Members of the addiction recovery community were in a celebratory mood Thursday morning at the kickoff of a statewide conference focused on supporting clean and sober lives.
The agenda of the 2016 New York Recovery Conference and Celebration was packed with topics requiring disciplined attention: ethical dilemmas related to youth recovery, diversion programs that direct substance abusers to treatment rather than jail, how race and privilege impacts the recovery movement.
But before the hard work began, there were tears and cheers and singing.
Some 400 people in attendance applauded stories about personal victories over drugs and alcohol, as well as signs that the country's attitude toward substance abuse is shifting toward an understanding of addiction as a disease, rather than criminal behavior.
Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez, commissioner of the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, read a declaration from Gov. Andrew Cuomo designating September as "Recovery Month" in New York (as it is in the nation). It spoke of addiction as a medical condition, for which people should seek treatment "with the same urgency as any other disease." The state's first "Youth Clubhouse" to support teens and young adults in recovery will begin programs next week in Amsterdam.
The crowd also hailed their new, collective outspokenness, an outgrowth of a movement propelled by a documentary "The Anonymous People." The film challenges recovering substance abusers to talk openly about their disease, to counter the stigma associated with addiction and, controversially, to shed the cloak of anonymity that sometimes spreads from their participation in 12-step programs through all their interactions.
Tom Hill, a senior adviser at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, spoke of the freedom he felt after "coming out" as a recovering addict, a decision he made 20 years ago after realizing the release that came with letting people know he was gay.
"I thought, if this feels so good, why am I being secretive about my recovery?"
"Anonymous People" filmmaker Greg Williams was one of the morning's speakers, previewing an upcoming documentary on an effort in Houston to support youth, including the launch of high schools for students recovering from addiction. He spoke about the need to take a different approach to helping young people quit their addictions to heroin and prescription painkillers today. Waiting for the person to "bottom out" — a strategy of the past — can be too late, as overdoses too often result in deaths.
He also introduced Matt Butler, a songwriter who composed music for Williams' upcoming film, "Generation Found." Williams elicited a standing ovation from the crowd, as he sang his original lyrics: "I know it makes a difference, the revolution has begun, if I can help just one."