A Brief Note on Advocacy Work

Last month, I wrote a piece about the upcoming Unite to Face Addiction March in Washington, DC. The purpose of the event is to alert the public and our nation’s leaders about how many people are in recovery and how many more could get there if more (and better) policies were enacted. A number of the principals involved are quite impressive.

Advocacy work has been very effective in recent years regarding gay rights, breast cancer awareness, and veterans’ issues.  Over the last several years, advocacy work in the addiction treatment and recovery field has skyrocketed. Organizations such as Faces and Voices of Recovery were some of the first movers. We need to tread very carefully here though, because if advocacy work is not engaged in properly, it can actually harm the movement rather than help it. Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Most of the people doing advocacy work for addiction treatment and recovery support services tend to be in recovery. It makes sense, because they have experiences to share and a strong sense of purpose. However, I think that there should be a minimum length of sobriety for people that engage in advocacy work. One of the cardinal traits of someone with an active addiction is inconsistency (not always, but almost always). I think that someone who is 90 days or 9 months clean is a poor immediate candidate for this work (think of the times someone who just started working out 5 days ago or changed their diet 3 weeks ago or started using a new product last month gets all evangelical with you about it and tells you how you need to change your life). Two years to me seems to be a good threshold.

(2) Have advocates done or accomplished anything else? Getting clean and staying sober is hard. It’s amazing when someone sticks to it, and you often see entire families transformed. But being effective at changing the opinions of others and influencing public policy requires a bit more experience and gravitas. There are times when advocates will be criticized and attacked – you need to fall back on a some kind of successful, varied foundation. Advocates should be able to point to their family life, education, charitable service, work or some other aspect of their life. It comes down to this: why should someone listen to you? The more you bring to the table, the more you will be able to sway those that originally disagreed with you.

(3) Stay grounded. Too often, advocates use the movement to advance their own personal agenda and they lose sight of what they are doing. I’ve seen far too many addiction treatment and recovery advocates flame out (and/or relapse) because they paid too much attention to their own press and stopped taking care of themselves. When this happens, you do the movement more harm than any good you brought before it.

(4) Powerful advocates include athletes who became addicted to painkillers (Americans, myself included, overly-love sports), military members & veterans, and the parents of young people who have died. These figures are often harder to shout down than traditional people in recovery. Try to include them in your work. That point made, there will still be some obstinate individuals who say horrible things about these people in the comments section on news articles – don’t let them make you hate humanity. Share those reactions sometimes in your advocacy as an exact reason why we need to engage in this work.

(5) Advocacy has many forms. Speaking, writing, training, one-on-one talks, tabling, calling on politicians, letters to the editor, teaching and a host of other ways. It’s important to do big and small work. Sometimes we get to talk to 500 people at once (or 500,000 on TV), and other times we might be at a community event with 20 people. Do the work, don’t despair. We need you.