UNITE to Face Addiction: This is just the beginning

October 12, 2015
Kim Johnson, PhD
Co-Director, ATTC Network Coordinating Office
Deputy Director, NIATx

Two days before the UNITE to Face Addiction rally, forecasters were predicting that Hurricane Joaquin would hit the East Coast by the weekend. Everyone kept saying that the hurricane was only a metaphor; that people in recovery had been to hell and back and Hurricane Joaquin didn't scare them.

Thankfully, Joaquin changed direction at the last minute and headed out to sea. Talk about a sea change. We didn't need to prove anything, as thousands of people gathered under overcast skies on October 5 to celebrate recovery on the National Mall.

There was music. There were speeches, and more music and speeches from about 4:00 in the afternoon to 10:00 that night. The younger people asked, "Who's that?" when Joe Walsh played, and the older people asked, "Who's that?" when The Fray played. And we danced and danced and danced.

You can read some of the news stories about the event on the Facing Addiction website.  

So now what? What's the take-away from this event? What difference did it make?

I don't know yet, but here are some things I learned:

Parents are angry.

I spoke with parents who wanted to know why no one had told them about Vivitrol or buprenorphine until their young adult children had gone through multiple failed treatment attempts.

I spoke with parents who wanted to know why their child was going to have a criminal record for selling marijuana-laced baked goods to friends.

L-R: With Jeanne Pulvermacher, Cindy Christy,
and Alex Barjas at UNITE to Face Addiction
We heard from parents who had lost children, some more than one, to overdose deaths. In addition to their grief, they felt rage at their inability to get help, to address this illness as they had so many other illnesses their children had suffered.

We heard from young people who are unwilling to accept the status quo. They are unwilling to feel shame, unwilling to accept that the system works the way it does--with access to treatment only via the criminal justice system, if at all. They talked about mutual support, but did not necessarily accept the standard format under which it has been provided. They talked about many paths to recovery, and they really meant it.

Strength in unity.

Alex Barajas, ATTC Network Coordinating Office

Beth Rutkowski, Pacific SW ATTC, w/ family at the rally
The message from the stage was that we need to come together and get over the things that divide us: beliefs about medication, beliefs about the requirements of recovery, hierarchies in status regarding drugs of choice, etc. UNITE to Face Addiction gathered people from all walks of life, from all areas of the country, recovering from alcohol, opiates, cocaine and everything else. UNITE to Face Addiction also brought in people from the federal government who took to the stage to offer their support.

I have been thinking over the past few years that the addiction treatment industry is in for a sea change. I assumed it would be led by technology, medicine, and payment system reform--not by the channeled range of people who feel that they or their family members have been mistreated. Maybe the sea change is going to well up from people coming together to respond to the injustice of the current model of addressing addiction.

That is what UNITE to Face Addiction hopes to do.

UNITE to Face Addiction was a momentous occasion. Thousands and thousands of people uniting to celebrate recovery. I have spoken of anger, but there was so much joy and fellowship in the crowd. We danced. We sang. And people were glad to be alive.

One of my colleagues in recovery said, "This makes me so happy. I am just glad to be here."

Did you make it to the rally?  What was it like for you?

Kim Johnson, PhD, is Co-director of the ATTC Network Coordinating Office and Deputy Director of NIATx. She served for seven years as the director of the Office of Substance Abuse in Maine and has also served as executive director for a treatment agency, managed intervention and prevention programs, and has worked as a child and family therapist. She joined NIATx in 2007 to lead the ACTION Campaign, a national initiative to increase access to and retention in treatment. She is currently involved in projects with the ATTC Network and NIATx that focus on increasing implementation of evidence-based practices, testing mobile health technologies, and developing distance learning programs for behavioral health.

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