While it’s still August for a few more days, fall is quickly approaching, and with fall and winter comes worse weather, more time spent indoors, and for many, more struggles with isolation, boredom, and addictions. That’s why this week, in preparation for fall and for National Recovery Month, starting on September 1, I want to share some information and history of addiction and recovery.  

National Recovery Month began in September of 1989, under the name Treatment Works! Month. It was created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), designed to provide recognition for addiction treatments and the medical providers who facilitate them. In 1998, SAMHSA recognized the need to broaden their scope and also celebrate and highlight those in recovery, peer support specialists, medical providers, and all the different communities working to support addiction recovery. This prompted changing Treatment Works! Month to National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Since then, it has been shortened to National Recovery Month. In 2020, the nonprofit Faces and Voices of Recovery took over the planning and facilitating of the observance, working to focus more on celebrating and destigmatizing recovery with the public. In the name of destigmatizing addiction and recovery, I’ll be sharing more about what addiction can look like, information about the communities battling addiction and in recovery, and providing some resources to learn more about the wide variety of different experiences these communities can have.  

With a little bit of history as background, we can share more about what actually constitutes addiction. According to the American Association of Addition Medicine, addiction is engaging in behaviors or using substances compulsively, and continuing despite negative consequences. By this definition, this could include a wide variety of possibly addictive behaviors, including things like addiction to technology, gambling, or drinking caffeine (for more information about what constitutes addiction, check out this resource). That being said, the vast majority of recognized addictions, and the focus of National Recovery Month, is addiction to drugs and alcohol, usually called substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) respectively. Even among this category though, there can be significant variation with what SUD and AUD means. Some addictions come on very suddenly and through no intentional actions of the person becoming addicted, such as those who accidentally become addicted to prescribed medications. Others struggling with addiction might have chosen to try addictive substances at a young age, intending to keep the use occasional and taking years to build up their reliance. Some addictive substances are legal and overused, like alcohol, while others are illegally produced and purchased, like heroin. Still others are legally prescribed to a patient, such as opioids, but dependence and misuse becomes the focus rather than the original reason for the medication. And how SUD and AUD look will differ from person to person, too. Some will use their substance of choice throughout the day, every day, while others might binge heavily on rarer occasions. Legal or illegal, consistent use or binge patterns, intentional choices or accidental circumstances, addiction can take many forms, and this disease can impact people from all different backgrounds and walks of life.  

Just like there are many types of addictions, there are many different people and types of communities that struggle with addiction and are working toward recovery. The stereotype may be of the addict that put their addictive behaviors over keeping a job or a house and ended up living on the street, and there are plenty of people battling addiction who do face these struggles. But this is not at all an accurate representation of the different people and communities struggling with or trying to get out of their addictions. While there is a higher rate of drug abuse in unhoused and unemployed populations, studies show that people who were employed and owned their own homes struggled with addiction only slightly less than the national average across all demographics, at 7-9% instead of 9-13% of the general public, depending on the study. Furthermore, statistics show that with rare exceptions, there are similar rates of addiction among almost all races, just like there are similar rates of addiction across different genders (see this article for a more in-depth breakdown of addiction by demographic). And while studies find that different populations might rely more heavily on different substances (for example, wealthy communities are more likely to struggle with alcohol and prescription opioids, while poor and working-class people struggle more with cigarettes and illegally-purchased substances. Check out this article for more information), addiction can be present in any community regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status, or any other demographic factors.  

So, if addiction can be present in any demographic and come from a wide variety of substances and use patterns, what does that mean for recovery? There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all solution, and some people sadly never get there, either continuing using substances throughout their life, or overdosing. The number of people struggling with addiction who have overdosed has skyrocketed in recent years, no doubt made worse by the isolation and difficulty of COVID-19 (for more information on the impacts of COVID on addiction and recovery, check out this article). This just means that destigmatizing addiction and providing support is all the more important. In fact, self-reported surveys suggest that of those that have lived through their addiction, 75% eventually reach recovery, and the vast majority quoted mental health support as being the primary driver of success in recovery (for more information about recovery statistics, check out this article). Different demographics approached recovery differently. For example, women were less likely to seek out formal recovery treatment programs, but all racial, gender, and socioeconomic groups showed successful recovery included support from their communities and support for their mental health and wellbeing. When those in recovery have friends and family to assist them and take steps to improve their mental health conditions, they are more likely to be successful, whether through programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, in-patient treatment facilities, or without formal treatment methods. This is why destigmatizing addiction and recovery are highlighted through initiatives like National Recovery Month. 

Recognizing that people with AUD and SUD are our friends, coworkers, family, and community members, and learning about the individual struggles and ways society can support those in recovery instead of leaning on stereotypes, is a big step in the right direction. If you or someone you know is struggling locally with addiction and in need of support, consider checking out the Addiction Recovery Center in Medford, or reaching out to the SAMHSA National Addiction Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). And if you don’t know someone in recovery but would like to learn more personally about the unique struggles and circumstances of those battling addiction and in recovery, check out this memoir and nonfiction booklist. Happy reading, and happy National Recovery Month!