A year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing so candidly about my own struggles.
My willingness to openly discuss that I was once addicted to alcohol and drugs began on October 9, 2014. I was a newly appointed member of the city of Portland’s Substance Use Disorder Task Force, and Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, attended our meeting.
Botticelli explained that he was in long-term recovery from addiction. In front of everybody, he told his personal story. That level of honesty and openness was completely new to me. Until that moment, I believed I was supposed to keep my past a closely held secret, lest people judge me. I was told, and believed, that being open about my past would cost me personally and professionally. But when I heard the director of our nation’s drug policy openly share his own experience, I began to challenge those beliefs.
Several months later, I was beginning a fellowship at The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., and I met Botticelli again. We were both at an event on addiction recovery. People were talking openly about being in recovery, and some even spoke of having been incarcerated. I had never before seen anything like this, and I could not believe it. There was no stigma or shame. No one was hiding. These people, who are part of a global recovery movement and community, saw addiction as a treatable condition rather than a moral failing. The honesty and openness nearly brought me to tears. Everything I thought I knew about addiction was being challenged. The walls I had built, based on society’s norms and my own fear and misperceptions, came tumbling down. I stood up, and for the first time ever said, “My name is Christopher Poulos, and I’m a person in long-term recovery.”
That means that I have not found it necessary to use any type of mood altering substance for over seven years. I am now an active member of my family and my community. Recovery has allowed me to graduate from college, attend law school, and even represent juveniles facing criminal charges in the same courthouse where I was once the defendant. Recovery has allowed me not only to survive but also to thrive. Recovery has also allowed me to help build the community and state I once harmed.
Despite my changed behavior and accomplishments, I still encounter many challenges. People who have faced addiction face incredible barriers — particularly if they have a record of arrests or convictions. Once labeled as drug abusers, addicts or felons, it does not matter what else people have done in their lives. These labels can outweigh all else.
The language we use when speaking about people with or in recovery from addiction makes a difference. It can make it either easier or harder for people to acknowledge the issue and seek help; it can either increase or decrease the likelihood of recovery. This is not about political correctness; it is about treating people like human beings, which leads to higher confidence, less resistance to seeking help, better care and ultimately better results.
A study by Dr. John Kelly of Harvard Medical School comprised of more than 500 mental health and addiction professionals found that clinicians were significantly more likely to judge the subject as more deserving of blame and punishment when identified as a “substance abuser” than when he was described as “having a substance use disorder.” The American Medical Association and other prominent bodies have long recognized addiction as a treatable health condition, rather than a moral failing.
We wouldn’t call someone with a heart condition a food abuser. We would call him or her a patient. Substance use disorders should not provide an exception to the way we normally treat people. I often find that many still view addiction as nothing more than a moral flaw, a weakness. Accurately describing addiction as a treatable health condition does not mitigate personal responsibility for seeking help. Just as some people with diabetes may need to regularly take insulin, people with substance use disorders often regularly need to take certain steps to treat their condition and sustain remission, such as taking medication as prescribed, or participating in mutual aid meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery or Women for Sobriety.
Brain imaging studies have begun to map how addiction manifests in the brain. It suppresses the functioning of the brain areas responsible for judgment and impulse control and hijacks the system responsible for basic survival drives for things such as food, water, sex and sleep. My willpower alone was not enough to stop it — and I had no lack of willpower. For me, it took a combination of treatment and a spiritual solution. Active addiction is not a glamorous life. If it were easy to “just stop,” people would. Using accurate and non-stigmatizing language is one simple way to encourage people to seek help rather than isolate due to shame or fear of judgment. There are sometimes very legitimate concerns about the effects that disclosing one’s condition could have on one’s career, standing and family.
The collateral consequences of criminal convictions and the stigma surrounding addiction serve to hamper successful recovery rather than foster it. They are interconnected, for these consequences are often intended to dissuade people from using drugs. But people impacted by addiction are impaired in their ability to act in their own interest or to act in accordance with the values they once held most dear. Often the public perception around addiction is based either on the notion that those struggling “could stop if they really wanted to” and that they’re essentially bad or untrustworthy people and should not be trusted with full membership in the community. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense to implement policies that further recovery. A person in recovery has the ability to be a productive member of society. When we prevent people from fully re-joining and contributing to the community, it hurts everyone.
We can also eliminate the stigma of addiction by showing the power of recovery. I am but one of millions of people in long-term recovery in the United States. Organizations such as Young People in Recovery, Faces and Voices of Recovery, and Facing Addiction are helping build recovery-ready communities that focus not only on prevention and treatment, but also on establishing long term support systems necessary to embrace people attempting to achieve and sustain recovery from addiction and that fundamentally shift the way addiction is viewed and addressed.
I frequently meet people who express how “happy they are” for me, and others like me, who have recovered from addiction. But these same people still often remain unwilling to fully welcome us into their lives — whether it be for employment, housing, or even friendship. When people cautioned me to keep my past quiet because it could cost me personally and professionally, they were right. I have lost opportunities.
But with millions of people suffering from addiction and millions of people incarcerated, my conscience simply will not allow me to remain silent. We are worth saving. We do recover.
Christopher Poulos is president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, University of Maine School of Law Chapter
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