Lifting Up Our Voices: Recovery Advocacy in Action
The news in our world today is filled with what I don’t want to hear (let alone live through): hurricanes, floods, pandemics and plagues, food and water shortages, wars, fires. The list plunders on. And last but not least, the news is saturated by a world scourged by the effects of trying to run away from it all through substance use that can lead to addiction—and tragically, oftentimes, death.
In this last year alone, alongside another global pandemic, the opioid crisis has left families devastated and communities hurting. Everyday, I see posts on social media that outline the gaping heart wound of the loss of a child to addiction. My mind cannot comprehend what these women and men outline: finding their son or daughter, fresh out of treatment or incarceration or after years of battle, without breath. Or, not finding them at all but getting a call from a complete stranger: the police or coroner, who in a flat voice outlines how the one they loved, birthed, laughed, cried with and walked alongside, is gone.
According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 93,000 were killed by overdose in 2020 alone.[i] The emptiness of this number sends shivers into the words I’m typing now. Collective grief like a black hole, consuming.
So where is the good news?
In this mysterious life, amidst the tragedy and catastrophe and bad news (as is thankfully the case), there is another current rising. Alongside this horrible reality, there is a light that’s shining.
A light still shines.
Advocacy Brings Hope
An advocate is one who pleads the cause of another.
In recovery advocacy, people in addiction recovery, their family members, and other allies plead the cause for the one who still struggles. They advocate on behalf of the one who still seeks, and the one who (regardless of how many years of sobriety they have) deserves access to life-saving peer recovery support services.
In scripture, there are many examples of this. An Article from World Vision Advocacy, 6 Heroes of Advocacy in the Bible, states that:
God’s call to advocacy — to plead another’s cause — is spread across the pages of the Bible, and we see powerful stories of Biblical characters who put that call into action. In both the Old and New Testaments, God calls on advocates to speak boldly, whether or not they believe they’re qualified.[ii]
God calls us to advocacy through these examples. To love mercy and advocate (boldly and humbly) for justice.[iii] Isn’t it amazing how a book written so long along can still speak to us today in a relevant, active way?[iv]
One of my favorite examples of an advocate is that of Nehemiah.
In the beginning of this book, Nehemiah hears about Jerusalem, a city in ruins, and the people of Judah who are in great distress. The wall that used to stand tall around the city to offer protection against invading armies is now fallen rock; clouds of dust the only hope for safety. As is characteristic of God’s people, Nehemiah is overwhelmed with compassion and asks God to allow him to help. He pleads with God for an opportunity to be heard—and to take action.
It breaks Nehemiah’s heart to learn of the people’s suffering, even though it’s also clear from the text that the people haven’t exactly lived squeaky clean, virtuous lives. Regardless of their actions or their deservedness or undeservedness of mercy and help, Nehemiah's love compels him to action. Against all odds, some would say, he advocates on behalf of the people.
And guess what?
The King listens.
Nehemiah continues to pray.
He rebuilds the wall.
He works in community with other leaders.
The people then not only have safety, but they return to God because of the amazing picture that Nehemiah’s faith—lived out through his advocacy—shows them.
Ultimately, Nehemiah’s boldness, faith, and advocacy in action (through God) help to heal an entire city.
What Does Recovery Advocacy Mean to You?
I had the recent opportunity (thanks social media!) to ask recovery advocates across the United States why they advocate on behalf of others seeking healing. What motivates them to spend their lives working for this cause? What is it about people struggling with addiction that lights compassion within them? Is it their own experience? Their loved ones’? Their encounter with a loving God? Their semblance, in character, to people like Nehemiah?
And their answers were overwhelming. Instead of paraphrasing, I’d like to share a few of the reasons in their--in your--words.
We all need to speak out to break stigma around SUD, mental illness and recovery from both these things. Normalize recovery, talk about trauma, the roots of addiction and start changing the narrative to help people become well and whole. – Sheshe Powell
The stigma of what an alcoholic and/or addict is will only lessen when we - you, me, each of us - make our recovery stories louder than our drinking ones.
I won’t ever be ashamed to be in recovery. I struggled and lived in isolation and shame for way too long. I am so grateful to be on the recovery side of addiction today. – Seija Nelson
Recovery advocacy is important to break historical barriers, and promote diversity and equality. – Angelo Lagares
When I was in active addiction, everything was a secret or a lie. Being open about my recovery frees me from that feeling. – Alyssa Feidt
Recovery advocacy means […] ending stigma and shining the light of recovery for those still in the darkness of active addiction. – Sarah Ahern
It means recovering out loud in order to share my story and demonstrate that recovery is possible. – Travis Sackett
For me it means accountability the more people I tell about my recovery the more people I'm accountable to. – Raven Peace
Being an advocate for recovery means EVERYTHING to me! To be a voice bringing life and light to human rights, dignified health care, respect for my fellow peers and that of basic common sense amidst such chaos in the world — yes, this is everything to me! - Spring Leah Kortman
We have a voice that needs to be heard. We are not mistakes. We do recover. We go from mess to messenger from test to testimony. - Susan Battah-Horn
Platform to give voices to the voiceless. Hopefully, the work gives others an easier path to recover. – Matt Holder
Everyone we encounter experiencing mental and substance use disorders has the potential to get well—then to get better than well, if they have access to appropriate care and sufficient support. – Donald McDonald
To show others suffering from addiction that there is hope and a better life by sharing our stories. – Jerry Seitz
It can also mean advocating for myself with my family, i.e. asking someone to leave if they are drinking or using in my home. – Barbara Faberson
The only way I can keep what I have is by giving it away. – Allyn Schaal
Recovery advocacy is: Showing others they are not alone. Making them comfortable to just "be" in your presence. A connectedness that slowly darkens fears and sheds light on hope. A way to teach others the importance of empathy. – Sherry Combs Barnett
It means that I finally get to be my authentic self and help break stigma. It means I am not afraid to share my story and my life because I know that’s the way other people learn to hope for themselves or their loved one that’s struggling. – Kelly Mullinix-Stanley
Being a face and a voice of recovery. To end stigma we must change people's perceptions; and to change their perceptions we must change their experiences. If we can develop language to engage with our community partners, we are in a position to create a culture of recovery and affect some positive change. – Todd Vander Galien
Showing others that you do recover and you can recover. – Cathy Allen
I’m not ashamed to admit where I am at anymore! – Robert Piecuch
You gotta give it away to keep it!!! Bill Pluta
Being the voice for the voiceless. Working to give people today what I wished I could have had when I first began struggling with my mental health. It means making right a wrong. It means having hope.
I share my story to give policy-makers and service providers insight into how the traditional model of treatment has made people worse and caused more trauma. I share my recovery to give other struggling people hope and ideas on how they can enhance their own journey.
– Melody Worsham
It means finding yourself, sharing what's worked for you, sharing your story to bring hope to others. It's finding parts of yourself you never thought you had, forgiveness, compassion, equality, kindness. It's fighting for the rights of the ones coming in pain, the parents, the addicts, the family members. It's fighting for funding for the uninsured and underinsured, for things like counseling, detox, treatment centers, Narcan distribution, sober living. It's being non-judgemental and helping the rich and privileged find the same kind of help, promoting all pathways. It's showing up for Recovery related projects, and functions, special days, funding, signing petitions, laws being presented and changed. It's talking the talk and walking the walk.
– Judith Magdalene
I would consider myself an advocate for Jesus and being bold about it because He is the way the truth and the life. I know what it like to be a slave to my own thoughts, and I know freedom. Not perfect but work in progress. […] When all the old is made brand new. – David W Landry
Recovery advocacy to me means actively working to end the stigma in our society against people who have used or currently use drugs (including alcohol.) It means living my life as someone proudly in long-term recovery, and sharing my story whenever possible so that people understand substance use disorder a little better. It means working for health equity and racial justice because these things are intimately tied to the stigma of addiction. It means honoring all pathways to recovery, including harm reduction. It also means maintaining my own program and mentoring or sponsoring others so I'm sharing my recovery. – Rene Bernadette Livingston-DeTiene
Recovery Advocacy is Faith in Action
As these recovery advocates across the nation share, recovery advocacy is a core value in their lives. It is the perseverance and boldness of those in recovery and seeking recovery, families and allies, that push forward to proclaim what works so that others might find the healing that they know is possible in recovery.
Whether you are a Christian or not, the example of Nehemiah is one that brings some important lessons about advocacy.
If you’d like to explore more about how to approach advocacy in this light, I’d love to share an awesome resource: the Nehemiah Night Toolkit by the International Justice Mission (IJM).
To the advocate who is broken: I feel you.
To the advocate that is weary: I get you.
There is much pain and distress in the world today and sometimes it feels like all of our work isn’t shifting the struggle at all. But this is simply not true, friends. What you do matters. You are rebuilding cities. You are lifting up generations. You are a testimony to the power of God’s work through our prayers and actions, however simple or stigmatized or overlooked. If you haven’t yet, one day you will see the bright eyes of a person touched by your advocacy.
I’ll close this article in honor of Recovery Month and the countless advocates around the globe whose hearts are a flame with a couple of passages, in God’s words:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:17
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? – Isaiah 58:6
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror. – Psalm 10:17-18
This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.” – Isaiah 56:1
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. - Psalm 37:6
Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments[…] - Nehemiah 1:5
Want to learn more about recovery advocacy? Check out my fave advocacy group: the Recovery Advocacy Project.
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--- [i] Retrieved from: https://www.aha.org/news/headline/2021-07-14-cdc-drug-overdose-deaths-294-2020. [ii] Retrieved from: https://www.worldvisionadvocacy.org/2019/10/04/6-advocacy-heroes-in-the-bible-world-vision/. [iii] Micah 6:8 [iv] Hebrews 4:12