My former pastor was an alcoholic who got clean after he turned his life over to Christ.
He was very open about his story, but the pain of his past really sank in for me the day that his wife shared her testimony.
This man whom I so admired had done some terrible things when he was in the throes of addiction. However, those are things he did, not who he was.
As a reporter, I have referred to countless people I did not know as recovering addicts without fully understanding the label that I was attaching to them.
That changed after I watched the first 15 minutes of a film called “The Anonymous People” at a Recovery and Addiction Awareness Forum held in Jasper last year.
The film is about the 23 million people in the United States who are in recovery, including a former state senator, a famous actress, a retired NBA player and a former Miss USA.
Some of these people have not touched a drink or a drug in decades. They are successful community members who have an addiction that they battle every day, but they don’t describe themselves as recovering addicts.
As one person in the film pointed out, most people associate the term “addict” with someone living under a bridge clutching a paper bag. Instead, the people in the film and the locals who participated in a panel discussion at the forum referred to themselves as persons in long-term recovery.
The film opened my eyes to more than a problem with semantics, however.
Members of the long-term recovery community were very critical of how addiction is covered in the media.
Mainstream media outlets came under fire for exploiting and sensationalizing the struggles of stars like Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen. Reporters are not so quick to highlight recovery stories because there is more drama in self-destruction than in stability.
Even (or maybe especially) at a hometown newspaper like the Daily Mountain Eagle, we are much more likely to announce that you have been arrested on drug charges and publish your mug shot if you get caught up in a raid than we are to tell the public that you have turned your life around.
As I sat in the pew at River of Living Water United Methodist Church that night, I did some soul-searching about the series on the opioid epidemic that had recently become a topic of discussion at the paper.
I had scratched out an outline that looked at the problem from all sorts of angles. I was prepared to research all the available statistics and studies.
However, that night I realized that this series had to be about people, not numbers.
We are planning for the first part of the series to come out later this summer. It will focus on a few of the individuals in our community who have lost their lives to the opioid epidemic.
We want to show that this problem isn’t confined to one race, gender, age, neighborhood or income bracket; it has affected everyone.
We also want to celebrate the lives of these individuals. Yes, addiction is part of their story, but that’s not who they were. They began their life as someone’s baby. They had personalities, talents, accomplishments and dreams, and someone still grieves their loss.
We are asking family members to submit photos of their loved ones. Our intent is to publish these photos when the series begins to remind our readers that numerous lives are being needlessly cut short because of opioids.
We felt that we must begin the series with the faces of addiction and move on to explore various facets of the opioid epidemic, but it would not be complete without the faces of recovery.
At some point in the future, we will also be asking members of the long-term recovery community to come forward to show readers that addiction isn’t a death sentence.
Once again, 23 million people in this country are currently in long-term recovery. They include people you see every day who may have never shared their story because they feared the stigma that would come with being honest.
One newspaper series won’t eradicate opioids from our community, but we certainly want to start a conversation that is long overdue and hope to change the way people think about addiction.
If you have a photo or story you would like to share for our upcoming series, you can reach me at 221-2840 or email@example.com. You can also contact publisher James Phillips at that number or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.