No More Blue Monkeys

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.

Promote recovery.

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

Phil Valentine
Phil Valentine

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.

12 thoughts on “No More Blue Monkeys”

  1. Thanks Phil,
    Been singing this tune for several years now and as you know it’s a slow process bringing our folks along.
    We keep it movin!

  2. Dear Phil:
    I am halfway through day 1 of Recovery Coaching for the ER as taught by you. Thus far, the training is as inimitable as your blog….and I mean that in the best possible way. You mentioned early in the day you liked to challenge people which dovetails nicely with the amateur-hour contrarian I find myself to sometimes be. I look forward to this afternoon and beyond…..together, we in this room can make what you’re saying happen. Thanks for being you.

  3. “I don’t know whether I have ever spoken or written a word about my identity that has had half the effect of simply living my life publicly and without shame,” Jennifer Finney Boylan on embodying advocacy (New York Times, May 8, 2018)

  4. Very well said!! I actually was part of a Reversing the Stigma event recently and I am passionate to help. Your view on this has opened my eyes…Thank you soooo much!! You are so right…there is no Anti-Cancer , Reverse the Stigma on Anorexia, Etc…I love this – Thank you!!

  5. Thank you, Phil! Really enjoyed that and could not agree more. Mother Teresa said, ” I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” Same sentiment, and my heart exactly. We have learned over and over that what we focus our attention on thrives, so why not focus it on recovery?

  6. Hey Phil,
    It was a pleasure working with you in the ED Coach training. I continue to struggle with a few things between the ears, however I have identified the things I need to focus on so therefore, the Journey Continues. I will be following your blog and look forward to positive interactions with you in the future. I left your training with the thought that ” People can do small things with Big Love”. That makes a boatload of sense to me and creates a challenge I know I can meet. Much Love, My Friend. I hope to Keep on Keepin` On.

    Ralph Baker

  7. Cindy Hamrick

    I agree. Focus on the problem… the problem increases. This can be said about Stop Racism…. I say the Solution is LOVE <3 Thanks for sharing Phil. I have enjoyed your past blogs. Keep Shining you Love Light 🙂

  8. Valerie Bailey

    Thank you Phil, for speaking about one of my biggest pet peeves. And, that’s when people tend to stay stuck in the problem and not the solution. It’s all talk and drama and ultimately….negative. Personally, for me, in recovery and even when problems come up in life in general, I want to find the solution. Whether it’s at home, in the family, or collaboratively with others, it’s just a proactive way to think.
    I just finished Recovery Coach Academy in Hudson, N.Y. and was just awed by the video of you telling your story. I really, really found it to be so uplifting and hopeful, that someday I hope I can just be as a powerful speaker as you are. I hope we get to meet one day!
    Valerie B.
    Copake, N.Y.

  9. “I’m living proof!” Should be tattooed on my forehead (hey, now that’s an idea.. not a good one, but one just the same.) While a tattoo wouldn’t work, my philosophy in dealing with folks is: Recovery comes in all shapes and sizes. I’m in awe of those who drew one line and done. Mine was like turning the spigot off: A whole lot went away with the first turn (33 years ago), but took a few more turns till the last drops stopped (old spigot). But off it is and damn proud of it. Your “open arms” attitude is exactly what is needed. I call it: “The Love Boat Effect”. Smiles, beget smiles, and when you jump into the pool of sanity/sobriety, others see your glee and before you know it, there’s a whole lot of splashing going on, and there sure was at the RC For The ER training. THANK YOU! That said, when I see someone on the “Lightning Bolt Road” to sanity/sobriety, I open my heart, my arms, my compassion and start with: “We’re all family. Have a seat. Let’s talk.”

    And my point is???? When I meet someone who’s grown dependent on a substance in my work, I don’t call them an addict. I call them “family”. And that’s what I preach to others on the job: “Treat Them Like Family” please.

    Phil: Truly glad we met.

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