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Beating America’s Last Stigma

It’s not unusual for strangers to start talking to me as if we’ve already met. In a way, I guess we have. “You’re the guy from TV, right?” they’ll say.

“Yep, that’s me,” I reply. If they look hesitant, I’ll add something like, “Did you see I only got second place on ‘America’s Got Talent’? I really deserved to win it all, don’t you think?”

In two seconds they realize I’m kidding and start laughing. But sometimes they double-check my identity by using the closing line of our TV spots. “You do the ‘Power of Care,’ right?”

“Yep, ‘The Power of Care,’” I’ll say. Then, with the ice broken, they tell me their story.

I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that people approach me and ask for advice for a friend or relative with an addiction problem. But it may surprise you to learn that I’m approached almost as often by people in recovery from active addiction — people who have 5, 10, even 15 years of sobriety.

They tell me how their lives have turned around. How they have a good job and support their families. How they have hope now instead of despair. How they have the love and respect of their family instead of disdain. How they’ve earned the trust of their spouse and their friends.

They may have been treated at Meridian HealthCare, or at one of the other organizations here or out of town.

Unfortunately, even though I’m a stranger, I’m one of the few people they feel safe telling about their sobriety. Very few people, especially professionals, feel comfortable telling anyone about their recovery.

Why? Because people in recovery often still feel discriminated against. They still seem to be wearing an imaginary “Scarlet Letter.”

People are finally able to openly celebrate their racial and sexual diversity — and that’s how it should be in this country. People who have beaten cancer, heart disease and other terrible diseases are able to talk frankly about their struggles and their victory.

Yet people in recovery from addiction — people who have also beaten a life-threatening disease — rarely mention it, because they know there is still a stigma connected with it. They know the stigma can permanently alter the way others treat them. They worry it can affect their chance for advancement in their jobs, or the comfort level of their neighbors.

That doesn’t seem fair does it?

I wonder why this stigma is still so strong — especially considering there are tens of thousands of people in the Mahoning Valley alone who are in recovery.

Bank tellers, waitresses and school bus drivers, but also doctors, lawyers and teachers, have successfully battled addiction. In fact, many are healthier now than ever before.

Equally troubling is that this stigma also prevents people from getting treatment in the first place. That’s why we must work to reduce this stigma — and in fact, publicly celebrate the sobriety of those who have beaten active addiction.

We’re working hard to make that a reality. But there is more to be done, and we need your help. If you know someone in recovery or are in recovery yourself, write to me with your suggestions or support.

When we finally beat this stigma, we can all stand together and say, “Now, THAT’s the Power of Care.”

 

Larry Moliterno is CEO of Meridian HealthCare and currently serves as President of the Ohio Alliance of Recovery Providers. Send email to lmoliterno@MeridianCommunityCare.org