Stories from a growing epidemic

As I’ve traveled around the country, there’s an issue that’s come up over and over again — in small towns and big cities, at coffee shops and community colleges.

Substance use disorders and addiction affect people from all walks of life, all across the country.

That’s why this week, I’m introducing a plan to address this epidemic. Below are just a few of the stories of people whose lives have been touched by these issues. I hope their courage will inspire others to speak out about a topic that has been swept under the rug for too long, and that together we can confront the nationwide crisis of drug and alcohol addiction.

— Hillary

Destiny Pinkney

“My older sister has been battling with drugs and alcohol use for more than 20 years — maybe since she was 16, and she’s 45 now. She didn't get to raise any of her children. My mother helped raise three of her kids, and the others were in foster homes. Some of the oldest have anger toward her — but as the years have passed, they have grown more understanding. They can’t change their mother. She’s still battling it.

“It’s one of the things that impacts me most as a student studying to be a social worker. Watching my sister’s struggle is part of the reason I always had the heart to give and to help — and it has helped me approach the issue of substance abuse from a place of understanding, not judgment. A person is not the circumstance that they're in. People like my sister are judged, but others don't understand the core of what has happened. There are so many layers that came before the addiction.

“To hear Hillary put forth a plan to tackle substance abuse was really important to me. She understands we have to talk about this problem — we can't just ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist. I really admire the work she’s doing.”

— Destiny Pinkney is a student at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa

Blair Salditch

“I came from a stable, middle-class family. I was read to. I was loved. We had no history of addiction in our family. My existence in and of itself didn’t bode warning. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stay in school let alone finish anything I started. I couldn’t be a good friend, daughter, or sister. I slept a lot, and I was alone a lot, and no one knew what was going on because I just withdrew into my room.

“In high school I fell into a circle of friends who were eager to revive the ‘free love’ generation. We smoked and drank and skipped school. I experimented with it all, until I found the thing that made me forget that I was an insecure adolescent who wasn’t sure why things that were easy for other people weren’t so easy for me. Drugs became the cure and the ill and I suffered in the silence of my addled, lifeless existence until I was caught, intervened upon, and sent to a 30-day inpatient treatment facility.

“We do a really bad job at treating addiction in this country. When you’re in rehab, they tell you to look to your left and then to your right and that statistically, only one of the three of you will make it. They say don’t get your hopes up. What we’re doing now is woefully inadequate. If it were cancer, an infection, or a broken limb, and only 10 percent of people were recovering, we would cry foul. And if we treated those ailments the exact same way in every single patient, we would cry foul.”

— Blair Salditch is currently doing volunteer work in Madagascar

Robin Little Wing Sigo

“As a tribal people, we have suffered from substance abuse and continue to suffer from it. After so many years of being forced to give up our culture and our traditions, we were struggling. I can’t think of anyone on my reservation who hasn’t been touched or impacted by it in some way. And it affects so many things: how you parent, how you have relationships, education, and job opportunities.

“Our tribe learned the hard way that one-size-fits-all prevention programs don’t work. A way I could help was to go back to school and start working on community-based participatory research that focuses on the needs of Indian Country. In Suquamish, we interviewed our tribal elders, adults, and service providers about what they thought were the biggest problems in our tribe. The elders told us that substance abuse is actually a symptom of a larger problem: a lack of community and cultural belonging. We can remedy this by finding a way to reawaken tribal traditions by passing them along to our youth.

“So we started working on ways to incorporate a sense of belonging and mentorship into all of our tribal programs. We've recognized the important intersection of mental health and substance abuse and have ensured that both services are readily available in tribal wellness center. We've taught youth and their families about substance abuse — but we also built a connection to our culture by showing them how to do traditional activities like smoke salmon, weave cedar baskets, and pull in a canoe. Because the stronger a community is, the less likely you are to lose an individual to substance abuse.

“We're creating a healthy web of family, culture, mentors and sovereignty that allow us to provide for a new generation of Native people who have healed from the past and move forward in the world confidently.

“I was so excited that Hillary is making substance abuse a focal point — that this actually matters this much to a candidate is inspiring. Because it doesn't just affect tribal people. It cuts across socioeconomic boundaries. We can help each other when it comes to figuring this out as a country. We can work together to heal.”

— Robin Little Wing Sigo, MSW, is the Treasurer of the Suquamish Tribal Council and works on the Healing of the Canoe Project for the Tribe in Suquamish, Washington

Bill and Will Williams

“Our son, William, died three years ago, shortly before his 24th birthday. It was almost two years after we became aware that he was using heroin. At the time he was already seeing a psychotherapist, and soon we would add a range of other treatments. There were hopeful intermittent periods of sobriety, but our home life was always filled with the apprehension of misfortune. That apprehension became fact when William accidentally overdosed shortly before his 24th birthday. Six weeks of comatose and/or heavily medicated hospitalization followed before the ultimate realization that William was consigned to a persistent vegetative state.

“Since William’s death, my wife Margot and I have been introduced to many brave parents who have lost children to addiction. Parents whose lives, like ours, are filled with collateral consequences. One parent posted recently: “Addiction isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play.” This was and is certainly true for our family, even as we’ve played a man down for the last two years. Addiction now consumes communities, cities, entire counties and states. It is a deadly sport that may well deserve the title of our unspoken national pastime.

“Yet, a day like today gives us hope. We have met other parents whose lives, like ours, are scarred with the collateral consequences of addiction. We’ve seen them establish scholarships, endow lectures, raise money for research, share their wisdom and strength with others who are battling substance use disorder right now. Urgency is in the air.

“There are good people out there. People who understand. People who care. People who want change. Policemen, lawyers, nurses, doctors, teachers, community organizers, parents, children and friends. They need support from our elected leaders. We as a nation need to get over the fiction that willpower is the cure for a brain disease. Willpower needs to be exercised, not by the afflicted, but by policy makers who can change the course of the epidemic we're suffering from.”

Bill Williams teaches theater in New York, New York

Joe Walsh

“Addiction is an American epidemic that ruins lives and families of all kinds across this country. Today, in the United States, overdoses are now the leading cause of premature death; 350 people are losing their lives daily to alcohol and drug-related deaths. It’s time for the recovery community to come together and be heard in Washington so that the issue of addiction can be better understood and more effectively addressed as a matter of national policy. We can no longer ignore it and that’s why I decided to go all in to support Hillary’s plan to combat the alcohol and drug addiction epidemic. There is hope in recovery. I’ve seen it myself.”

— Joe Walsh is a musician, songwriter, and member of “The Eagles”

Dr. Kamaria Tyehimba

“Addiction is a disease that touches every American family, and one that has been particularly devastating to low-income and impoverished communities of color. As a prevention and treatment provider, I work with such patients every day.

“Unfortunately, it tends to be the folks with the fewest resources who have trouble accessing the help they need. It is critical that we look at these disparities when we think about addressing the epidemic of substance use disorder.

“First, we need to focus on education. If we can reach young people before they engage in drug use, they will be less likely to need treatment later. But we also need to make sure we're expanding access to treatment, particularly in communities that have been historically underserved. Medicine alone cannot keep a person sober — our approach to recovery has to be comprehensive. That means providing counseling and other support services that will allow people to overcome addiction and move forward in their lives.”

— Dr. Kamaria Tyehimba is a social worker at the Urban Minority Alcoholism Drug Abuse Outreach Project (UMADAOP) in Cincinnati, Ohio

John Shinholser

“I have been in recovery for 33 years and I have worked in recovery support services for nearly as long. I have my finger on the pulse of what helps those suffering from substance use disorders. I’ve seen the results with my own eyes. The problem we have is we aren’t properly funding what works.

“Did you know it costs more to lock up an addict who is stealing to get a fix than it does to put the same addict into a detox program? Did you also know that addicts who are locked up are far more likely to return to using when they are released than the people who were in treatment facilities?

“The time has come to stop throwing good money after bad. We have to start putting dollars toward recovery programs — what I call authentic recovery communities — that work to fix this problem.

“The services offered by these programs include, but are not limited to same-day appropriate medical detox upon request, same-day access to recovery residences, correction re-entry support services, and strong federal good Samaritan laws.

“These authentic recovery communities need to take the lead because they have the track records for success and they are governed by people in recovery themselves, as well as faith-based leaders. I believe they are our most treasured assets, yet they are discriminated against by the very agencies that were designed to protect and help them.

“This country needs a candidate who understands the importance of supporting and implementing authentic delivered recovery support services on a large scale. We need to create the right policies to invest in what works and stop what doesn’t.”

— John Shinholser is the co-founder of the McShin Foundation, a recovery community organization in Richmond, VA

Read more about Hillary’s plan to address substance use disorder and addiction.