In the fall of 2012, I entered treatment for addiction as a broken physician and man. Opioids were one of my drugs of choice, as they are for so many in today’s society. After weeks of intensive therapy, I was able to let go of the demons that had haunted me for decades, ones that I had medicated away with drugs and alcohol. More than 100 days later, I left the treatment facility with a renewed vigor for life — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I was eager to return to my medical practice with a completely different perspective, including a heightened sense of compassion and empathy for patients struggling with mental illness and addiction.
I looked forward to being welcomed back at my place of work as well as in my community. As with a cancer patient enduring grueling treatment and receiving compassion and empathy from family, friends, and co-workers, surely there would be those eager to help with my transition. Maybe a casserole or two would be waiting, or a few get-well cards. Without a doubt, my workplace would help with my reintegration back into practice.
Sadly, I quickly realized that recovery from substance-use disorder is not celebrated by those outside of the recovery community. To the contrary, recovery — like active addiction — is stigmatized in our society. Rather than welcoming me back, I became a pariah among my co-workers of 22 years. Former friends were, for the most part, gone. What support there was came from the recovery community, but even there I fought shame. I learned to quickly — quietly and with furtive glances — enter and exit church basements or recovery clubs.
“Anonymous” became my mantra. The guilt and shame I experienced while in active addiction were there to welcome me into the recovery world as well. I began meetings by proclaiming, “Hi, I’m Luther, and I’m an addict. I’m powerless over my addiction.” I learned to fear that I was one small step away from relapse.
Recovery organizations such as AA have done incredible things in the battle against substance-use disorder. I have benefited from their program. But as a person in recovery, now that I have a clear mind, I believe I’m quite powerful against returning to my addiction as long as I maintain a disciplined recovery lifestyle. My rational brain is able to make the choice not to return to that life. Being reminded that I am an addict only perpetuates my shame, while trapping me in a toxic thought process, including ongoing shame about my own recovery.
A while back, I decided that I couldn’t survive my own recovery this way. I am proud of that decision; it is the crux of all aspects of my health. I’m done hiding my recovery. I will let the public know I’m not ashamed.
I admire the tenacity and persistence of those involved in changing the public stigmatization toward the AIDS epidemic. Through hard work by activists, the public perception of HIV as a gay man’s disease brought on by poor moral choices has changed. Where once HIV was feared and the sufferers stigmatized, it has become one of the many diseases that afflict humankind. Today, HIV sufferers no longer need to hide in closets of shame.
Recovery needs to be treated in a similar manner. There are movements afloat that celebrate recovery. The message is getting out that recovery need not be shameful. But the public needs to embrace those on this journey as well. Communities, not just recovery organizations, need to become recovery-friendly.
Imagine a sign reading: “Welcome to My Town, a recovery-friendly community” or “Welcome to our coffee shop, a recovery-friendly establishment.” Imagine a bumper sticker that reads: “Proud parent of a child in recovery.” Imagine communities making recovery fashionable, trendy and celebrated. Rather than wringing our hands over the depth and breadth of the current drug epidemic, communities can offer warm, welcoming environments.
I’ve changed my perspective. Rather than proclaiming that I’m an addict, I will proudly introduce myself as “a person in long-term recovery, which means I haven’t had a drink or used a drug since Oct. 11, 2012.”
Now that’s recovery.
Luther Philaya is a family physician.
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