Monday, November 08, 2010

Identity to one's cause

After hosting the NCADD-NJ 2010 Advocacy Leadership Conference, which was held on October 1st and 2nd, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the different reasons of why this year’s class decided to apply and come together for a weekend of educational value and skill building.
I remember going through the selection process for this year’s leadership class and thinking how impressive this group was on paper, and being eager to meet the 2010 leaders in person. After the conference, getting to know the new leaders was a pleasure and I was even more impressed with everyone.
The diversity in background was tremendous.
Professionals looking to further their education on the issues most affecting the lives in their communities. Nurses, educators, providers, prevention specialists were among the professionals in this year’s class.
Some were there as people in recovery, looking to find a way to give others what they had attained through a life in recovery. Others were family members who lost loved ones to addiction, looking to fill a void and speak for those who are unable to do so themselves.
When introducing myself to this year’s leaders during the welcoming remarks on October 1st, I made a point to talk about looking at this as a growing grassroots advocacy movement.
I reminded this year’s participants that all advocacy movements share two defining characteristics. Leaders involved with civil rights, women’s rights, gay equality rights, voting rights, and environmental rights, for example, share a commonality that each:
1. Took progress and patience while winning step by step, and
2. Required those who were being discriminated against, or socially oppressed to speak out about injustice and inequality.
The 2008-2010 leader classes, who total 80 members, are at the core of the movement for addiction treatment and the fight against stigma.
One of the first things we did at the conference was give the attendees an opportunity to share with the other leaders why they were there. We talked about identity to a cause as I shared a quote from President Woodrow Wilson:
“Absolute identity with one's cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.”
While the diversity of the conference was impressive, all of these leaders had something in common. They were motivated to be there.
Listening to the leaders’ reasons for why applying to the program, I was reminded of a story from my past that was instrumental in my own work as an advocate for a number of causes over the years.
When I was just 17 years old, I met a woman by the name of Lois Gibb. I met Lois at a conference being held in Elmer, New Jersey. At the time, I had been working for an environmental cause going door to door through rain and winter conditions in New England for several years on environmental issues. The work was tiring, and I needed a reminder of why I chose to do the work I was doing at the time.
Lois Gibb is an environmental activist who gained national attention in the late 70s and early 80s when she discovered that her 7 year old son’s elementary school had been built over a toxic waste dump. Upon further investigation, it was found that her entire community, known as Love Canal, in New York had been built over the toxic dump. The illnesses within the community and rate of learning disabilities in children in her community were staggering.
She talked to the conference I was attending about the challenges she had to overcome. The fear of speaking out, standing up for what is right, and having the courage to knock on her neighbors doors to discuss her concerns and organize her community.
In fact, Lois Gibb explained that the first time she thought she had the courage to go up to that first neighbor’s door she did not have the strength to see it through - she went to go and knock on the door, but fear overcame her, she hesitated and walked away.
She tried again, unsuccessfully.
After a number of failed attempts to make that first step, she brought her son with her to knock on that first door, which was the first step to leading her neighbors into a battle with local, state, and the federal officials that led to 833 families eventually being evacuated and the area beginning to be cleaned up. This led to the creation of the national Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund, which is used to locate and clean up toxic waste sites throughout the country.
Lois Gibb knocked on a door, and then another.
All of this was a result of Lois’s identity with her cause and willingness to stand up for her son, herself, and her community members. This story is one I often think of when I stop to think about why I personally have continued to do work that supports the needs of others.
The initial feeling of being alone in your cause is common in all. That feeling, that something just isn’t right, but what can I really do about it. I can’t possibly have enough impact.
The Advocacy Leadership Program continues to prove that we are not alone in the fight for others.
We know that people continue to die from addiction, crime is committed as a result of addiction that strains communities, non-violent drug offenders are receiving prison sentences with no help for the root cause, putting an enormous burden on tax payers and our prison system, and only 55,000 of the estimated 805,000 residents in New Jersey seeking treatment actually received it. Of the 805,000 residents in need of treatment only 7% we able to get help. The other 93% also need to be fought for, and the Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap-NJ Advocacy Leaders know that.
Nearly 80 leaders have taken part in the Advocacy Leadership Program in the past three years, which now has trained leaders in 33 out of New Jersey’s 40 Legislative Districts. This has been a process that will continue to till the soil for leader and legislative successes in years to come.
It is through the leaders’ collective strength that the Advocacy Leadership Program has been and will continue to be a driving grassroots force to put a face and a voice on New Jersey’s most pressing addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery issues.
Each leader has the same driving passion that Lois Gibb had, and the accomplishments and success of the Advocacy Leadership Program will be the result of this motivation and courage.
Leaders are currently broken down into Regional Advocacy Teams that will meet regularly to educate their communities, elected officials and policy decision makers. For more on the Advocacy Leadership Program, go to the Advocacy Leadership Page on NCADD-NJ’s website linked below.
-Aaron Kucharski is NCADD-NJ’s Advocate Trainer and can be reached at

Friday, October 29, 2010

The greats are no different when it comes to addiction

A recent column by New York Times Sports Columnist George Vecsey (Home runs and demons for Hamilton and Mantle) examines the lives of Mickey Mantle and the Texas Rangers Josh Hamilton. The article looks at how each of their lives and careers were marked by addiction (Mantle’s with alcohol, Hamilton’s with cocaine) and contrasts the attitudes of the times in which they lived and played.

Certainly, much has changed with respect to addiction in both attitudes and science. Yet some telling slips of language reveal that while much has changed in the nearly half century that separates their careers, much has not: Vecsey writes of Hamilton’s “raging weaknesses” that nearly took him “all the way down.” He adds that Hamilton was given “the ammunition to stave off the desires.” Later in the article, Vecsey writes of the bad company Mantle kept, namely teammate Billy Martin, but he then adds, “Mantle knew he had himself to blame.”

In calling Hamilton’s cocaine problem a weakness and a desire and in saying Mantle was to blame, Vecsey reinforces the idea that addiction is a matter of choice and that one’s will can overcome it. Anyone who has been addicted or has had a family member in the grips of alcohol knows too well that a person cannot will himself/herself out of addiction.

With the help of faith, Hamilton appears now to be in stable recovery. A combination of faith and friendship helped Mantle ultimately become sober. But Vecsey notes that Mantle carried “shame and sadness” to the end of his life in the public eye. Mantle may have felt shame until his final days, but by emphasizing that rather than the possibility that he may have gained some measure of peace in his sobriety, the column suggests humiliation is an inescapeable albatross for people in active addiction and in recovery.

Vecsey’s article is meant as a sympathetic portrayal of the similarities as well as the differences in the lives of two outstanding players, two men whose athletic prowess offered no immunity to addiction. In fact, their stature and celebrity clearly played a part in making them feel invincible, which in turn began their problems with alcohol and drugs. Before long, they were in the hold of something they were not going to break free of on their own. Personal weakness was not at the root of their problems, nor was individual strength or determination the source of their recovery.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

2010 Recovery Walk and Rally

The City of Brotherly Love most certainly lived up to its name the weekend of September 25. I had the privilege of attending the national recovery walk and rally held at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, Pa. Recovery Walk 2010 was part of the National Recovery Month’s celebration of recovery from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, held each September. The greater Philly walk was the national hub for all Recovery month events around the nation. The weather was perfect - bright and, sunny, which seemed to reflect the mood of most in attendance-- the currency of the day being primarily hugs and smiles and a spirit of celebration. Before and after the walk there was a rally where dignitaries and a few celebrities gave speeches to a captivated audience. Among the key speakers were Mayor Nutter (Philadelphia), Gil Kerlikowske (National Director Office of Drug Control Policy), who read a proclamation from President Obama , and famous actor Christopher Kennedy Lawford, to name just a few. The number of people who came together to celebrate was awe -inspiring. In attendance were persons in long-term recovery, their family members and allies in addiction treatment and prevention fields, faith-based community members, and mutual support fellowships. It was the perfect demonstration of the collaborative effort that has become an integral part of the national growing recovery movement. It was amazing to see so many people come together from so many different paths to celebrate recovery. I spent most of the day listening to messages of hope, inspiration and love. It truly was a celebration of recovery. The announced number of those in attendance was upwards of 11,000. What follows is a sampling of viewpoints about the day and recovery in general. After all that’s what the recovery movement is all about, the people whose lives have been affected by addiction and recovery.

Helen Maloney is the owner of Freedom House, a halfway house for women, located in Levittown Pa. Maloney, in recovery for 12 years, had this to say about the event, “This is such a positive reinforcement that recovery is possible…it shows how prevalent this thing is, everybody knows someone affected by it — we come here from all walks of life and we do succeed in our recovery.” Through her work, Maloney sees firsthand that recovery is a reality and still keeps in touch with some of her former clients who now have eight and nine years sober.

There was so much positive energy at the walk that it was palpable. It really was a feel-good day. One of those contributing to this energy was Brenda Hicks, 21 years in recovery. Ms Hicks thinks that “society has a certain way that they see addicts…but here you see all these clean, bright, happy faces, strong faces ready to walk- it’s a wonderful thing. There is so much positive energy here.”

Another person who had an inspiring message was Elves Rosato. Mr. Rosato, is 18 years in recovery, and works at a counselor at CADE kids. He pointed out that at this rally we were in fact “celebrating change” and conveyed to me a story about a child he once worked with who told him “you still saw me as a human being even when I was at my worst.” Rosato believes it is his mission and job to “take the ugliness out of the disease and to see the addicted individual as a person.” What a testament to the love and compassion of the dedicated professionals who work in this field.

The idea of change seemed to be another recurring message echoing throughout the day. Dave from Trenton, 17 years in recovery, has been attending the Philadelphia Recovery celebration for years. “Seeing this many people together in recovery is awesome…the public gets to see all these people here today…the same people who used to rob and steal from them, they get to see them as changed human beings who deserve a chance, it shows that we do recover!”

Unfortunately, the concept of change and recovery is ellusive for some and the consequences are dire. One of the tragic stories that I heard was of Anthony Ditullio. Anthony died from an overdose in 2006. Mike and Stacy from Folcroft, Pa., were attending the rally and walking in honor of Anthony. Mike was amazed at how big the event was and thought “more awareness will definitely reduce the stigma attached to addiction.” He believes Anthony’s legacy will live on through those affected by his tragic death, people who continue to support the cause of recovery.

That the challenge of stigma towards addiction remains is hardly in dispute. It was embodied at the Rally by one attendee’s reservations about choice in use of illicit drugs. The view was expressed by Brian Cassidy , who attended the event in support of his sister, Laurie, who has been in recovery for 28 months after becoming addicted to prescription drugs. During his sister’s active addiction, Brian felt a great deal of resentment towards her, largely stemming from how her actions had disrupted their family. As she entered treatment and recovery, she gradually won back his trust. Brian said he could forgive Laurie’s addiction to prescription drugs, but could not imagine how anyone could use cocaine or heroin and not expect to become addicted. There is still a long way to go in removing this type of thinking, but events like these will certainly further that cause.

These are just a few of the voices from the many individuals that make up the recovery movement. Some of their messages were tragic, some inspiring, all real. Saturday was their day, the day was about them, each and every beautiful one of them. It was their day to celebrate life and to celebrate recovery. Their voices could be heard in unity screaming loud and clear: ”We do count and we do recover!”

By: Tom Allen