Recovery Advocates Sharpen Their Skills

Seeking to empower grassroots advocates for addiction recovery, the group Faces and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR) recently held the first in a planned series of national advocacy-training sessions in Braintree, Mass.

Cosponsored by a pair of regional advocacy groups, the New England Alliance of Addiction Recovery Communities and the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR), the training seminar drew about 50 participants from throughout New England, mostly individuals in recovery affiliated with activist groups like RICares, the South Boston Family Resource Center, Friends of Recovery Vermont, Friends of Recovery New Hampshire, and the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR).

Amos Marshall, president of MOAR, summed up the purpose of the seminar in an opening presentation in which he related his personal story of addiction and recovery. “My face is the face of recovery,” said Marshall, who until a few years ago spent his days scrounging for money to buy liquor and his nights sleeping in the graveyards and railroad terminals of Boston. “My voice is all about recovery … I am proud to say I am a face and voice for recovery.”

Both Marshall and MOAR staffer Dana Moulton spoke about the empowerment they felt in becoming advocates for recovery. After getting sober, Marshall said, he realized that people who had referred to him as “that drunk” were discriminating against him. “We’re human, we’re people,” he said. “All we need is a chance to show you what we can do.”

“My life has been one long discrimination and stigmatization,” added Moulton. “I am that dope fiend they talked about.” Moulton recalled that as a truck driver, he was always given the worst jobs by a boss who threatened to expose his drug use if he complained. “He knew I had a drug problem, and if I didn’t like it, there was the door,” he said.

It wasn’t until after his wife and sister died and his support network collapsed that Moulton was able to get clean. “I allowed myself to cry and be angry for the first time,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t just me these things were happening to, but to everyone who is addicted. For the first time, I realized I had a voice.”

Soon thereafter, Moulton was asked to testify about addiction and recovery before officials from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “It was the most empowering experience of my life,” he said.

The training, led by Ron Williams of Portland, Ore.’s Recovery Association Project, revolved around using individual meetings and small-group discussions to establish common bonds among advocates and organizations, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of both the participants’ own stories and interests and those of their counterparts.

Over the course of the day, Williams used the information gleaned in these encounters to tease out a variety of issues of common interest that advocates might focus their energies on. “We need to uncover the sacredness of the human experience and share it with each other,” explained Williams.

During the course of discussion, advocates shared stories not only of how they had faced discrimination and stigma in their lives. One participant said that an employer told him he was easier to work with before he got sober, because he never stood up for himself on the job. The same man later was refused an opportunity to sit for a professional licensing exam because of his criminal record, but rallied colleagues and other supporters familiar with his recovery and forced the exam board to reconsider.

A lunchtime session shed light on a growing but powerful segment of the advocacy movement: parents and family members of people with addictions. Speakers from groups like the South Boston Family Resource Center detailed their struggles with helping their children deal with alcohol and other drug problems and their frustrations in trying to access treatment.

“I never thought my life would be this way,” said Karen McDonald of South Boston, whose 23-year-old son is addicted to heroin. McDonald told of going first to her insurance company and then to probation officers at the nearby courthouse in an unsuccessful attempt to get help for her son; later, he was arrested after coming home “high and enraged” and has since spent the better part of the last five years in jail on a string of drug-related felony charges.

Yet McDonald says she feels fortunate that her son is still alive, especially when so many other kids from Southie have died of overdoses. “I have him with a record, with a lot of anger, but I still have him,” she said. The South Boston Family Resource Center has been both a support network and a focal point for her energy as an advocate for treatment and recovery. “We’ve lost 50 young people in the last two years from overdoses,” she said. “We have five prominent lawmakers in our community, and we know all their addresses.”