Viewpoint: Recovery is a reality

Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 6:04pm

It isn’t too often that I get to be a fan of the person and not just the personality, but sometimes, stars really are just like us.

Whenever I discover that a talented artist whom I admire for his or her professional accomplishments is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, I gain this newfound sense of kindred spiritedness.

Like Martin Sheen, whom I grew to adore on “The West Wing” long before I had my first blackout episode. Like Matthew Perry, whom I was crushing on during the reign of “Friends” years prior to my first encounter with the legal consequences as a result of my alcohol use.

You know them as the fictional President Josiah Bartlet and Chandler Bing, respectively, but did you know that they are — in reality — people in long-term recovery who use their notoriety to advocate for generations of others afflicted with addiction and in need of treatment, not jail cells?

Well, now you do.

Celebrity certainly helps to gain a captive audience, but thankfully, you don’t have to be an award-winning actor — or a comic book superhero — to be an influential individual when it comes to long-term recovery. To make your mark on this movement, all it requires is mustering the courage to do one simple thing: speak up.

Especially when it’s the White House asking.

This September marks the 25th celebration of National Recovery Month, a campaign designed to spread awareness about substance abuse disorders and other mental illnesses that devastate our country — a plague that’s strengthened by inappropriate shame and social stigma, which in turn, perpetuates millions of vows of silence.

Last Thursday was a ground-breaking day in our country’s history when an intimate group of young people in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction gathered at our nation’s most sacred building in Washington, D.C., to discuss the great shift that’s happening within our culture: “Recovering out loud. No shame. Only pride."

One of the members of the panel, which was streamed live, was the University’s own Ariel Britt, a graduate student in the School of Social Work and an intern for the Collegiate Recovery Program, led by program manager Matt Statman.

I’ve gotten to know “Air,” as she’s called, through my own involvement with our CRP and Students for Recovery, the student-run sister organization, and if you asked me to tell you one thing about her, I’d tell you that she’s always smiling. That’s what I think of when I think of Air: Cheerful. Vivacious. Full of life.

But it wasn’t always that way, and when I asked her to share her story for this piece, obviously, Air was more than willing.

Her addiction tore her away from her undergraduate education here at the University. In search of a geographical cure, Air retreated to Brooklyn, N.Y., hoping time away from a college environment — a beyond-hostile atmosphere for anyone (of any age) who’s trying to stay sober — might bode well for her.

Thankfully, Air found recovery and built a support community in the city, but after a while, she felt stagnant. She knew she wanted to return to Ann Arbor to finish her degree, but she was hesitant to reacquaint herself with such a triggering world, full of such dark memories.

“It was tough just to walk by bushes where I used to throw up,” she admitted to me, and I understood completely. I had the same feelings when I twice had to push the pause button on my academic and professional journey to seek rehabilitation — knowing full well the kind of toxic arena to which I’d eventually have to return if I wanted to finish my degree.

It seemed impossible

But then came the CRP, and it commenced during the same winter term when Air moved back to Ann Arbor. She got connected with Matt, and all of her fears about having to leave campus in order to rebuild a support community vanished. The CRP works diligently to provide students in recovery with social opportunities that aren’t mired in drugs and alcohol — a serious rarity on campus — like tailgates, ice skating at Yost arena, camping trips and volunteer efforts.  

And now, as Air nears graduation this December, she wants to use her master’s degree to continue crusading for this cause within educational institutions across the country as a fearless advocate for current and future college students who need recovery support.

On top of everything else, Air works as a manager for a sober living house managed by the local Dawn Farm treatment center.

“Bottom line, people are dying and not receiving the services they need because this movement is so underground,” she told me, citing the recent documentary The Anonymous People as a huge source of inspiration. “And you shouldn’t have to leave school to get the help you need. This is an issue of social justice above all else.”

I have no doubt that people whose lives have been personally impacted by the disease of addiction — from Martin Sheen and Matthew Perry to Matt Statman and Ariel Britt — will continue to speak up in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every member of this country whose existence has been marginalized by this disease, and the White House ain’t a bad place to “start chatting.”

Recovery from addiction isn’t the modern scarlet letter. It’s a badge of honor, and I keep mine pinned to my chest because we need to illuminate the solution just as frequently as we broadcast the problem. For every story on a heroin overdose, let’s feature a story about a collegiate recovery program that might have saved that person’s life. For every funeral, let’s celebrate a sobriety milestone in honor of someone who wasn’t as fortunate.

The devastation has its important place. We can’t dampen or quash the seriousness of this health crisis, and there’s a reason why one of my tattoos reads in bold, black ink, "Scars are souvenirs you never lose. The past is never far.”

Let’s not forget the stark truth that addiction is a matter of life or death.

But let’s not forget about life. Let’s not forget that there’s hope. Let’s not forget that continuous, uninterrupted sobriety — even in college — is possible when the support is there both tangibly and through social and political empowerment.

Let us never forget that recovery is a reality.

Carley Keyes is an LSA senior.