By Phil Valentine
If we want to first reduce, then finally eliminate stigma, then we’ve got to stop anti-stigma campaigns.
Over the years, I’ve seen Stop the Stigma, Stigma Slam, Smash Stigma, Reduce Stigma, Anti-Stigma, End the Stigma events, activities, campaigns and promotions. They have not been effective. Why?
Every time we use the word stigma, we reinforce it.
We can't help it. Our minds are naturally drawn to the stigma. A silly example I use is whatever you do; do not think of a blue monkey dangling by one arm from a brown vine with green leaves holding a yellow banana. Could you do it? The same is true with stigma. We conjure up images associated with junkie, lush, dope fiend, drunk and crack head. Then all the corresponding pictures and behaviors associated with people in active addiction waltz through our minds. So don’t do that. Don't dance with stigma. Do something else.
Pat Rehmer, Senior Vice President of Hartford Healthcare and former CT Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner relentlessly talks about a greater issue than reducing stigma. She urges us all to end discrimination for those struggling with addiction and those in recovery. People are denied equal access to healthcare because of addiction. That’s discrimination. That’s illegal. That’s bogus. People in established recovery are often denied employment because of their histories. That’s discrimination. That’s illegal. That’s bogus. If attacking the problem is the way you’re wired, attack discrimination. That’s legit.
Yet there’s even another pathway for those of us called to advocacy.
I believe the recovery advocacy movement would be better served if we hosted more recovery promotion events. Stigma draws attention to the problem. Recovery draws attention to the solution. I’d rather dwell in the solution. Let’s celebrate the answer to addiction.
It’s not a new idea. I heard William Cope Moyers speak about putting a face on recovery in 1999. He had already been talking about it for years. That’s what I’m talking about now. Bill White says we must offer ourselves as living proof that recovery is real. We need to still do it - now more than ever.
CCAR has been promoting recovery since 1998. We held the first walk for recovery in September 1999. We have celebrated recovery through hundreds of events, big and small. Recently our Multiple Pathways of Recovery Conference in October 2017 amplified and celebrated numerous pathways of recovery. We consistently put our face on recovery at the level of press, radio, film and social media. And we do it without talking about our specific pathway of recovery. We’ve become proficient at generalizing recovery while emanating hope and encouragement.
There are many ways an organization can elevate recovery. But how can an individual promote recovery? Well, here’s how I do it, just for today.
1. First, I am not ashamed of my recovery status, so I tell people about it. I have a variety of techniques, one-liners and approaches that I have tested over the years. Through trial and error I have found what works for me. I’m still learning. For example, when I’m in a restaurant and I’m asked if I’d like to order some alcohol, I might say with a big smile, “It’s been 30 years without a drink, I don't think I want to start again tonight.” It often leads to a discussion about recovery. That’s promoting recovery.
2. Social media. I think I’ve had my Facebook account for 10 years now. When I set it up, I was clear on my purpose. I’ve noticed many people are not clear. And controversy often follows. Ever seen it? My purpose is to portray one man’s journey of recovery. So everything I post is through the filter of putting a positive face on recovery. I do my best to avoid the controversy.
3. I discovered my life’s purpose several years ago while working for CCAR. Simply, I was to carry the message of recovery. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015, my life’s purpose became refined. I now believe I am to simply coach recovery. I filter all my actions through this purpose for this phase in my life.
4. So… I write about coaching recovery through this blog.
5. I have an active (sometimes hectic) training and speaking schedule. I do my best to model recovery coaching through these engagements.
6. I lead an organization of like-minded individuals who believe in promoting recovery, coaching others and developing leaders in the recovery movement. We coach each other.
7. At one time I wore a label, my own scarlet letter. People saw nothing but the letter and I carried shame, guilt and remorse. Now that I am in recovery, I stripped off the old letter and proudly wear a new one. This moniker fills me with gratitude, humility and service to others. I am accountable to that moniker. By living in recovery, and letting people know I’m living in recovery, I promote recovery. I offer myself as living proof. You can too.
In summary, I look back on CCAR’s history. Not once in 20 years have we ever run an anti-stigma campaign. I hope we never do.
May we not contemplate the blue monkey. May we always promote recovery.
Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87
In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots. During all that time alone with my Creator, my purpose in life became more precisely defined. I am, simply, to coach recovery. Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life. I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in 1999. I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004. I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula. I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is a way for me to share things I have learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. I find that when I speak I present the same messages over and over. It’s time to write them down.