The numbers are eye-opening and heart-breaking: Each year in the United States, there are more than 50,000 drug-related deaths, 88,000 deaths from excessive alcohol use, and more than 480,000 tobacco-related deaths. (Yes, we still collect these data in separate categories since alcohol and tobacco have historically not been defined as "drugs".) Collectively, that is more than 600,000 deaths per year and more than six million lives lost in the past decade as a direct consequence of prescription and illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
In years past, those left in the wake of drug-related deaths mourned silently. Due to the moral taint attached to drug-related deaths, causes of death were rigorously hidden, and survivors isolated themselves to privately sort out feelings of sorrow, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, fear, and confusion. After all, how could one openly mourn within a community that viewed addiction in terms of character weakness and viewed death as a deserved consequence of bad choices made by bad people? And how could those affected seek support from a community that suspiciously viewed families, intimate partners, and friends as suspected causes or accomplices in addiction and its aftermath?
That world is changing. Survivors of such loss are turning their pain into activism. They are publicly telling the stories of the ones they have lost and telling their family stories. They are reaching out to each other to form support groups and local education and advocacy organizations. Through their stories, they are debunking the myth that only bad people from bad families die of drugs. They are exposing obstacles to recovery their loved ones and families experienced. They are exposing predatory people and institutions that aided the addiction of their family members or financially exploited their emotional vulnerability and need for help. They are suing alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies, and exposing incompetent and exploitive physician prescribing practices. They are exposing inaccessible, unaffordable, and ineffective addiction treatment practices. They are confronting politicians who have, for political gain, stirred public fear and forged harmful drug policies. They are demanding that addiction be viewed as a public health crisis and that people with drug problems be embraced within systems of compassion and care rather than systems of control and punishment. They are supporting primary prevention programs. They are supporting harm reduction programs that keep people alive until they are able to fully recover. They are demanding improved quality of addiction treatment and post-treatment recovery support services. They are, in short, emerging as a major advocacy force in communities across the country. And in doing so, they are saying to their lost loved one, "We will not let stigma and shame silence the speaking of your name"; "we will honor what you meant to us and turn our grief into something of great value to others."
Let's go back to our opening numbers. Let's assume for a moment that each of those more than 600,000 individuals dying from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs each year left behind five people (intimate partners, family members, friends, co-workers) who still mourn their passing. In the past decade alone, that would constitute a potential advocacy force of more than sixty million people. Combined with millions of families grieving a still-living but drug-addicted family member and the legions of individuals and families reaping the fruits of recovery, there exists a massive community of affected individuals to change how this country addresses alcohol, tobacco, and other drug problems. What remains is transforming mourning and gratitude into a vibrant and sustained advocacy movement. That is what the recovery advocacy movement seeks as it reaches out to those who have experienced such losses and those whose lives reveal the reaped promised of recovery. Grieving families are turning their grief into tribute, mutual support, and advocacy. Recovering families are turning their gratitude into mutual support, community service, and advocacy. Together, they could change the world.