I talk a lot about recovering out loud, breaking the stigma of addiction, and telling your story. But I've never really considered how my rhetoric can affect the public's perception of this disease that I'm dealing with.
Last Saturday I crossed over to the other side of the state and visited Boynton Beach to attend a Young People in Recovery event called Recovery Messaging Training. It sounded like something that was right up my alley and I had been wanting to attend a YPR event for awhile now so this was the perfect one. I met a lot of great people and learned new information about how I can present my recovery to the world.
What is 'Young People in Recovery'?
YPR is an advocacy organization for young people who are living a life of recovery and their allies. Through city and state chapters, YPR aims to influence public policy to make it easier for young people to find and stay in recovery from addiction. They also advocate for better access to employment, housing, education and other recovery resources. Lastly, YPR educates communities on what recovery is, why it's important, and become sources of hope for others who may still be struggling with addiction issues.
YPR often provides workshops addressing the topics it advocates for, like how to write a cover letter and resume, how to find and apply for higher education, and what skills to bring to an interview. YPR has close to 60 chapters throughout the U.S. and more are popping up every day. Most importantly, YPR seeks to empower individuals in or seeking recovery. If there isn't one near you, you can start your own chapter. If recovery is important to you, I encourage you to get involved.
Recovery Messaging Training
Two intelligent and articulate gentlemen led the training, Robert Ashford and Devin Reaves, along with another bold woman, Tara Moseley. Their opening exercise set the stage for how impactful this training would be. Robert introduced himself first as a recovering alcoholic and talked about how he is grateful he longer has to spend nights sleeping in jail, or on the streets as a junkie. Devin went next by introducing himself as a person in long-term recovery and then explained what that meant to him - 8 years without drugs and alcohol and the ability to earn his Masters Degree, help others seeking recovery, be a good son, significant other, and soon to be father. Obviously at the time I didn't know this was an exercise, but they explained it shortly after. Robert identified with his past and his disease, while Devin identified with his recovery and his solution.
Robert used words that have stigma attached to them: alcoholic, junkie, etc. Although many of us in the training weren't offended or fazed by this rhetoric because we are in recovery, people in the general public would be. Once you say alcoholic - you cue the thought of the homeless person with no teeth that lives under the bridge. When you talk about living life in recovery and all of the things you've gained and achieved, there is a much more positive outlook and less stigma. Wow. Mind blown.
The training's goal was to teach us how to talk to people in order to get our message of recovery across in a positive way to the public. This is different than how you would talk to peers in a 12 step fellowship. In terms of a message, it's the most important information we want a listener to hear. It should be in first-person language and geared towards self-empowerment. Tailor your message based on who you're talking to, like the media, your family, employers, etc. The message of alcoholism and addiction being negative is clear, the message of recovery is not.
- 1 out of 4 households is affected by addiction in the U.S.
- 42% of people think recovery is not possible
- 67% of the public believe that there is a stigma towards people in recovery
- 74% say that attitudes and policies must change
Our training leaders elaborated on the concepts of recovery messaging. The language you use is most important. For example, they prefer the term "substance use disorder" in place of "addiction." They also prefer "use" in place of "abuse" in all circumstances. They explained that abuse is an inherently negative term. When we think of abuse we think of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse - an abuser. If you are told you have substance abuse issues, you paint yourself as an abuser. Abuse is correlated with morality and choice. If you feel like a a bad person who is an abuser, why would you think you deserve help with your problem? Substance use is a more general term that does not carry that negative stigma. Even talking about my past, I can say I used alcohol for many years, rather than I abused alcohol.
Another term that is considered to be negative is relapse and relapse prevention.They talked about the stigma associated with relapse. Relapse is like "he who shall not be named" because it's basically thought of as a fate worse than death. The term is associated with failure. It inherently says that everything you've achieved thus far is gone and your slate is wiped clean (or dirty?) We can redefine relapse. Instead of thinking of it in the framework of fear and failure, we should be calling it "recovery protection" instead of relapse prevention. Our trainers recommended we use "recurrence of use" instead of relapse.
My key takeaways
The whole point of learning recovery messaging training is to be a part of the solution. We need more opportunities for young people to achieve and maintain long-term recovery, therefore we need articulate people who can communicate the positive message this life holds. The public and government policy makers don't know about the reality of recovery and it's our responsibility to show them.
I am now more aware of the language I use to communicate my own story and how to use it in different situations. It's a learning process and as time goes on, what is publicly acceptable to say and what's not will change. I hope one day people will understand that it's offensive to be called a "raging alcoholic" or a "crackhead." I want my story to have credibility and break down misperceptions. I want to talk about what recovery has given me, not what addiction took from me. I want to make it possible for others to get well.
My name is Kelly and I'm a young person in long-term recovery, which means I have been free of all mind and mood altering substances since May of 2013. Recovery has given me my life back. I am now able to be a loving and caring daughter, friend, sister, and girlfriend. I finally have the tools I need to thrive and be a contributing member of society. I've gained the courage to share my story with the world via my blog so that others may know that recovery is possible, and that they too, can live a happy and peaceful life, free of shame, guilt, and the shackles of substance use disorder.