It has been said numerous times that no one chooses to suffer from substance use disorder. Just today I read a post by Sandy Swenson, the mother of an addict, that began, “No, Joey didn’t dream of becoming an addict, and it certainly wasn’t what I dreamed for him either.” Similarly, it is probably safe to say that no one sets out to speak publicly about addiction. I don’t think I’m going very far out on a limb to suggest that every speaker on the roster of Speakers for Change has themselves undergone a significant life altering change related to drug or alcohol use that has subsequently compelled them to speak. It may have been their personal battle to overcome damaging substance use. Perhaps it was suffering alongside a family member struggling to recover. Or, tragically, struggling alongside a family member who is eventually incarcerated; or worse, dies as a result of their interaction with substances. Blessedly, it may also be a new, positive and productive life that has emerged as a result of recovery.
My son, William, is among those lost to an accidental heroin overdose. At his memorial service I closed his eulogy with the following pledge: “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.”
“Action is eloquence,” is taken from Shakespeare. Who else? When I look at the roster of Speakers for Change I am impressed the actions they have taken: gaining sobriety, establishing recovery centers, lobbying in Washington, representing indigent juveniles, filmmaking, establishing a speaker’s bureau, to name but a few. But most of all, listening to fellow sufferers, helping them to begin to find their voice, encouraging them to use their story to someone else’s benefit.
The work that speakers on the roster have done has brought the important stories they now have to tell. They’ve worked with their hands and their hearts first. They have been eloquent long before speaking out loud, though surely part of the work of effecting change means speaking up, more especially speaking truth to power.
In my family’s case action began by narrating our particular experience with an ever-expanding circle of friends and acquaintances, only to discover that they had a need to share and reveal stories about the impact of addiction on their lives. I began to write about what I learned and was fortunate to have some essays published. My wife and I continued to read, go to lectures and meetings, and to engage with experts and professionals in the addiction world, as we tried to educate ourselves. Two of the people who shared their wisdom, encouraged us and aided us in telling our story are Greg Williams and Carol McDaid, now fellow Speakers for Change. They are not alone in their accessibility and eagerness to help. They are two models of eloquent action taken on our personal behalf. I never imagined speaking about addiction. Yet with the support of others my wife and I have testified before Congressional committees four times, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and numerous schools and community groups. I say this not to pat myself on the back. Rather, as an example of how one thing leads to another. Important stories resonate in ways we can’t always imagine.
Andrew Solomon, author of a beautiful book, Far From The Tree says, “We all have our darkness, and the trick is making something exalted of it.” We begin to do that by sharing our stories. The stigma of addiction feeds on darkness and silence. In my opinion, a large part of the value of Speakers for Change is about helping others to find their voice and to use it in the fight against addiction. The speakers are a demonstration of what can be done. We will gain momentum as we move from solo voices to an impassioned chorus.
Sandy Swenson concludes her post by saying, “No more shame, no more silence…and that’s why I became a warrior! Action is eloquence.