30 Years After Getting Sober, I’m Ready To Recover Out Loud

To combat America’s addiction crisis, we must come out of the shadows.

Editor’s Note: Chris Wayne, who died suddenly on Jan. 14, was a dear friend of HuffPost ― and of mine. I got to know Chris when we hired his company, Peak XV, to produce HuffPost’s two Listen to America tours in 2017 and 2018, during which we crisscrossed the country to listen to everyday Americans tell us their most urgent concerns for their families and the country. Chris not only ensured these projects ran flawlessly; he all but literally held my hand when I needed it most. He showed me how to keep a cool head even in times of crisis, how to ask for help (which I am definitely not good at), and how to be a reasonable and thoughtful leader on the road. He was open and sensitive and empathetic, and I trusted him completely. I was crushed by the news of his death ― I had so many plans for us this year and next. But I am grateful he left us this story about his recovery and his 30-year sober anniversary so that HuffPost readers can get a sense of who Chris was, in his own voice. He was a wonderful person, and his impact will be felt at HuffPost for a very long time. —Hillary Frey, Executive Editor, HuffPost

Chris Wayne
Chris Wayne
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

I will never forget that moment, 30 years ago today, when at age 22, I was awakened from a drunken stupor by a bright light shining in my face. The glare came from the flashlight of a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy. I had passed out behind the wheel of a running car in a bad part of town, a neighborhood notorious for drug activity. Terrified, I pleaded with the arresting officer not to send me to jail.

In a moment of grace that I will never forget, the officer told me, “This might be the best thing that ever happens to you.” At the time, there was no way I could understand just how profound that observation would be. Its implied advice ended up changing the course of my life forever.

An hour later I was in the drunk tank of the Sacramento County jail. I sat in that cell listening to a fellow detainee, who was high on PCP, rant incessantly and incoherently. I suddenly saw clearly where I was headed. For the first time, I could see that I was physically, emotionally and spiritually dying. I knew deep in my heart this was my moment. I had to change.

The next morning, as soon as I was released, I reached out to my parents and asked for help. Through them, I was able to immediately seek treatment for my addiction and embark on a new path.

Seven years later, that path led me to the White House. First, I had a junior position on the public liaison staff, and later, I was appointed a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, traveling the globe with the president aboard Air Force One. But it wasn’t always a smooth journey.

President Clinton and his closest aides were committed to diversity ― in personnel and in thinking ― but not everyone was similarly committed. In 1996, as the re-election campaign was underway, I was being considered for a key slot on the advance staff. But one communications adviser reacted very negatively when my hometown newspaper called about doing a profile on me and how I had overcome adversity to become a trusted member of the president’s team. In fact, that adviser went so far as to try to block my hiring, saying, “Why are we hiring drunks at the campaign?”

Even at that level and in that context and time, the stigma was alive and well. And while we’ve made incredible strides toward combating the shame that’s associated with addiction, it still persists within almost every facet of our society.

After I left the White House, I ventured into the private sector and eventually started my own successful business. And, most importantly, I have four beautiful children and a happy marriage.

Along the way, I have learned that just because I stopped drinking and using drugs, it doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot of work to do on issues that affect my behavior. I am prone to depression and anger, issues deeply rooted in a childhood trauma, but I now can work on these issues in constructive ways.

Lost within the narrative of the current addiction crisis are stories like mine: people who have risen from a seemingly hopeless state to live productive lives full of purpose. Recovery is possible, and the necessary support systems needed to sustain recovery should be available, on demand, in every city and town across the U.S.

Chris Wayne rides a unicorn at IX Art Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sept. 26, 2017, as part of HuffPost's Listen to America tour.
Chris Wayne rides a unicorn at IX Art Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sept. 26, 2017, as part of HuffPost's Listen to America tour.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

For the better part of my journey, I remained mostly silent. Maybe because even after decades of personal recovery, I still felt the societal shame that leaves so many too terrified to ask for help. Or maybe I succumbed to the belief that people like me are expected to stay silent, hiding our authentic selves in some dark place.

For me, those days are over. Thirty years after that glaring flashlight and my night in the drunk tank, I am finally comfortable recovering out loud, with pride and purpose, hoping others will join me and the estimated 23 million-plus Americans who proudly identify as in recovery from addiction.

Just as I have evolved, so too have public awareness and public policies regarding alcoholism and drug addiction. I wish we knew then what we know now. In 1989, the year I entered lasting recovery, our country was deep within the grip of the “War on Drugs.”

Whatever its merits and motivations, that effort not only failed but may well have been counterproductive. The argument went that if we eliminated or severely curtailed the supply of drugs flowing into our country, addiction would cease to exist. The citizenry bought into it in a classic example of false assumptions resulting in wrong outcomes.

Fighting a war on drugs by focusing exclusively on supply is an inherently flawed concept. Today, in the debate over a wall along our southern border, we hear nothing about a real threat to our national security ― the “humanitarian crisis” that exists on our street corners, in our classrooms, boardrooms and, for many of us, right in our homes. Where are the billions of dollars for this crisis, a true national emergency that is claiming over 72,000 lives via drug overdose per year, destroying families, and leaving too many children without their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters?

To end this crisis, we need to focus on recovery. We must set aside the countless prejudices in our health care and judicial systems and within so many of our social networks. This may sound grand, or naïve, or intellectually “squishy,” but tackling addiction effectively will require a truly comprehensive approach, the objective of which will be to allow and encourage every person in this country now suffering from addiction to begin their own journey to wellness.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my decades of political work, it’s that without lived experience at the decision-making table, even well-meaning policymakers often don’t do what is required. Today we’re seeing billions of dollars going not only toward opioid-specific treatment protocols and increased public safety measures but toward a revival of the same old scare tactics from Nancy Reagan’s failed Just Say No campaign.

My lived experience has convinced me that addicted persons need access to more than just treatment. While treatment is a good start, sustained recovery can only be achieved by ensuring that people are set up for success afterward. Would we treat cancer patients with chemotherapy for just 30 days and then send them on their way hoping for the best? Of course not. Cancer patients receive a multiyear continuum of care, driving toward the best possible outcome. The same should be true with addiction — or as the medical professionals call it these days, “substance use disorder.”

Brad Cowgill, who also worked on the Listen to America tour, and Chris Wayne go on a fly-fishing trip down the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana, on Oct. 15, 2017.
Brad Cowgill, who also worked on the Listen to America tour, and Chris Wayne go on a fly-fishing trip down the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana, on Oct. 15, 2017.
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

This new year, I’m pledging to wear my recovery on my sleeve. I want people not only to know that recovery is possible — I want to show them what it looks like. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a business owner, a father and a husband. I’m going to offer my experience to help our decision-makers find a way out of this crisis. And I urge those who can to do the same.

There is hope. We do get better. And we can end this crisis.

Chris Wayne died Monday night, Jan. 14, 2019, on the very eve of his 30th anniversary of sobriety, which he hoped to celebrate with the publication of this article. Wayne was a former special assistant to the president under President Bill Clinton and most recently served as CEO of Peak XV Global Events Agency and executive producer of RecoveryFest.

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