“I’m Laurie Dhue and I’m proud to say that I haven’t had a drink or a drug since March 14, 2007.”
As a woman in long-term recovery, I’ve publicly said those words many times. But I never dreamed I’d say them to a group of distinguished guests at The White House.
That’s exactly what happened Sept. 17, 2014. Several weeks before, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy emailed to ask if I’d like to be part of a celebration marking the 25th Annual National Recovery Month. I was asked to participate in a morning roundtable and then to moderate a panel discussion about the disease of addiction - yes, it is a disease and was named one by the American Medical Association in 1956.
More importantly, we would talk about how addicts can get and stay on the path to recovery.
Since I went public with my alcoholism and drug addiction (after my anonymity was broken on the internet in 2011), I have come to understand the grave importance of having an open and honest discussion about this disease - one that affects more than 23 million Americans.
This White House meeting was the perfect chance to share a message of hope and and freedom that 23.5 million of us have found since giving up our addictions.
Laurie Dhue, TheBlaze TV anchor, is joined by Mayor Tom Willson (left), Ruben Castaneda (left center), Cris Carter (right center) and Christina Huffington (right) during a White House panel for the 25th Annual National Recovery Month.
I found myself in the Roosevelt Room on that September morning, sitting at a long table under the portraits of the 26th and 32nd presidents. I was joined by a dozen men and women active in the recovery movement. Leading the discussion was Acting ONDCP Director Michael Botticelli, who has 26 years in recovery.
My fellow panelists included: Christina Huffington, daughter of Huffington Post co-founder Arianna, who’s been sober for two and a half years; Cris Carter, National Football Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst, who quit drinking and using crack cocaine 24 years ago; Ruben Castanedas, who has two decades of recovery and whose recently-released memoir “S Street Rising” chronicles his double-life covering the crack epidemic in the early 1990s for the Washington Post while being addicted to the drug; and Mayor Tim Willson of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Willson and his wife, State Sen. Chris Eaton, have been in recovery for nearly 30 years each. Sadly, their daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2007.
Botticelli wanted our thoughts on what his office can do to get the positive messages of hope to addicts and their families more effectively.
I strongly believe our movement could learn a lot from the AIDS and breast cancer movements. They have been able to mobilize the American people and raise billions of dollars in the last 25 years. I suggested following their lead and enlisting celebrities to raise awareness through public service announcements, run/walk events and musical festivals.
If celebrities could talk about breast cancer, even if they’ve never had it, couldn’t they also talk about addiction, a far more common occurrence in American families?
[sharequote align="center"]“We are individuals with substance abuse disorders. But we are NOT our disease."[/sharequote]
My partner, Joe Schrank, an interventionist, recovery advocate and founder of the sober living facility Loft 107 in Brooklyn, talked about how the science behind recovery is moving faster than the culture.
“The recovery movement is developing into a strong voting and economic concern but needs better organization and more visible leadership,” Schrank said.
It was an honest discussion made even more significant because of its location - we were in a room literally across the hall from the Oval Office. We weren't in a basement or a sterile meeting room at a hotel.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “We’re really making progress.”
Sitting in that historic room was a sign of hope.
After our discussion, the panelists and I headed to the auditorium.
In his opening remarks, Botticelli highlighted the benefits of putting a face on addiction.
“Telling our stories is an important part of recovery month. It's why we're here today - to say that we won't remain silent and accept the shame too often associated with our disease," he said.
I expressed incredulity at being asked to speak at the White House, when eight years ago, I couldn’t get off the floor because I was too hungover to work.
“I should be dead,” I told the audience, “But I’m not, because on March 14, 2007, I made the best decision of my life. I put the plug in the jug and put the hearse in reverse."
I talked about how I’d been public about my addiction and recovery for more than three years. I talked about how having my anonymity broken was the best thing that ever happened to me because it allowed me to share my story and bring help and hope to other addicts.
“I think that people confuse anonymity with secrecy, and secrecy is a very dangerous thing. It so often perpetuates the stereotypes that we in recovery so often face,” I said. “I believe that speaking freely and openly about this disease, as well as the power of transformation, is absolutely essential if we’re going to make progress in ending the stigma.”
I also expressed gratitude to be able to work in a very supportive environment, and for a man who himself is in long-term recovery.
"We're not bad people trying to get good, we are sick people trying to get better,” I said.
[sharequote align="center"]"We're not bad people trying to get good, we are sick people trying to get better.”[/sharequote]
An emotional Cris Carter recounted the Friday afternoon in September 1990, when, as a brand-new member of the Minnesota Vikings, he decided to give up crack and alcohol. Choking up, he proudly proclaimed that he’d been sober for something like 12 million, 610 thousand and 520 minutes.
Carter talked about the importance of educating and mentoring youth, especially young men and boys. He spoke of the patience he has with them, never forgetting the people who gave up on him and how he clung to a “little bit of hope” to get him through.
Christina Huffington talked about how she left Yale just before graduation to get sober and acknowledged how fortunate she was to have parents who could afford treatment when the vast majority of people struggling with addiction don’t have that luxury. For Christina, recovery means taking life as it is, without numbing herself.
“You don’t have to hit bottom and lose everything to turn a new page [in your life],” she said.
Ruben Castaneda talked about his dangerous double life where he was part of the crack epidemic he covered as a young journalist and how he struggled for years before recognizing that enough was enough.
“I’m not putting myself in a situation where I go to an early grave anymore… now I have the opportunity to be the best version of myself, instead of the worst,” he said.
There were few dry eyes when Mayor Willson spoke of his darling daughter, Ariel, who simply could not win the fight with heroin. He and his wife honor her memory by staying sober and by being public with their story.
When I asked what recovery meant to him he said:
“More importantly, it’s what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that I don’t remember where I was last night. It means my children are not using and abusing.”
I closed the discussion by saying that my journey through recovery has given me freedom, that elusive, beautiful thing… in so many ways.
Before saying our goodbyes, we all agreed that the time for change is NOW.
It is time to more effectively educate Americans, time to stop marginalizing and shaming men, women and children suffering from addiction, and time to empower those in recovery.
We honor those who survive breast cancer and other diseases. What about those who decide to save their own lives?
The tone of the day was a very positive one. It was a celebration of Americans whose lives are utterly changed, for the better, because they stopped a cycle of substance abuse.
Michael Botticelli put it perfectly when he said:
“We are individuals with substance abuse disorders. But we are NOT our disease."
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