dedicated helping professionals.

We also need to make sure the recovery advocacy movement does not become insular, but instead remains outward-focused, committed not to creating rock star and super hero personalities, but to mobilizing the nation's professionals and peer support networks to bring recovery opportunities to the millions who need them. Recovery principles like humility, gratitude and service should continue to light our way.

We will push for more research, which may or may not solve the fundamental riddles of addiction. We will push for treatment over incarceration, investments in prevention and recovery supports, and practical tools like Naloxone, prescription drug monitoring programs and opioid disposal sites. In doing all this through the public faces and voices of those impacted, we may even change the culture around addiction and mainstream some of the recovery principles that would benefit all Americans.

But it's going to take more time. So, as we move forward on many fronts, I believe the consistent priority throughout needs to be "access to care and supportive others." And that means not just spreading the message about available solutions, but taking the solutions to the people, especially those least likely to access them on their own.

With a third of U.S. households affected in one way or another, perhaps we need something like a national recovery corps on par with efforts like Americorps, the Peace Corps and Teach for America. Perhaps we need an "Uber"-like app to help those who are struggling find supportive others within minutes, 24/7.

Just brainstorming, but it's clear people need help, and others want to help. Maybe that's our next big step—connecting the two on a scale that matches the huge and admirable ambition that led Facing Addiction and its co-founders Greg Williams and Jim Hood to pull off such a remarkable event on the National Mall.

Maybe that's one enduring legacy of Unite to Face Addiction - that it got us all thinking bigger.

Jeremiah Gardner, Mgr of Public Affairs and AdvocacyJeremiah Gardner, manager of public affairs and advocacy at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is a person in long-term recovery with a master's degree in addiction studies and a background in journalism, public affairs, business and music.

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