The average dinner party just got a lot more exciting. An unconventional invitation -- which asks us to come together, pull up a chair around the table and talk about our experiences with drugs and addiction -- has inspired thousands across the U.S. and abroad to RSVP with curious anticipation.
The idea of taking a taboo topic like substance use and creating an event around it originated with social entrepreneur Michael Hebb and his Death Over Dinner project. Operating from the belief that the intimacy of the dinner table can ignite the transformative power of connection, Hebb created the project in 2012 as a way to get people talking about and processing dark personal issues.
Since the launch of Death Over Dinner, more than 100,000 people in 30 countries have shared their thoughts around death, including end-of-life wishes, with friends and family. Despite the somber topic, the conversations are marked by compassion and connection, with a structured dialogue designed to transform fear and avoidance into openness and a sense of community. The project is another example of how communication can be a powerful driver of social change.
This next phase of Hebb's dinner campaign was catalyzed by his awareness of the staggering effects of drugs and addiction on our society, and the fact that the epidemic is largely being swept under the rug due to social stigmatization. I'm a personal friend and peer of Hebb's, and as he knew of my experience in the substance-abuse and mental-health field, he asked me to cofound the new project, Drugs Over Dinner, to bring critical conversations about drugs, alcohol and addiction out of the shadows.
Also serving in the Drugs Over Dinner campaign is a powerful group of activists and icons, including political advisors and thought leaders in the realm of addiction, treatment and mental health. The roster includes Arianna and Christina Huffington, Dr. Gabor Mate, Dr. Carl Hart, Tommy Rosen, Chris Blackwell, David Sheff, Michael Skolnick, Noah Levine, Lee McCormick, Dr. Hedy Fry and Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, to name just a few. The mix of diverse opinions and expertise is a dynamic recipe for spontaneous, productive engagement.
"I hope that talking openly about substance use will shut down fear, both among and toward the addicted," says Christina Huffington. "We often fear what we simply do not know."
With three years of recovery under her belt, Christina has experienced the challenges that come with publicly admitting to a substance-abuse problem. One goal of the campaign is to shed the stigma that's preventing people suffering with addiction from coming out, having a conversation and, perhaps most importantly, seeking treatment.
One of the reasons people are reluctant to discuss substances and addiction -- and why only an alarming 11 percent of America's struggling population receives treatment -- is the persistence of the dehumanizing stereotyping of addicts and alcoholics as street junkies and criminals.
"A lack of education regarding the reality of today's substance user is fueling the stigmatization," says Christina. "Until you know what it means to be struggling with addiction, or you go through it with someone close to you who's addicted, it's hard to see addicts as people. Talking about our experiences with those who have experienced addiction and those who [haven't] can be one of the most powerful ways to breakdown stigma. Addiction is everywhere, and it's important for us to recognize that."
A majority of America's estimated 24 million drug and alcohol abusers (approximately one in 10 Americans over the age of 12) are just like everybody else -- fathers, sons, mothers, coworkers, brothers and sisters. They work, go to dinner with friends and attend social gatherings on the weekends. They are no different from you, other than the fact that they are suffering.
We tend to come from two core beliefs in this culture -- love or fear. Fear tells us to keep quiet, hide secrets and share our successes, not our failures or losses. Love tells us that we are okay, that we are accepted, that we can hold compassion for ourselves and for others. Drugs Over Dinner is an opportunity to push through the fear and embrace a compassionate perspective on this very important topic.
In order to transform misconceptions about drugs, it is critical that we understand that addiction is a serious illness that's chronic, aggressive and increasingly fatal. We need to move toward a national and global focus on substance-use awareness, prevention and proper treatment methods. Decades of scientific study show that substance-use disorder is a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated, yet some still criticize, assuming alcoholics and addicts have a choice.
Drugs Over Dinner aims to provide a safety net for those secretly crumbling under their own addiction or that of a loved one. We have the opportunity and the tools to change the status quo and fight addiction together. As long as people keep hiding their disease, drugs will keep winning. With each new person that speaks out, the stigmatization will begin to shift, prevention will take deeper hold, more people will have access to treatment and progress will be made. The hardest part of the journey might be making a commitment to pull up a seat at the table, let down all social barriers and join the conversation. But we must push past that discomfort in order to save lives.
To help end addiction, go to DrugsOverDinner.org and create your dinner invite. The site will walk you through the easy five-step process of creating a dinner and determining the appropriate questions to ask your group. To spark conversation ideas, the site offers a plethora of reading, listening and viewing resources for you and your guests to review before coming to the table.
Christina Huffington and I ran through a few of the typical questions to give you an idea of what a dinner might look like:
1. If you were feeling overwhelmed or stressed about something, who would you turn to?
I've been blessed to have a strong group of friends that are also in recovery, and I turn to them when I'm overwhelmed and having a bad day, but I'm also very close with my mom. I know I can always go to her.
I have a small circle of trusted friends that I go to for support and advice.
2. What are some of the things to which people can be addicted?
I think today it can really be anything. We live in a culture that's always searching for more to fill the holes we feel inside. Whether that's filling them with drugs, alcohol, sex, food or anything else, it's this constant desire for wanting more of anything that can lead to addiction.
People become addicted to anything that allows them to check out from reality. In today's world, that includes drugs, alcohol, food (especially sugar), relationships, technology, social media, self-harm -- anything that can temporarily take them away from themselves.
3. What messages do you receive from the media about drugs and addiction? How do you feel about these messages?
We have always glorified rock stars. And, unfortunately, some of the stars kids look up to glorify drug and alcohol use. I think the media should be providing more education so that teens and adults can understand the severe consequences that come with their abuse. It's been proven that the younger someone is when they first try drugs or alcohol, the higher risk they have for dependence later in life. Kids need to know what can happen, so when they are first faced with the decision to use or not, they can make a more educated choice. I'm not saying don't ever use -- just wait to start.
I think there needs to be a shift from the antiquated "Just Say No" drug campaign that we have seen didn't really work, to a more preventative message. This idea of "the age of first use" is a real problem, and the age seems to keep decreasing. So I agree that we should focus our messaging efforts on prevention and education, rather than saying "Just Say No."
Some questions are designed to convey the mood and create openness among attendees, while others aim to help your table conversation go a little deeper. At the end of the evening, everyone concludes the conversation with an act of kindness. One guest begins by sharing something they admire and respect about the person on their left; the circle continues until everyone has shared.
Christina, I admire your courage and strength in the way that you are open about struggles with recovery, and the grace and eloquence with which you put your emotions into words.
Jamison, I admire your experience and wisdom in the field of drugs and addiction. You certainly have helped me in my sober journey. It's inspiring that you have taken your own struggles and channeled them into so many positive outcomes that have helped and will continue to help a lot of people.
This appreciation ritual ensures that the theme of compassion and uplifting one another is sustained. If everyone at the table leaves feeling connected, knowing that their purpose and presence in this fight truly matters, you will have succeeded.
This post is part of a series in a partnership between The Huffington Post and Drugs Over Dinner in conjunction with the launch of the latter's new website, www.drugsoverdinner.org. DOD provides the tools and the inspiration to gather those that you care about, to break bread, and have a compassionate conversation about the role of drugs in our culture. To see all the posts in the series, read here.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.