Jim Hood is determined that his son’s overdose will not be in vain—and now Facing Addiction with NCADD is backing him up.
I had a horrible feeling that late October Friday in 2012. God knows, I’d been in that situation many times before: wondering if my son Austin was OK. But this time felt different.
That previous Wednesday, he left voicemails that sounded confused — from a friend’s phone, because Austin had misplaced his, again. On Thursday, Austin sent texts from that same phone. Something wasn’t right. I called the friend, whom I didn’t know, to tell him I was concerned about my son, and I asked him to have Austin call me. Several hours later, the friend called to say he went to Austin’s apartment, but no one was home.
I thought about getting on a plane to New Orleans to make sure everything was all right. I don’t know why this time seemed so different; it just was. A few hours later I received a blocked call. I couldn’t answer in time, and there was no message. Three minutes later a call came in with a New Orleans area code. It was the coroner saying my beautiful boy was found slumped over his kitchen table, dead from an opioid overdose.
Austin’s journey was over. Mine was just beginning.
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Like every son or daughter, Austin was a wonderful person. He had his issues, but mostly he was just a kid trying to grow up in a world that throws endless challenges at all of us — some we understand, some we don’t; some we share, some we keep hidden deep within. A loving boy with a huge heart, incredible mind, and amazing sense of humor, he was on his way to becoming a world-class guitarist. Austin loved John Mayer, and was nearly as good.
But at age 14, we discovered Austin was drinking. We were deeply concerned and sought help. By 15, we found pipes and marijuana in his room. Our concern intensified, and we sought more help. By the time Austin was 16, he was using opioids.
The next three years were a blur of therapists, interventions, wilderness programs, therapeutic boarding schools, and ER visits. Three years later, Austin was doing great. He went off to college with new-found determination and optimism.
But in the middle of sophomore year, he was struggling again. He took time off and entered an intensive outpatient program. He completed that program, got a great job, and everything was looking up again. Until those 48 hours that I will never be able to understand or reconstruct. Until the phone call came that would bring any parent to his or her knees. Until he lost his battle and I lost my son.
Someone said losing a child is the greatest pain we will ever face. They were right.
Looking back, I wondered why it was so difficult to help Austin. Why did he have to go to to 18 different people or places for help? Why was there no roadmap? Why did I feel like we were lurking in shadows the entire time? Wasn’t there anyone out there who’d figured out what needs to be done?
I soon came to understand our family’s journey was far from unique. But even in Westport, Connecticut, society wants to pretend addiction is not the horrific problem it is.
* * *
Addiction is devastating our country and stealing our youth. With 21 million people currently suffering and 23 million more in long-term recovery, addiction to alcohol and other drugs impacts one in three American households. Addiction affects as many people as diabetes, and one-and-a-half times as many as all cancers combined.
Someone, usually a young adult, dies from alcohol or other drugs every four minutes — that’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet falling from the sky every day with no survivors. Addiction and accidental overdose are now the leading killer of people under 50 years of age, and addiction costs our country more than $500 billion a year.
Where is the outrage?
For decades, our country has done little to combat the scourge of addiction, and so it continues to get worse, striking an ever-younger audience every year. Why? Because the stigma, shame, and hopelessness surrounding addiction have kept this issue in the shadows. Society has looked away from the inconvenient truth that addiction was, and is, ravaging every part of our country. As a result — astonishingly — there has never been a well-funded equivalent of the American Cancer Society or American Heart Association established to battle the addiction crisis.
This is why, in 2014, I left my career and, with others whose lives have also been forever changed by this crisis, created Facing Addiction (now Facing Addiction with NCADD). We’ve crafted a comprehensive strategy to turn the tide against addiction in America. To do that, we’re building a national movement — as exists with every other major health issue — to bring a unified voice and sustainable source of funding to this effort.
On October 4, 2015, Facing Addiction (before our merger with NCADD) made history on the National Mall, when tens of thousands gathered to end the silence surrounding addiction. As incredible as it seems, this was the first time major musicians, politicians, actors, athletes, models, journalists, authors, and advocates all joined together to create a united voice, supporting Facing Addiction’s pledge to help solve the most urgent health crisis of our time. It was the AIDS-quilt moment for addiction in America.
Since that transformative event, Facing Addiction with NCADD has become the leading voice in the effort to end addiction in our country, and has accomplished many important things (please see our Impact Report at www.facingaddiction.org). Still, because of the stigma, shame, and misunderstanding surrounding addiction, many ask if we can truly reverse this problem.
The answer is, unconditionally, yes.
First, we must educate people and remove the stigma. People must understand that addiction is an illness, not a matter of moral failing. It happens to good people who no more want to become addicted than others want to get cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. People must realize addiction can and does happen to folks like them, and Austin, not just to “those people.”
Paradoxically, addiction is not inherently fatal. It is treatable, and recovery is real. But people must understand the risks. One in every seven Americans will experience a substance use disorder. When someone shows signs of struggling, they need to get medical help — quickly.
Second, we must make accurate information readily accessible, in a trusted place, so people who need help know where to turn.
Facing Addiction with NCADD, with our partners, created the Addiction Resource Hub (resources.facingaddiction.org) that lists more than 45,000 assets, searchable by geography, to help people with all aspects of addiction: prevention, intervention, treatment, recovery, and advocacy. This is the most comprehensive addiction resource ever assembled, and it is already helping countless people.
Third, we must remove impediments that have been holding back progress for decades. We need to replace ineffective prevention programs with evidence-based programs that work. Pediatricians need to be trained to identify early signs of addiction, since 90 percent of the time, addiction starts in adolescence — yet most practicing pediatricians received no medical school training about this illness. We need to get addiction “treatment” out of exploitative, under-regulated establishments of the kind that have recently been investigated for deceptive marketing and/or insurance fraud in Florida and California — and into the mainstream healthcare system. And we must continue the shift away from treating addiction as a crime, to treating it as an illness.
Lastly, we must fund advocacy to amplify our voices, and research to find a cure.
America has faced other health crises throughout history and, each time, found ways to dramatically lessen their impact. Thirty-five years ago, people thought HIV/AIDS, another highly stigmatized Illness, was insurmountable. But since the AIDS quilt moment in 1983, great strides have been made to reduce its devastation — with $3 billion raised toward that end.
Can we truly achieve those results? Yes. Facing Addiction partnered with the U.S. Surgeon General on the release of his seminal report, Alcohol, Drugs and Health: Facing Addiction in America, last November. While providing an unvarnished statement about the enormous magnitude of this crisis, the report also provided great hope. It reaffirmed that addiction is a treatable illness. it documented that $1 spent on evidence-based intervention can yield an ROI of 58:1. And $1 spent on treatment yields $4 in health care savings plus $7 in criminal justice savings. Investments in ending the addiction crisis can pay tremendous dividends.
But we need to act. Now. More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” when discussing a very different crisis in America. We must focus today’s “fierce urgency of now” on the addiction crisis in America, before we lose an entire generation of our youth.
Jim Hood is co-founder and CEO of Facing Addiction with NCADD.
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