As I leaned in to smile for the picture that was being taken, I asked the young woman holding her cell phone what the occasion was. "I'm 10 years clean and sober today!" she said with joy and pride. Her husband and children stood by watching. This was a profound moment for me -- a very special one. I have been asked to participate in selfies for just about every health condition you could name, but I had never been asked to celebrate someone's sobriety with them.
On Sunday, Oct. 4, we will see exactly how many people are eager to celebrate their sobriety and deliverance from a fatal disease. Untreated addiction only has two possible endings -- jail or death. And as the disease progresses, the entire family suffers in life-altering ways. Due to its ripple effect onto everyone around the person suffering with addiction, there has been an understandable lack of empathy as loved ones sort through the hurt feelings and devastation of watching someone slip away. But we know more now -- we have a better understanding of what addiction is from those who have successfully entered recovery. We understand that it is a disease rather than a moral failing. We know better now than to let someone "bottom out" and that early, earnest intervention can arrest a spiritual and behavioral metastasis. The people who stand proudly at Sunday's rally are proof that there is a third ending, a much happier one.
We are at a seminal point in how our country thinks about, talks about, and treats the disease of addiction. We have reached a critical crossroads -- overdose from drugs is now the leading cause of unintentional death in people under the age 50, surpassing traffic accidents. There are 24 million people suffering with addiction who are in need of immediate acute treatment. 1.9 million of these people are addicted to prescription opiates, the fastest growing category of substance abuse. While effective treatment is available, the majority of the 24 million people in need of treatment don't find it. How can that be?
As a physician who has prescribed opiates for post-operative pain, I understand them to be necessary, effective tools to help patients. But in my 25 years of medicine I don't recall being offered any training on how to spot an addict or what screening questions to ask. I had some patients disclose that they didn't want morphine afterwards because they had battled heroin addiction. I remembered feeling perplexed because if their heroin use was in the past, why would it be an issue now after surgery? I share this to demonstrate the enormous gap that persists in conventional medicine in understanding the pathology of addiction. I learned through clinical experience the nuances and specifics of the disease of addiction when it should have been medical doctrine. If 24 million people are suffering with anything, it's worth the investment for medicine to understand its exact nature and come up with the best possible treatments. Yet there has been no organized approach in this country to deal with the millions of people suffering with a fatal disease. This must change and it changes today.
There are also many smart policies that can be deployed to deliver treatment and allocate resources. I will be joining various delegates from the National Council on Behavioral Health and Facing Addiction to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to support the passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) that will free up money for research and create supportive therapeutic environments for high school students who have had addiction treatment. Another law that is an easy, sensible measure is the Redeem Act, a law that would allow people in recovery to expunge their non-violent criminal convictions so they are not denied the right to vote, hold a business license, and receive various federal assistance such as food stamps. Currently, we punish people for a lifetime if they successfully overcome their disease and enter recovery. You have more protection and privilege under the law after declaring bankruptcy than overcoming a life threatening disease.
But the policies and the medical research will only result from a social renaissance. Smart people will make smart decisions if they know the public is going to support them. We increased survival rates in breast cancer patients AFTER we started talking about it and popularized the urgency to find a cure. Now, wearing pink in October is in the fabric of our culture. The policies and the research followed because the social awareness made political willpower and popular opinion made it easy. Until now, addiction was the elephant in America's living room. It's time we acknowledge the elephant -- head on -- without judgment, without shame, without fear. We must turn addiction its own unique shade of pink.
There are 23 million people in recovery from addiction who need support and should be celebrated. I would take a selfie with every single one of them if it were practical, and I pledge to elevate this discussion about the noise and shame, and I promise to make apathy impossible.
I hugged the young woman and told her to keep up the fight and let her light shine, and promised her that I would make sure that it did. Join me in being the voice of change and end the silence. Share your story of your personal path from addiction to recovery or celebrate a loved one who has. It's time.
If you or your family has been touched by addiction, we want to hear your stories. Please email The Huffington Post blog team at ImpactBlogs@huffingtonpost.com or share them on social media with #UNITEtoFaceAddiction.
This post is part of a series produced by facingaddiction.org, in conjunction with their event Unite to Face Addiction (Sunday, Oct. 4, National Mall, Washington, D.C.). The blogs are also part of The Huffington Post's "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative. For more information on facing addition, visit www.facingaddiction.org.
The UNITE to Face Addiction Rally will begin live streaming on Sunday October 4, 2015 at 4pm EDT on Huffington Post.