For many years I have been sharing my recovery journey with the incarcerated addicts of northern New Jersey on Wednesday nights. I have found this commitment one of the most important parts of my own recovery program. I am an alcoholic and drug addict and I would find myself on the same side of the bars with the rest of the meeting attendees “but for the grace of God”. I always feel a mixed sense of empathy, hope and gratitude on the drive back home at the end of those nights.
State of the Union
This past Wednesday upon arriving home I tuned in to watch President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The President began by thanking congress for passing a budget and making tax cuts permanent for working families, then said: “So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction”.
I was completely blown away. All the Presidential Candidates from both parties have been acknowledging both addiction and prison reform during campaign. Some have offered plans to deal with the problem. But to have the President make addiction and prison reform the first thing on his agenda less than one minute into the State of the Union address is unprecedented. This shows the impact that addiction is having on our country. The problem is so large that it no longer can be ignored.
Addiction is a Treatable Disease, Not a Moral Failing
We in the recovery community have known for a long-time what the politicians and media are just figuring out: addiction is a disease. It respects no socioeconomic boundaries, race, creed or gender. Addiction is not a moral failing. It is a terminal but treatable illness.
For far too long we addicts have stayed quiet. We have hidden in the shadows, afraid to stand up for ourselves due to the stigma associated with this disease by the ignorant and uniformed. We have hidden our disease from employers instead of demanding treatment. We have been subjected to denials for treatment from insurance companies that would not be tolerated by any other citizen with a treatable medical condition.
Can you imagine the uproar if a person showed up at a hospital with a progressive terminal disease like breast cancer or an emergency such as appendicitis and an insurance company refused to pay – or the hospital denied services? It would be on every major news cast in the country. Politicians would be calling for hearing.
New laws would be passed. Heads would roll. Unfortunately, this is what people suffering from addiction endure all the time. I witness it daily. I work in the treatment field. Addicts are not bad people, they are sick people. They deserve the same respect, care and treatment as any other ill person. The time for change is now!
Educating Politicians & The Media
The reason politicians and media are finally addressing the addiction epidemic is that we have hit the tipping point. Addiction is costing our economy $660 billion a year in lost wages, medical, social and prison costs. Depending on the study, it is estimated that between 60 and 90 percent of all people incarcerated in the United States have an alcohol or drug problem.
It is a national disgrace that America, land of the free and the home of the brave, has the highest per capita incarceration rate on this earth. One out of every four people incarcerated on the planet lives in the USA. Justice Department statistics show that one out of every 33 people living in the United States is in prison, on parole or being supervised in some manner by a department of corrections. Yet the recidivism rate in some states is pushing 90 percent.
This is no surprise. It actually makes sense because prison does no more for treating addiction than it does for treating diabetes. When the sentence is over the problem still exists.
Incarcerating sick people, denying them treatment, allowing drugs in prison then releasing them back into the community to begin the cycle again is tantamount to slavery. It is big business. Follow the money. It’s time to take a stand. Bill W. in the A.A. Big Book said it best: “As God’s people we stand on our feet; we don’t crawl before anyone”.
Step Out of the Shadows and Stand Together
The Serenity Prayer tells us, “to accept the things I cannot change”. I accept that I will always be an alcoholic and drug addict. I accept that I am responsible for my own actions and my sobriety maintenance. In the second part of the prayer, we ask for, “the courage to change the things I can”. Together we can change this.
Being treated as morally deficient, second-class citizens, or throwaway people, not worthy of medical treatment, is unacceptable and must be changed. We need to step out of the shadow and stand together. If God is for us than who can stand against us.
Becoming an Unstoppable Force for Change
Finally, the prayer asks us to pray for, “the wisdom to know the difference”. The National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) has studies showing that 10 percent of the US population admits to being a substance abuser, but according to other studies, the actual number is closer to 20 percent. That is more than 64 million people.
Each of these people has friends, family members and employers who have witnessed, firsthand, the tragedy of untreated addiction. Wisdom tells us there is strength in numbers. By joining together, we can be the vehicle that ends the archaic and unjust treatment of alcoholics and addicts. By uniting for the common good, exercising our constitutional right to vote and having the courage to change the things we can, we can elect political leaders who will pass laws that favor treatment over incarceration.
My name is Brian McAlister and I am an addict. I am worthy of the best life has to offer. I deserve the same respect and treatment as any other citizen in the great country. You do too!