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National Recovery Month - When Public Health Gets Personal
Robert Nystrom
​"It's never too late, treatment works and there is always hope."
September is National Recovery Month when tens of thousands of Oregonians may stop and reflect on their personal or family experience with the disease of alcoholism or drug addiction.
I am one of them.
And while September is a celebration of 35 years in recovery for me, I remain respectfully aware that it is and has only ever been "one day at a time." I also know that for a friend, a neighbor or a colleague—or their partner, child or parent—today or tomorrow may be their very first day. My message to you is a simple one. It's never too late, treatment works and there is always hope. And more importantly, you are not alone.
I’m tempted to start off with a more "public health" sounding message here. You know, like our state research estimates that more than 200,000 Oregonians are dependent on or abuse alcohol and require treatment. And that 18 percent of our state's eighth-graders and 36 percent of 11th-graders drank alcohol in the last 30 days. And the sobering epidemiological data that tells us first use of alcohol before age 14 results in four times the risk of lifetime dependency; even greater with a family history. And that exposure to household substance abuse is the most common Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) in Oregon, and the resultant collective trauma of multiple ACEs translates into a greater likelihood of myriad other damaging health outcomes. And that substance use among youth is a major contributing factor to motor-vehicle accidents, the leading cause of death among youth. And that the social costs are enormous and estimated to be over 2.8 billion dollars.
We have lots of data. That's the easy part to understand.
It’s only natural that people try to define and understand the course of this disease in the details. Mine are not surprising. My family had a strong pre-disposition with multi-generational alcoholism clearly evident. Cirrhosis of the liver doesn’t lie.
I started drinking as a sophomore in high school. My very first experience ended in a blackout and I somehow miraculously drove home without crashing and becoming yet another statistic. I didn’t remember parking the car, engine still running, door open and staggering into the house. I learned the next day my mother swiftly tucked me in and away from the knowledge (and wrath) of my father. All common sense would suggest I should "have learned" something from that episode. After all, I also had the perspective of what it looked and felt like to grow up a child of alcoholic parents. It didn’t matter—I never looked back. I drank alcoholically and used other various illicit drugs for the next 15 years.
My story is not special. Surely I was luckier than others—no arrests, no jail. Some dented fenders and a few trips to the ER. Part of what helped support my own denial was my ability to outwardly stay successful in other areas. But even that can only last so long. I walked away from my first marriage and a PhD program on a full teaching fellowship because I knew I couldn’t maintain the "illusion" any longer. I did what alcoholics do. I left it all behind so I could continue to drink. While the details and stories of others vary wildly, beneath it all remains some common threads: the guilt, remorse and shame. Feelings of hopelessness.
What changed for me? Simple, yet difficult to arrive at, I got "sick and tired of being sick and tired." Recovery can begin in treatment or at the doorstep of a self-help group. I walked into a 12-step meeting for the first time on September 5, 1979, and for the second time in my life I never looked back. In fact, I went on to work in the field as a licensed chemical dependency counselor and helped develop a student assistance program in a high school where I was on faculty. That path eventually led me to public health some 20 years ago now.
People around us—partners, friends, families—witness and feel the damage every day. What's harder to comprehend for most is how insidious alcoholism and addiction is; when the forces of preservation and denial make the person who has the disease the last one to know it. Or when the constellation of codependent behaviors of family members and friends enable addiction to continue beyond what seems rationale. They remain locked in a constant emotional battle trying to desperately separate the person from the disease; trying to make sense of the patterns of personal and family destruction they see and are a part of day after day.
I’m grateful I am able to share my story of recovery, that I remain "whole"—but I’m reminded that some one else is in the middle of living their story of active addiction. Someone you know. It's more important than ever to remind them and ourselves to support the people we care about in our lives because:
                It's never too late.
                Treatment works.
                There is always hope.
                You are not alone.
Trust me, I know.