September is National Recovery Month, which celebrates recovery from substance use disorders and mental health conditions and serves to increase awareness and understanding.
I was thinking about this as I sat in my office last week across from a new first year law student here at Georgetown Law. We talked about law school, what to expect in the first few weeks, life in DC.
And we talked about recovery.
We are two of over 20 million people in the US living in long term recovery from addiction.
We are the lucky ones. Hundreds of thousands of us have not made it out alive.
Ours are the stories that don’t get reported.
Being in recovery has given me a life of purpose and has shaped my legal career, first as a human rights attorney in New York City representing people with mental illness, and later as a high level official in the Governor’s office in New York where I helped drive the state’s addiction and mental health policy.
Despite this, I often kept my recovery a secret in my professional life.
Even in rooms full of well-meaning people, there was often a sense of “us” and “them” and many misunderstandings about the nature of addiction. I met with communities who were screaming for services, but when we tried to site a treatment program in their neighborhood, we were told “no, not here.” I met with hospitals who had turned people away when they came to the emergency room for help with their addiction. I met with insurance companies who had insisted that people “fail first” at outpatient treatment before approving the level of care they needed.
I met with the families of those people who had been turned away and denied care. Their children were no longer alive to advocate for themselves.
These are all manifestations of stigma, which still persists despite increasing recognition that Substance Use Disorder is a chronic medical condition.
One way to address stigma is to ensure that people with lived experience are an integral part of the institutions that make decisions that impact their lives, including in the leadership structure.
This means a front and center seat at the table. This includes everything from the addiction treatment system to Medicaid, insurance companies, hospitals, economic development, government, and more.
I am proud of the work we accomplished in New York: Hospitals in New York must now connect people to treatment and medication for opioid use disorder when they come to the emergency room for help. Insurance companies regulated by New York State can’t require prior authorization for addiction treatment anymore. As a society, we are moving the dial.
And I am thrilled to be at Georgetown to continue this work.
There are over 20 million of us. We are your fellow students, your colleagues, your employers, your professors.
We do recover.
Shelly R. Weizman is Associate Director of the Addiction & Public Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is the former Assistant Secretary for Mental Hygiene in the Office of the Governor of New York State and is a person in long-term recovery.