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How the New Recovery Advocacy Movement is Helping Change the Way We Talk About Addiction

Written by Annie McCullough

The Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a primary, chronic and progressive disease, with a tendency to relapse, leading to disability or premature death without treatment and engagement in recovery activities.

Today neuroscientists know the parts of the brain involved in addiction and that the behaviors of addicts are, in fact, symptoms of a brain disorder. Alcohol and other drugs can literally hijack the survival mechanisms of the human brain. The debate among the uninformed is often about whether addiction is a disease or a choice. The short answer is that addiction is a disease “of” choice. It is a disorder of the parts of the brain that we need to make healthy choices that honor the sanctity of life.

An individual afflicted with SUD (substance use disorder, a.k.a. addiction) often experiences dramatic personality changes, gradually becoming almost unrecognizable to loved ones. However, the individual is often unaware of the toxic effects until it progresses dramatically. In end-stage addiction symptoms include pathological denial, risky behaviour, and impaired decision making. They may develop substance-induced mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression). Many become emotionally unstable and they suffer deeply. The men and women who tragically succumb to this brain disorder give something very important to all of us: they teach us that this is not a moral issue, and that the power of choice was not in their control.

We need to help our loved ones find recovery by demonstrating that millions of Canadians from all walks of life are in active recovery – right now, at this very moment. We in the New Recovery Advocacy Movement (NRAM) are working to eliminate barriers to recovery for every Canadian, every family and to help today’s children and future generations, who are often the biggest winners in the process of recovery.

The New Recovery Advocacy Movement

The NRAM is a social movement led by people in addiction recovery and their allies, aimed at altering public and professional attitudes toward addiction recovery, promoting recovery-focused policies and programs, and supporting efforts to break the intergenerational cycles of addiction and related problems.

The NRAM rose in the late 1990s when grassroots recovery community organizations (RCOs) were formed in recognition of the need for a national recovery advocacy movement.   The subsequent cultural and political mobilization of people in recovery and people personally affected by addiction was enhanced by  the growth and diversification of recovery mutual aid groups, a new generation of recovery advocacy literature , a landmark documentary film (The Anonymous People), and a national recovery rally in Washington D.C. (Unite to Face Addiction).

The core and evolving messages of the NRAM include the following:

  1. 1. Addiction recovery is a living reality for individuals, families, and communities.
  2. 2. There are many pathways to recovery, and ALL are cause for celebration.
  3. 3. Recovery flourishes in supportive communities.
  4. 4. Recovery is a voluntary process.
  5. 5. Recovering and recovered people are part of the solution: recovery gives back what addiction has taken from individuals, families, and communities.
  6. 6. Recovery is contagious and can be spread in local communities by increasing the density of recovery carriers and expanding recovery landscapes (physical, psychological, social, and cultural spaces) supportive of addiction recovery.


Changing Public Perception Through Language

One of the main ways we have begun changing public perception is through language.  The lack of understanding of what “recovery” is has required us to be very clear in defining it.

We needed to find a way to describe and talk about recovery so that people who are NOT part of the recovery community understood what we meant when we used the word “recovery.” One of the important findings from the research was that the general public believes that the word recovery means that someone is “trying” to stop using alcohol or other drugs.

We have now found a way talk about recovery in a clear and credible way that will help make it possible for more people to get the help they need to recover.

  1. 1. We make our stories personal, so that we have credibility
  2. 2. We keep it simple and in the present tense, so that it’s real and understandable
  3. 3. We help people understand that recovery means that you or the person that you care about is no longer using alcohol or other drugs. We do this by moving away from saying “in recovery” to saying “in long-term recovery” and by using concrete examples from our lives to talk about stability and mentioning the length of time that the person is in recovery.
  1. 4. We talk about recovery…not addiction
  2. 5. We help people understand that there’s more to recovery than not using alcohol or other drugs, but that part of recovery is creating a better life.

The NRAM has the potential to dramatically alter public and professional perceptions of addiction recovery and forge fundamental changes in the design of addiction treatment and the nature and magnitude of recovery support services available to Canadian citizens.

We are unifying around key priorities – to gain needed resources -to end the discrimination and stigmatization against people who suffer from substance use disorder in our communities and workplaces.  We will continue to advocate for a focus on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery in order to make long-term recovery possible for even more individuals and families.

On Bell Let’s Talk Day, let’s remember to talk about this devastating disease as it continues to affect millions of Canadians every day. On January 27th, you can end the silence by talking, texting, or tweeting about addiction and mental health. Help us raise awareness that RECOVERY is possible.

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