We Are Family

National rally reminds us how recovery expands our families

Nothing grows your family quite like joining the millions in recovery from substance use disorders.

Yes, while substance use can and does tear families apart, recovery has even more power – not just to pull families back together, but to profoundly expand the scope of our familial bonds.

That was never more apparent than at the national recovery rally held recently in Dallas. The Big Texas Rally for Recovery, as it is known, was the hub and capstone for this year’s National Recovery Month activities. And, for me, it felt like the few thousand people in attendance were all family.

Everywhere I went, I was just as apt to get a hug as a handshake. In fact, I got an extra special embrace from a young girl—she couldn’t have been more than 4 years old—who was making a point to give away free hugs to anyone she and her mom could find that day on the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge.

There’s something about recovery—with a culture defined by gratitude, humility, courage, forgiveness, resilience and service to others—that bonds us unconditionally, without regard to race, religion, gender, status or anything else. Anywhere in the world, I could meet someone in recovery and feel a strong, instant, family-like connection.

Recovery rallies are always a case in point, providing close-up evidence that my family now extends far beyond those people on my family tree. I’ll never forget that during the week of the Unite to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall—an historic event that celebrated its one-year anniversary on Oct. 4, 2016, just two days after the Dallas rally—I received way more friend requests on Facebook than I ever had before. Mostly from people I did not know – folks who felt connected simply by the social media activity that proved I was there at the event, like them. Looking back, I definitely get it. For many folks, it might be akin to “friending” a cousin or aunt you just learned about, though have never met.

That’s not to say everyone in recovery ought to be connected on Facebook. And, of course, we’re as imperfect as the rest of the universe, and prone to our own disagreements. Much like family.

What we do have, also like family, is an undeniable connection—a reference point for loving one another despite—and in some cases, because of—our inevitable differences. That’s how I feel about my fellows in recovery, anyway.

This bond is why, when I was at my mother’s funeral last year, I was not surprised to see two recovery friends show up out of the blue. And why I was comforted knowing they were sitting just a few pews behind me.

It’s why I can return to a recovery support meeting I haven’t been to in months and feel like I never skipped a beat.

It’s why I can accidentally leave a $400 camera in Dallas and trust, with no doubts, that the person who has it—someone I just met—will absolutely return it.

It’s why I offered my home to someone I met only once, for a brief time, in Washington, DC, and to others I’ve only met online at TheDailyPledge.org.

All of us in recovery, everyone connected to the recovery culture—we are a community.

We are family.

That was on my mind throughout the Big Texas Rally for Recovery—this notion that recovery not only restores families but also expands them. 

We Gather to Celebrate and Promote Recovery

Highlights from the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy's experience the weekend of the national recovery rally held Oct. 2, 2016, in Dallas. The Institute sponsored the Big Texas Rally for Recovery and also coordinated several events surrounding the rally.

Texas Roots

The Big Texas Rally for Recovery was a coming-home for our William Moyers, a Texas native whose keynote address touched on his five generations of roots there. William concluded his remarks by introducing a special speaker—11-year-old Emerson H.—or "the next generation of recovery advocate," as he described her. 

My colleague William Cope Moyers captured the notion well in his keynote address there. His family relationships were rather famously restored, as documented in his bestselling memoir Broken and his father Bill Moyers’ PBS series Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home. For William, the Dallas rally was a coming-home of sorts. A Texas native, his speech that day touched on five generations of roots there. And yet, he reserved the crescendo of his remarks to address his expanded family in the audience. “More than anything I stand here today with you, each and every one of us,” he said.

William concluded his remarks by introducing a special speaker—11-year-old Emerson H.—or “the next generation of recovery advocate,” as he described her. Emerson shared her own powerful words about how Five Star Kids—the Irving, TX-based site of our Betty Ford Center Children’s Program—had restored her family. With two counselors and her mother at her side, Emerson elicited emotional responses from a crowd that wrapped its collective arms around her and her mother. It was a wonderful testament to the great work of our Children’s Program, which not only restores families but extends family lines by helping to stop intergenerational cycles of addiction.

The rally was full of excitement, energy and joyful recovery, with non-stop entertainment and inspirational stories—how one might envision the ideal family celebration. We felt the connection at our exhibit booth on the bridge, where we met individuals from all walks of life – strangers on the one hand, loved ones on the other.

It was a vibe that carried over from the previous day, when our Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy joined Faces & Voices of Recovery to lead a recovery ambassador workshop for more than 200 people at Southern Methodist University, followed by an ice cream social and pep rally, along with a special screening of the new film Generation Found.

The workshop included an updated version of a classic Smash the Stigma presentation by my colleague William, whose fans there included a 6-year-old girl (It was a family affair indeed!) I helped with the workshop too, along with our national alumni director, Nell Hurley; Robert Ashford, a brilliant Ivy League graduate student who is a regular contributor to our efforts; and Flo Hilliard, Mike Barry and Patty McCarthy Metcalf of Faces & Voices (all advocacy stalwarts whom I consider part of my professional family).

One workshop participant—Angie Rogers from Richardson, Texas—lost her son Brandon (aka Bubba) to an opioid overdose in 2015. After honing her advocacy message at our workshop, Angie got the chance to put her new skills to the test the very next day when interviewed by a Dallas TV station. She was wonderful, and of all the people I met in Dallas, I left feeling more connected to her than anyone. She lost her son to addiction. I recently lost my mother to the same disease. In that way, we just sort of fit. And I am grateful now to be part of her recovery family and journey.

Following the workshop, I had the opportunity to emcee our ice cream social and pep rally. It featured live music and a number of inspirational speakers (including Kyle Pillans, a wonderful counselor with our Five Star Kids program, who instantly seemed like one of those family members I need to call more often), as well as a memorable interactive performance blending music, poetry and stories by Will Richey, who would also emcee the big rally the next day, and his creative partner Alejandro Perez, Jr.

Other speakers included:

  • Neil Scott, a recovery radio personality whom I met a year earlier and who has become every bit my “favorite uncle;”
  • Jan McCutchin, a vivacious SMU student health counselor and collegiate recovery advocate who shared a heartfelt professional education experience involving the Betty Ford Center and hosted us like a proud aunt; and
  • Joe Powell, CEO of the local host organization—the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction (APAA), who was adored like a respected oldest brother by everyone in attendance, including Zachary Thompson, Dallas County’s Director of Health and Human Services, who also spoke. So loved was Joe Powell, and so connected was I to him after being in touch for months leading up to the event, that I couldn’t help but say, “I love you” when bidding farewell the next day.

After the ice cream social and pep rally (listen to Neil Scott’s podcast of entire event), some of us remained at SMU for a nightcap screening of Generation Found (from the creators of The Anonymous People). The screening—co-hosted by our friends at Drug Prevention Resources—was followed by a special Q&A with three of the people featured in the film, which supports the restoration of families by advocating for more robust youth recovery supports.

There, I met Emilio Parker, whose inspiring story of redemption included five years of solitary confinement, during which he intentionally acted out daily just to get human interaction in the form of brutal beatings. Today, people like me are going out of our way to interact with him. On this weekend, Emilio was anything but solitary, surrounded by others and the spirit that only comes from overcoming life’s greatest obstacles and helping others do the same. The spirit of recovery.

I also met therapist, author and speaker John Cates—a recovery school and alternative peer group pioneer—who is also featured in Generation Found. John found recovery 40 years ago, and has created a legacy for others that now, it turns out, bears his family name. Three Oaks Academy, the recovery school he started in Houston, was recently renamed Cates Academy in his honor and will continue creating recovery families for years to come.

The other cast member who joined us was Sasha McLean, who heads up Archway Academy, the main recovery high school featured in the movie. If you haven’t seen Generation Found, please do so and you’ll see the impact recovery has had on Sasha’s family. Her son, Cole, in fact, plays a small but central role in the film, and I was honored to have him autograph my business card at the screening! It was a special night for Sasha because she was able to enjoy the screening with a large contingent of her own family. She got to show them her large “extended family”—the kids and parents whose lives she changes in her work every day. If you see the film, you’ll know this is more than metaphor. Sasha’s recovery family, including her recovery school family, gets all the love she can muster.

So too do the young people that Will Richey and Alejandro serve several times a year at their DaVerse Lounge events in Dallas. The youth there experience pure, unconditional love—agapé, as they call it—and, in the process, find healing, hope and their own voices through art and community.  

The result is a large extended “family” for Will too. And, for him, that community family is made all the more possible by the recovery he has experienced closest to home. In his performance at the ice cream social and pep rally, Will took the opportunity to introduce us to a family member whose recovery journey began at the Betty Ford Center, thanks to a free five-week treatment scholarship provided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

It was a memorable moment for him as he shared about the profound, positive impact recovery has had on his family—a family that, by the way, includes a new seven-week-old son who was in attendance as well.

It was a memorable moment for me too. Months ago, when my organization made plans to be in Dallas for this national recovery rally, we had no idea Will would be the emcee. Nor were we aware of his family member’s recovery journey. But their story epitomized our purpose there—to celebrate and promote the restoration of families. And along the way, we realized that family goes far beyond mother, father, sister, brother, sons and daughters. Far beyond the family tree. 

We are one big recovery family.

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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