Earlier this month I was honored to be in our Nation’s Capital attending the 44th Annual National Jefferson Awards Foundation Ceremony. The Jefferson Awards recognize individuals from across the United States engaged in public service. In the words of Sam Beard, Co-Founder and President, ““the Jefferson Awards are the Noble Prize of Public Service.” I am honored to have been among the 50 individuals chosen to receive an award. For me, this is an opportunity to amplify the message that addiction, as a chronic brain disease, deserves the care and attention provided to other chronic diseases. The experience was incredible. Ordinary people doing extraordinary work to effect change in their communities, and getting acknowledged as such. The Jefferson Awards Foundation treated the honorees with style and class. I am grateful for the experience. And yet I am struck by how much more work must be done.
So many Americans still don’t know the magnitude or pervasiveness of this epidemic. The average person living an unaffected life does not understand addiction and the opioid epidemic. Struggling with addiction/ is still being judged, and considered a tragic experience only affecting others.
I had lunch with a friend, who in all innocence and sincerity, said things like, “we would never have used needles for drugs, no matter what” and, “how have these people gone from taking a prescription to heroin?, it just doesn’t make sense.” “We were pretty heavy duty partiers in our day and we would never do heroin. How does that happen?”
Let me reiterate what is known and needs to be known more. No one chooses to become an IV drug user. It is the most shame-based form of drug use in existence. To admit to anyone that you are an IV drug user is akin to being caught by your mother in full masturbation. No one grows up thinking, I hope I become an IV drug user.
But something happens when you try heroin intravenously, that you can never fully explain (or so I am told), and you will chase that experience forever though you will never experience it again.
Statistically more individuals are addicted and dying from prescription pain medicine than heroin. There are enough prescriptions written by doctors in the US that every single human- yes that includes newborns- can have one.
Often, normal, average, healthy individuals start with a prescription opioid, taken as directed. Then they develop changes in their brain structure as a result of the drugs affects. Then they can no longer control their use of the drug, and they exhaust all their sources for the drug. This is when they discover cheap, easy to acquire heroin, and then, it’s over. The withdrawal from opioids, which includes BOTH prescriptions and heroin, is so excruciating that individuals keep using the drug merely to avoid the withdrawal. It is not a pleasant or enjoyable experience.
At the Jefferson Awards, we heard numerous stories of very real issues affecting communities in the United States, and across the world. The heart wrenching truth of homelessness. The unbelievable business of trafficking young people for sex, the perils of domestic violence, and the multitudes of citizens going hungry. All important issues, and deserving of care and attention. I observed that Overdose Lifeline stood alone addressing the most neglected disease in the United States; addiction, and I would add, mental illness. There is much more work to be done.
According to a recent study by Columbia University,"40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs." That's more Americans than those with heart disease, diabetes or cancer. An estimated additional 80 million people in this country are "risky substance users," meaning that while not addicted, they "use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten public health and safety."
Forty million people. Let me say it one more time, forty million people and an additional 80 million who are engaging in risky behavior.
I believe so strongly that addiction runs through all these things, and that we MUST address addiction with full force to help - solve the homelessness, the hunger, the poverty, the domestic violence, and the horrific practice of human trafficking.
We must talk about addiction and bring it out of the shadows.
Here is my call to action. Find one person today, and ask them how they define addiction. If they do not include chronic brain disease in their response, PLEASE help them understand.
Read More About the Chronic Disease of Addiction