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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 9-1-23 – Celebrating Recovery Month 2023

Today is the start of national recovery month. Many readers outside of the recovery community may not know the significance of recovery month. It has been celebrated by SAMHSA since 1989. I was around from that era. It has evolved a great deal. The initial focus of recovery month was “treatment works.” I was at an early year event and came away with a plastic coffee mug with that slogan emblazoned on it. The slogan was intended to honor those who work to help people heal and those experiencing substance use issues. This year, the theme is Hope is real, recovery is real.

There are multiple backstories as to how the focus of recovery month evolved from treatment and the substance use workforce to a recovery orientation. This was a theme in interviews I have done to document elements of this evolution, which was largely driven by grassroots efforts across the country. I started interviewing people on a related topic, the first ever gathering of the national recovery community in the height of the pandemic. I knew that the anniversary of the event was coming up, but more importantly, during the pandemic isolation, I needed to be involved with something that inspired me, and the interview and writing process checked those boxes. It is a story of a grassroots effort that changed how America thinks about addiction and recovery. It is a story of self and community empowerment.

As noted by the Recovery Research Institute, the event has undergone several name changes. In 1998, it was changed to National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month to broaden its focus. It was not until 2011 that the event took on its current form that focuses on recovery, which as I noted was driven by people in recovery. I give SAMSHA a lot of credit for listening to the community. One of my favorite things to see at a recovery month event is someone new to recovery realizing that not only is this not the end of their life, far from it, there is much to do and a whole community of people to do it with. In short, the shift is from a focus on addressing pathology to one of hope and resilience.

The first major statewide recovery event that I can recall was organized about 25 years ago, ironically, through the organization I now run, PRO-A which at that time was directed by Dona Dmitrovic. The event was held in the state capitol rotunda. For the first time, a state elected official acknowledged publicly at a recovery event that they were one of us. It is hard to put into words what that meant to many of us present. It told us that someone in the people’s house of PA was one of our own. That first recovery events were initiated by recovery community. This year it will be held in the rotunda in Harrisburg on Tuesday September 19th starting at noon, registration link here. There is also an International Recovery Day, the lifework of longtime friend John Winslow. It is celebrated every year on September 30th, if you follow the link, now maintained by Faces & Voices of Recovery you can learn more about how to celebrate it.

One of the challenges in respect to recovery related matters including recovery month is the inclusion of authentic community. Addiction and its related care is now big business in the USA. There is a whole lot of money being on addictive drugs and on the care process to help people heal. These forces tend to coopt community driven objectives and shift the focus to things that generate revenue. Community and grassroots efforts become corporate focused, taken over by the bureaucracies or profoundly diluted. It is a facet of how addiction and recovery efforts play out cyclically across history. It is a story of ebb and flow. We take three steps forward and two steps backwards and then repeat across time. I am grateful to have witnessed an era in which we probably moved things forward a little bit more, perhaps we stepped forwards five paces in the current time. Hopefully we can sustain an ebb and not fall back six steps.

One of the most underrealized assets we have in America in respect to our burgeoning addiction crisis is the recovery community. My own life story is an example of a common dynamic. People heal from addictions, and quite often they become engaged in civic action, largely focused on helping others along this same journey. This grassroots community is our most significant asset. It is one that is too often tokenized. To realize its potential, we would need to engage the community of people with lived recovery experience in ways that center them in the process more fully. It would require us to center all service efforts on authentic inclusion of persons in recovery in system design, service provision and evaluation of treatment and recovery-oriented services. This is the spirit that recovery month represents to me.

This recovery month, I hope you take the time to go out and be involved in at least one event. If you are in PA, this link is a good place to look to find an event. The truth is that addiction is a primary national challenge. It saps our productivity, erodes our community and threatens our national security. Yet, it is also true that recovery is the probable outcome if people get the resources and the support they need to heal. Recovery month is a celebration of recovery, the thing in life I am most grateful for. Please join me in celebrating recovery! What are you grateful for today?

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