Far too frequently we hear heartbreaking stories of drug overdoses. In recent years, we have read about the untimely and tragic deaths of Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Corey Haim and most recently Perry Moore (producer of Chronicles of Narnia).
Everyday there is a news headline about the growing abuse of prescription painkillers. Drug abuse and addiction is a growing epidemic in our country. In 2008, 6.2 million Americans said they abused prescription drugs in the past month.
Unintentional drug overdoses are now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States, second only to car accidents. The rapid rise in drug overdoses is due to the increasing number of deaths from prescription drugs, especially opioids, rather than from illicit drugs. But prescription drug abuse and addiction is more than a headline or a statistic. It is a real problem that affects real people.
Hello, I’m Meredith, and my brother, Gregg, was an addict. On April 29, 2008, my younger brother and best friend told my family that he was addicted to cocaine. We soon found out that he had been secretly battling a prescription drug addiction for several years.
When my brother was receiving treatment for his addiction, he spoke about becoming a counselor in order to help others battling addiction. Sadly, Gregg’s future was tragically cut short when he died of an unintentional drug overdose on October 8, 2008. He was 26.
During my graduate school training, I learned about addiction. And even though I know that addiction does not discriminate, it is still hard to fathom that it took over my brother. My brother was a “good kid.” He rarely got in trouble and earned good grades in high school and college. After graduating from Syracuse University, Gregg worked for a prominent real estate investment firm. Gregg’s ability to function as an addict caused us to miss the symptoms of his addiction.
My experience taught me that loving an addict is something very different than learning about addiction. Watching my brother suffer from this horrid disease was one of the two most painful experiences in my life. The other was his death.
After this unbearable loss, creating Gregg’s Gift in my brother’s memory has helped my family and I to turn our grief into positive action. We are giving back in a way that Gregg wanted to, but is unable to, because he lost the race with time to the disease of addiction. We are dedicated to giving back because we don’t want anyone to suffer the way Gregg suffered.
Gregg’s Gift is a nonprofit organization committed to positively impacting the lives of addicted young adults and their families, as well as our community, through education and advocacy. Our focus is three-fold: raising money to provide financial assistance for the treatment of young adults who suffer from the disease; heightening community awareness of the severity and complexity of addiction; and advocating for legislative actions that promote prevention and recovery.
On March 21, we are hosting our first annual Comedy Night, together with Caron Treatment Centers in New York. Gregg had the driest, funniest sense of humor. He always had us in stitches. Our comedy night on March 21st at the Comic Strip Live will honor that memory and raise funds to help other families obtain access to life-changing care at Caron.
So why is it so important to raise money for addiction treatment? In 2004, approximately 22.5 million Americans aged 12 or older needed treatment for substance abuse and addiction, but only 3.8 million people received it. Treatment scholarships are desperately needed. The cost of addiction treatment is one of the most significant issues facing addicts and their families.
Sadly, nearly 50% of Americans who are unable to get addiction treatment report the primary obstacle to be cost or insurance barriers. Many insurance policies do not cover the long-term addiction treatment often needed to help an addict safely through detoxification, rehabilitation, and continuing care. Even if an insurance policy covers addiction treatment, not all costs are covered and individuals often have to pay out of pocket.
Many people ask me why we choose to support Caron Treatment Centers. Although Gregg was not treated at Caron Treatment Centers, my family and I decided to raise money to endow a scholarship fund at Caron because of the amazing work they are doing with young adults and their families. Caron has high staff to patient ratios, individualized treatment, after care programs, a student assistance program, and family education programs.
I am consistently impressed by all the Caron does, not only for the initial treatment of addiction, but also for long term recovery. For instance, Caron’s Young Adult Recovery Network is a fellowship of sober young men and women who are alumni or friends of Caron Treatment Centers whose primary purpose is to help one another to stay sober and begin a new life. Lastly, I think it is amazing that Caron not only encourages people to give back as part of their recovery, but also embraces this concept completely. In 2009, Caron provided more than $9 million in charity care to families. In addition, 98% of Caron employees donated to the Caron scholarship program.
One of the messages of Gregg’s Gift is breaking down the stigma of addiction and we are doing this by publicizing our story. Stigma leads to social and legal discrimination against people with addictions. It often impedes treatment and recovery. In addition, addiction is a family disease and, by extension, stigma affects the family and friends of addicts by making it difficult to reach out for support in a time of need.
I understand why the stigma exists. Addiction is a disease that takes over a person. It is a disease that causes people to behave in ways that are socially unacceptable. But these are symptoms of addiction; they don’t define the true character of a person. My brother’s addiction made him lie, manipulate, and hurt those he loved. Addiction turned him into a person who I didn’t know, someone who he didn’t know. But that is not who my brother was. These were symptoms of his diseases.
Addiction is a devastating disease that is made worse by stigma. Eliminating stigma will encourage more people to be open about their addiction and get the help and the support they need to recover. So I encourage you, when you meet an addict, remember that this is someone’s son, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. And when you meet the family or friends of an addict, remember that they are also suffering, both from the disease of addiction and as a result of stigma. It is easy to label, but it takes strength, courage, and kindness to be aware and reserve judgment.