Everything is Going to be OK

Change is happening for America, as it did for many of us

Twenty years ago last month, my new bosses sent me out on the road with orders to make change.

Specifically, “Go out and change public policy to make it easier for people to access treatment,” they said. “And while you’re at it, change public perception about addiction. Smash the stigma.”

Without batting an eye, I leapt at the order, no pun intended. It was a Leap Day in a Leap Year—February 29, 1996, my first day on the job at Hazelden. With no context except my own perspective, I had no idea how tough it would be to make change. Nor did I ever imagine how much I would change along the way. But I was ready to go.

“Sure, I can do this,” I assured Jerry Spicer, the CEO, and Jane Nakken, the VP who hired me as Hazelden’s public policy wonk. “Where’s the money?”

Back in 1996, Hazelden’s bottom line was healthy. As the nation’s leader in providing addiction treatment and the largest publisher of self-help material in the world, Hazelden could afford to pay for a staffer like me whose job wasn’t clinical or directly tied to revenue. My job helped to fulfill the mission forged by Dr. Dan Anderson to “educate every generation” about addiction. And that included politicians and the public who didn't know or believe it was a chronic illness or that treatment worked and recovery happens. 

Still, Hazelden was a non-profit, which means there’s never much within the margin for the extra financial muscle required to do policy work in Washington, DC, and capitals in states where Hazelden operates. Lobbyists aren’t cheap. And for every “pro” on an issue, there is a “con.” Insurance companies, the beer wholesalers and the distilled spirits industry were on the opposite side of Hazelden’s issues. And they had deeper pockets.

“OK, no problem,” I replied when Nakken and Spicer told me ours was a lean budget. “We’ll do it ourselves. Where are the troops?”

Winston Churchill once said the scariest thing about being a leader is glancing over your shoulder to notice that nobody is following. In 1996, Hazelden had legions of loyal, grateful alumni who were quick to do just about anything for us.  Except stand up and speak out to carry the message beyond the security of their anonymous recovery programs. “The problem with you is that you’re invisible,” the nation’s then drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, told me not long after I had started my job.  By “you” he meant people in recovery like me. Nobody saw us even though we were everywhere.

Early in my career, I gave a speech to a Rotary Club in St. Paul, Minn. It was about the impact of alcoholism in the workplace. Within a few minutes from my vantage point at the podium, I noted that the audience was fading on me; they’d heard this spiel before. And who hasn’t? The problems of addiction have been known for centuries. No wonder the public and the policymakers gave short shrift to any alternative to the so-called “war on drugs.” The problem is everywhere. They couldn’t see any alternative. They certainly didn’t believe that treatment works.

That day I abandoned my well-prepared text and, for the first time, told people what really matters. “I am an addict and an alcoholic. This is what one looks like. Four times over five years I needed treatment before I learned to take personal responsibility for managing my illness as a person in recovery. Treatment can work. Recovery does happen. I’m proof addiction doesn’t discriminate. And neither should recovery.”

Nothing’s been the same ever since. And as I look back over these past 20 years (yes, when you get to be my age, it’s permissible), I marvel at how much has changed with public policy, public perception and my own journey.

No longer do insurance companies discriminate against people and families who want to use their insurance to pay for treatment of substance use disorders or mental illness. Today almost all patients at Hazelden Betty Ford receive care thanks to insurance.

No longer is the “war on drugs” the sole approach to addressing addiction. From state capitals to Washington, DC, legislators are shifting their focus away from tough law enforcement, imprisonment and interdiction to adding millions of dollars in resources for prevention, treatment and even recovery support. On college campuses, sober dorms are thriving, and it’s even “hip” for students to hang out together to help each other stay in recovery.

Advances in brain research and pharmacology are helping to improve treatment modalities and outcomes. Yes, even medicines like Suboxone are being incorporated into abstinence-based therapies to help people with opioid use disorders overcome their cravings while in treatment and afterward.

Across the country in rural towns and big cities, the conversation about addiction, treatment and recovery is everywhere. No longer is the problem seen as solely affecting people “on the other side of the tracks” or living under bridges and in homeless shelters. What to do about the opioid epidemic is on everyone’s agenda and in the media every day.

More than anything else, what’s changed in the past two decades is the willingness of people like me from families like mine to stand up and speak out, sharing with our faces and voices the power of addiction and the promise and possibility of recovery from it. When I stood on the stage in front of thousands of people at the Unite to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall last October, it was the culmination of my dream to put a face not just on the problem, but on the solution, too. No longer are we silent or invisible.

Along the way, I’ve met a remarkable cadre of advocates like me. None more inspiring than Betty Ford, who reminded me once that to change the terms of the public debate for the sake of those who still suffers starts with us: “You know, William, the most important responsibility you and I have is to use our own stories to tell others that everything is going to be OK.”

Twenty years along my professional career and personal journey, with the highest of highs and even some lowest of lows, it has all been OK for me too.

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