Open Recovery in the Family:
A Physician’s Personal Experience
Earlier this month, a woman living in northern California gathered the support of her friends, family and colleagues to forward the Open Recovery paradigm within her network. She believes in the power of being open as an affront to stigma. We sat down and had a conversation with her – her enthusiasm transpired through the candid dialogue.
Working as an internal medicine physician at a large hospital in an affluent community, Susan works on healthcare programs which service a population often invisible to many. Her focus has been to lead programs which offer patient-centered wraparound services for underserved and vulnerable populations experiencing poor health outcomes, like those struggling with substance use disorder. Programs like these coordinate health, behavioral health and social services in the patient’s care, providing services beyond the doctor’s office and promoting improved wellbeing.
Beyond her work as a physician, Susan has a deep connection to addiction and recovery. Her 20-year-old son has been in recovery for about a year and she wants people to know the importance of being open.
What is your connection to addiction and the #OpenRecovery Movement?
I have a long-standing connection with addiction and recovery. Two of my family members have had issues with alcoholism and have now found recovery.
My son’s addiction, however, changed my life. It tipped me.
It started in high school, he had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and ADHD. Growing up, he has always been very bright, with a highly gifted IQ. Just because his brain worked differently, his teachers often accused him of being lazy. School became frustrating and it was his mental health and how he was treated in the education system which led to his use.
When he went off to college, he fell apart. Eventually, he made the decision to came back home and it became increasingly apparent he had a serious problem with alcohol. He went to rehab for about six weeks and although now, a year later, even though he doesn’t have much time in recovery, he has completely transformed. It’s important for people to understand how mental health relates to addiction. Too many people believe that those who struggle with addiction are weak, that it’s not a disease, and that is something that desperately needs to change. We need to change how this is framed. By perpetuating this idea of the “weak-minded addict”, we’re keeping wonderful people in a box which ultimately bars them from accessing the treatment they need.
Shortly after he left rehab I was listening to NPR and heard a segment about Open Recovery. A woman named Fay Zenoff spoke about the stigma of addiction and how these deeply embedded ideas harm people who need help and even drowns those who are recovering in pools of shame. How can we begin to change the systemic prejudices and societal beliefs of addiction? It starts with coming out and being open about our recovery. Any successful movement must be leaderful — one with a diversity of many leaders.
Together, the more who come out and lead this paradigm shift of Open Recovery, the more ignorant and intolerant ideas we’ll shift to ones of inclusion, compassion, and understanding.
I know people who’ve lost their children who can’t talk about it.
I know some parents who are questioning their children, “Why can’t you get
yourself sorted out?” As though it was that easy. In no way are these parents intentionally chastizing their children, it’s genuinely a lack of understanding about mental illness and the disease of addiction. Instead of recognizing their behaviors as a symptom of an illness, they view it as a matter of will. Parents only want what’s best for their children but aren’t aware their kid needs treatment and that recovery is journey.
It’s not right.
How do you define #OpenRecovery?
First, this is a health problem. Living with addiction and trying to seek treatment doesn’t have to be so frightening. The fear prevents people from finding recovery and getting into treatment to begin with. I believe openness combats this. Addiction sucks, and we know we aren’t the best people when we’re using, but the shame of our behavior is something hard to get over.
I also think it’s important for other people in our life to know. For example, if someone with addiction has a job and that job requires employees to work a lot of extra hours, the employee should be able to feel confident approaching their employer if there’s a conflict with their homegroup meeting or other recovery programs without fear of being penalized. One should be able to be open with friends, employers, teachers, family, doctors, and other key people in their community.
I want people to know that it’s ok to be open about it. You’re not going to get the stink eye or be shunned. I understand the anonymity piece, but no one should feel like they need to hide their recovery. Think of it like someone who had out of control diabetes and has now managed it. Why would that be something to be ashamed of?
Why do you think #OpenRecovery is important?
I think the more people who decide to be open, the more it will allow others to jump on board. It’s like coming out of the closet. It takes a lot of bravery and courage. I hope people understand that by being open, you are opening the door for others to bring forward their messages of success. Your light gives hope to people and that shared experience is paramount, especially in the younger community.
Honestly, when I started my fundraiser on Facebook for the Center for Open Recovery I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the fundraiser allowed me to connect with wonderful people in my network who care about an issue near and dear to my heart while spreading the message of #OpenRecovery.