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Courage in the Face of Stigma

When I speak in public about my family’s experience with addiction, mental illness, and my son, Timothy’s death by overdose, there are some who say I’m brave to speak so openly. Some are also concerned others will judge me as a bad parent or believe Timothy was “just a junkie who got what he deserved.” I don’t feel brave at all. I’m fortunate my family and friends have been supportive and non-judgmental, (at least to my face). I haven’t experienced personal attacks from others who are quick to judge and blame those struggling with addiction.

My experience is atypical, however. I know many parents who have been the brunt of shameful attacks and blame for their child’s substance use and/or death by overdose. I know people who have been ostracized in their community or workplace due to their own or a family member’s struggle with substance use disorder or mental illness. At an addiction awareness educational forum, I met a woman who couldn’t talk to her extended family or neighbors about the overdose death of her son. She told them that he died of asthma so that she could avoid the condemnation by others who don’t understand this disease and the desperation faced by families. The result was that she suffered in isolation and couldn’t get the support she needed.

There are very prevalent and generalized misunderstandings and demonizations in our society about substance use disorder and mental illness. A large segment of our population believes that addiction is a choice and a moral failing, that inadequate parenting is to blame and that those with mental illness are dangerous and lazy. They tell their children that neighbors who experience these issues are to be avoided or even shunned. There is widespread panic when there’s talk about establishing a local group home or sober house. It’s the time-worn “NIMBY” (Not in my back yard) attitude. Progressive programs such as needle exchanges and safe injection sites sometimes face insurmountable challenges even though they’re proven to save lives.

Thankfully, there’s a growing movement of individuals and families willing to speak out about the realities of life and death related to addiction and mental illness. Through work with my non-profit, Today I Matter,https://www.todayimatter.org I have met hundreds of people willing to speak up about their personal stories and demand justice, tolerance, and compassion for those with substance use disorder and mental illness, despite possible condemnation and judgment from others. Many are able to find courage from within a group of supportive individuals where acceptance and encouragement are the rule.

At times I have come into contact with a person that has a prominent, established public image and has the courage to speak out about their own struggle in order to help others.  Today I Matter recently collaborated at an event to raise funds and awareness of addiction with the Vince Baker Foundation, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Vin Baker is a Connecticut native who worked his way to become an NBA All-Star and Gold Medal Olympian.

Through the publication of his book, “God and Starbucks” and his public appearances, he has shared the story of his rise to the peak of professional sports and then his downfall due to his struggle with alcohol and other drugs. His life went from that of a multi-millionaire athlete to a barista at Starbucks. He eventually went into treatment for his substance use disorder and now has been sober for almost nine years. Despite the reality of negative judgments from others, he uses his notoriety to educate the public about the dangers of substance use disorder and hope of recovery. It seems apparent that to Vin Baker, his message of hope is worth any prejudicial, negative opinions from others.

Mr. Baker’s example of courage in relating his story of despair and redemption is particularly beneficial at community events that are trying to raise awareness and educate the public about addiction and hope for recovery. Today I Matter has been involved in many of these events throughout New England and in Washington D.C. Typically, those in attendance are already personally impacted by addiction or mental illness in their family. They’re living the reality of our message and deeply understand the shame and stigma that comes along with these diseases. When speaking at these events, I sometimes feel as if “preaching to the choir.”  Attendants, however, still benefit from the supportive community and acceptance they feel from being part of this community.

Having a public figure, and particularly a sports figure, like Vin Baker bravely and publicly tell his story without concern for possible negative backlash, brings participants who likely wouldn’t otherwise attend these events. They may be curious or inspired by his notoriety.

They may not have previously believed that a forum about addiction was relevant to their lives. Our hope is the celebrity appearance will draw them in, but they will leave with our message of compassion, tolerance, and hope.

Another example of courage is demonstrated by Sarah Howroyd. Sarah is a woman who lives in my home state of Connecticut. She’s gone public with her struggle with substances starting with prescribed opiates due to painful injuries from an auto accident, then eventually to heroin use. After the overdose death of her fiancé, she battled back and started her journey into recovery.

She is now thriving and has completed a master’s degree in social work. Despite a social climate of prejudice and stigma she has bravely and openly shared her story of addiction and recovery, so that others can see hope in themselves. Sarah was integral in starting the Manchester HOPE initiative. This is a program of cooperation between the Manchester, CT. police department and local health programs to divert those with substance use disorder into treatment rather than criminal prosecution.  With a disregard of others’ negative opinions of her past, she continues to be a leader in the state, championing hope for those with substance abuse disorder.

My experience over the past three years as an activist and advocate for combating shame and stigma related to substance use disorder has brought me into contact with many courageous individuals.  They are willing to defy prejudice and judgment to instead promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of those who struggle with this issue. I ‘m fortunate to have these brave people in my life. They serve as encouragement when I sometimes wonder if we are making any difference.

Their courage also inspires me to believe that the mission of Today I Matter, Inc. is important and impactful.  I am lucky to have an ongoing relationship with both Vin Baker and Sarah Howroyd, but also with many others who selflessly share their story of struggle, loss, and, sometimes recovery. Their courage serves as examples of what good people can do when they are not concerned about possible negative attitudes of those who would judge them harshly.

Previously Published on Today I Matter

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