There was a certain quality of light in the room that illuminated Director Michael Botticelli and his team – a hopeful, optimistic light rivaled in intensity only by my own anxiety in meeting the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. After introductions, everyone looked to me to begin. “I had planned to open with a fear inventory, but I didn’t expect such a big group,” I said, breaking the ice with an inside joke for those familiar with Twelve Step recovery. In all honesty, I had anticipated a 1:1 meeting, so the room full of people was a bit unnerving. Acknowledging my fears to another was probably warranted. But the warm response quickly erased any tension and confirmed what I knew of ONDCP calling upon people in recovery to make their voices heard. Director Botticelli and his team were interested in my story – not just my story as the director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s LGBTQ-Integrative addiction treatment program, but my story as a person in long-term recovery. And so I began. “At 21 years old, my best friend died of an opioid overdose that naloxone could have prevented,” I said. “Standing over his open casket with his mother as she sang him one last lullaby, I knew I never wanted to use again. “A year later, friends frantically searched the closet for naloxone as I performed CPR on my partner. I felt the warmth of my own breath pass back through a nostril, as I fought to find a better grip. Even in the panic, I was aware it could be the last time we would ever kiss. I had resisted calling 911 because the amount of heroin in the house would have resulted in decades of prison. But how would I face my partner’s parents if …? “Suddenly, someone found the naloxone. But it wasn’t working. So, the others administered an additional dose. I had to call 911. Running around looking to hide needles, on the phone with the operator, we all suddenly heard a gasp for air. I hung up the phone, carried my partner in my arms to the car, and we raced to the emergency room. My partner survived, but I was distraught. And with the person who always helped me inject my drugs now in the hospital, I had only one choice: that night, I learned how to shoot up on my own.” And so it went – my own version on the insanity of addiction. I explained how blessed I was to have family support when I reached out for help in the days that followed my partner’s overdose. Treatment saved my life, to be sure. And I now realize that the help I received was made possible by federal resources and years of advocacy by people who courageously shared their faces and voices to illustrate the power and possibility of recovery and to combat the stigmatizing, moralistic views of those who have never experienced addiction themselves. Today, I feel the call to advocacy as I once felt the call of recovery. I’m experiencing it similarly too – as a sort of spiritual awakening. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.” There are exceptions. But those of us in recovery almost inevitably connect to something inside that we did not expect to find within ourselves. When I talk about the spiritual experience of recovery, I am talking about the experience of waking up to the present, from the nightmare of addiction – no longer stuck constantly chasing something in the future, running from the accumulated fear, hurt, and anger of the past. Recovery advocacy can simply be a call upon those still suffering to join us in the present, to bring forth the person that addiction has buried within them. The Twelve Steps, which are a huge part of my recovery path, offer a framework for organizing the emotional injuries that can make it unbearable to be sober and present. And recovery communities give us space to meet in the present and set aside our plans for the future, if only for an hour. In time, we learn to stay present for longer periods, and we become more adept at noticing when we have drifted into the past and future. The process of identifying and addressing our fears, resentments and the self-seeking harm we have caused others – aka the inventory process – illuminates patterns that pull us out of the present. As we start to spend more time in the present, really remarkable things begin to happen. It becomes possible to relax into the gift of recovery and we discover that that which we are seeking is also seeking us. That inner resource we tap into, for me, is voice. Being present is the experience of receptivity, listening with all of the senses, with undivided attention. We don’t recover alone. As people begin to hear us, we become available to hear others. That is precisely what I experienced when meeting with the public servants at the ONDCP. I was able to share my voice, and I was genuinely heard. Not only that, but I listened just as intently, eager to be part of a larger collective voice for recovery, both as an individual and a representative of the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy. I was honored to hear others’ stories that day, and am inspired and humbled by the fact that Director Botticelli – a recovering person who happens to also be gay, is guiding U.S. drug policy. It is the most beautiful change I have witnessed in my lifetime – something unimaginable without the prior work of countless advocates. From my meeting at the ONDCP, I went on to meet with leaders from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). My purpose throughout the day was to talk about the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s efforts to advance quality and equity of care for LGBTQ people – work that itself is built on a foundation of advocacy, which I will write about more in a future blog. That night, as I reflected on the amazing opportunity to share my story and the story of my organization’s work, I looked on the ONDCP’s Twitter feed and read about HHS’s new proposal to increase funding for evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction and to expand the availability of naloxone to prevent overdoses. Wow. I could easily be in a federal prison. Instead, I’m sharing my redemption with federal policymakers who are advancing ideas that relate directly to my story. Recovery has taught me to notice these moments more and more – when that which you seek is also seeking you. ---------------- (Top photo, L to R) Buster Ross, Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s LGBTQ-Integrative treatment program; Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and Douglas Braun Harvey, sexual health author and trainer, psychotherapist, and founder of the Harvey Institute. (Photo mid-page, L to R) Douglas Braun Harvey; Tom Coderre, Senior Advisor to the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Pamela Hyde, SAMHSA Administrator; Buster Ross; and Elliot Kennedy, Special Expert in LGBT Affairs at the Office of Policy, Planning and Innovation. ---------------- Join the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy and the Christie Foundation for a symposium on preventing opioid deaths among young people June 10 on Capitol Hill. Event details here.