No child held in a parent's arms envisions a future of addiction. No parent holding a young child's hand envisions their hopes and dreams for that child to be one day ended by addiction. And yet, those wrenching realities are played out daily in this country. More than a half a million individuals die drug-related deaths in the U.S. each year. Drug overdose deaths in the United States increased from 16,849 in 1999 to 38,329 in 2010--casualties added to the 443,000 tobacco-related deaths and 98,334 alcohol-related deaths in 2010. The experiences of affected families have long been ones of shame and silence, but that is changing.
Bill Williams lost his 23-year-old son William to an overdose after seeking one addiction treatment after another. Like most families, the Williams family suffered through these struggles alone out of a sense of embarrassment and shame. But at the memorial service for William, the Williams family made the following pledge:
Elizabeth joins Margot and me in this pledge to William in front of you all: We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease. We ask you all, as witnesses, to give us the same kind of strength and support you have so lovingly offered over the last several weeks, as we strive to honor our word. Action is eloquence.
Like other parents recently highlighted in these weekly blogs, the Williams family members turned their pain into service by now breaking the silence on their experiences. Their Internet communications have drawn a mountain of anonymous responses from other families. Scanning the posted comments, the following words stood out for me:
"Scorched earth is the only way I can describe the aftermath of the period of terror and insane stress waiting to see if this beautiful boy will return to us."
"They work hard on a problem that is ever shifting, progressing, regressing and, as yet, never ending."
"I hope that one day these types of illnesses will not be characterized as a lack of control, or character flaws in the afflicted."
"So long as we stay silent, others can pretend that this could never happen to them."
"I realize how shame, and the secrecy that comes with shame, can swallow as much of your soul as the disease itself."
"If we all speak out we can shatter the stigma."
"Four days before he accidentally overdosed he was turned away from inpatient detox by his insurance company."
And the voices and the grief and the anger go on and on. And rising from these voices is a new force for public education and advocacy. Affected families are telling their stories and they are issuing a call to action to communities across the country. They are saying that we as a country must wake up. They are saying we must act.
I have noted others in these blogs who are part of this rising movement of families whose grief is being transformed into service, philanthropy and political action--people like Jim Contopulos, Stacie Mathewson, Gary Mendell, and Denise and Gary Cullen, to name a few. These families offer perspectives that we as a country and we who are involved in addiction treatment and recovery support need to hear. The silence is being broken. It is time for us to listen. It is time for addiction professionals and people in recovery to stand in unity with these families.
To read some of what Bill Williams has written, click the following links.
Ending the Secrecy of a Child's Addiction
The Storm Inside
A Bear, A Ball, A Birthday, A Boy
Bill Williams' Blog