Can the White House Risk Hiring a Recovering Addict?

This summer I found myself engaged in the public policy universe in DC and Vienna, with The White House Office of Drug Policy and The UN Office of Drugs and Crime. You may have noticed my tweets. Kind of lame but it was a beginning. I must tell you – those of us in recovery are needed in this universe. There is great opportunity to make a difference and create change. By getting involved at the level of government and civil society it is possible to become invigorated about and engaged in a type of service different from what we find in the normal ways we carry the message of recovery. I had no idea before I inadvertently found myself involved with people who were interested in trying to solve some of these problems on a macro level. It’s not for everybody, but if you have an interest, it’s worth taking the plunge and, god knows, there is a lot to do.

I was asked by the White House Office of Drug Policy to participate in a press conference about the 400% increase in the use of prescription drugs. I know a lot about abusing prescription drugs. I spent years doing it and for all of you out there who know what I am talking about, you know what a nasty dead-end street it is. And it’s only getting worse. Prescription drug abuse is epidemic especially amongst our youth and service men and women who are coming back from war to lives of addiction to prescription drugs. It is estimated that one in four GIs suffer with prescription drug abuse and not enough is being done for them.  I did the press conference with Director Kerlikowske, who is the current Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Deputy Director, Thomas McLellan one of the smartest people in the country when it comes to addiction and recovery. Director Kerlikowske asked my son Matthew and I to drive with him from the White House to the press conference in his motorcade, which was cool, and spent 20 minutes with me in his office, where I argued for increased access to treatment and care for more Americans, as well as the importance of following through on the White House goal of establishing an office of recovery at the ONDCP.

The press conference went off without a hitch and I was grateful and proud to represent our community at this level of the national dialogue. It was afterward that I began to think about the job of running the office of Recovery, which had been suggested to me after an earlier trip to Vienna with the folks from ONDCP. I was told that the White House was looking for someone more bureaucratic or institutional to run the office, which I believe and understand. But the thought occurred to me: If I were in a government position where I was ultimately concerned with credibility and not being embarrassed, would I hire a recovering person and give them a position of such visibility and responsibility. It’s not that I wouldn’t believe they could do the job, but in the back of mind, I would have the fear that they might relapse. That is an enormous chance to take. This disease is different than other diseases. If someone has diabetes or cancer you don’t have the possibility of that person relapsing and doing some of the things that alcoholics and addicts do when they relapse. When we go out, some of us attract a lot of attention, and, NOBODY, in Washington wants THAT kind of attention. Now, I’m not saying any of this is, actually going on – except in my head. I believe those in our government, responsible for generating and overseeing public policy with regard to substance abuse, respect our community and would not hesitate to appoint individuals to positions of responsibility. But, in our nasty, salacious political culture it could be very embarrassing for the White House to have someone in a position of authority who, sober yesterday, drinks or uses drugs and starts swinging from the chandelier, naked with a lampshade on his head.

Just the twisted musings of a high revving brain in long-term recovery, but I think it begs the bigger question, which is: What do normal folks and society in general think about the possibility of long-term recovery? Can recovering people ever really be trusted? Isn’t it just a matter of time before they drink or drug again? What if someone is sober 15 years and they suddenly go out for a year and create a lot of wreckage, what does that mean? I think, maybe, this is why there is no national recovery movement and doesn’t seem to be many politicians who will do anything about this problem in a meaningful way.

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~ by Christopher Kennedy Lawford on September 17, 2010.

10 Responses to “Can the White House Risk Hiring a Recovering Addict?”

  1. I believe that a person cannot be excluded from a job based on what they “might” do. If that person has a proven track record, credentials, and whatever else the job description may require along the lines of qualifications, then they should be offered the position. Specifically addressing this position of heading up a Recovery Program on a national level, it would lend the program more credence to hire a recovering addict, rather than an individual whose only experience with recovery comes from a text book. A person in recovery who also possesses the other qualifications brings a lot to the table as far as empathy and insight into the nooks and crannies of the problem.

    Admittedly there is some risk inherent with placing a recovering addict in such a position–or any position: they may, indeed, relapse. That cannot be helped; however, if he/she does relapse, the process of assisting that person back into active recovery can serve to enlighten others and further “the cause.” Such a risk is balanced by the positive attributes this person would contribute in such a position.

    Also, since we are all imperfect, there is no guarantee that a non-addict would not do something “embarrassing,” as well, so the person with the most tools in his/her skill set would be the better choice…JMHO.

  2. plenty of people in politics have caused far more damage and embarrassment with their unsober behavior. i think it would be worth the risk and who better to understand the nuances of addiction than a recovering alcoholic or addict who is working a program of recovery. just like hiring a gardener for the roses and an architect for a new addition on a home.

  3. Christopher,

    Glad you have returned from your writing ‘vacation’ I hope all went well with your work and the weather!

    I would like to suggest that you take a look at a book about addiction that I am reading: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by a Canadian physician, Gabor Maté who works with addicts and alcoholics in Vancouver BC.

    This is relevant to your topic because he discusses how having a ‘war on drugs’ does not make recovery a priority; and how until people understand the actual process of the disease and the recovery, there will be no policy changes at the top.

    I don’t agree with everything he espouses, for example he seems to ignore the introduction of spiritual structure which helps so many of us to hold onto our recovery; but all in all, he makes a lot of sense when he discusses what needs to change in our government’s approach to addiction and recovery.

    In my opinion, the government should hire people in recovery to run an administration recovery office – the pressure would be difficult for the person, but showing the official culture in DC just how normal we are in our day-to-day lives would be a great mission and a great service to the nation! (Anyway, how could the acting out of an active alcoholic be any more embarrassing than the acting out we see from those sex addicts in the House and Senate? Not to mention our various and sundry Governors…) Having recovery in the recovery office would help to keep it on track and focused on it true goals (I hope) of education and compassion.

    Thanks for your thoughtful work! Keep coming back!

    Jean C.

  4. Well “normal” people cheat, steal, have affairs, and do plenty to attract attention in public office and then some continue on and rise above soiled reputations. I am biased though as I believe everyone deserves a chance when they have worked so hard at recovery. I would hope that we can change the public perception of this as a disease and not a moral failing. It is complex and yes we need to make treatment more accessible and affordable. The really good programs are generally accessible to those who have money to pay cash. Most insurance companies won’t pay 30,000 a month especially if they paid for a stint in rehab already. And a month just is not good enough for most.In order to make these changes we need good people to lobby for change. People who have walked in the trenches and know the disease inside out. Those of us who have lived with the disease in our midst need to stop being so silent about it and give the disease the faces of “normal” people who are affected by living with someone with the disease. We know the heartache of trying to access treatment for our loved ones after they have agreed to finally go. It is difficult and chances are more than one inpatient stay will be needed. I never dreamed my life would be affected by this but here it is in my family and what an education it has been………and I work in healthcare and know how the system works. I believe there are so many sterotypes regarding addiction as well as miss information. You are a great spokesperson Chris. Keep up the good work.

  5. How does anyone that is in recovery get a chance? I remember I was very concerned with my daughter listing that she had worked at her treatment center as a job on her resume, because I felt, (although it was none of my business) that there would likely be a direct connection to her being an addict. It took her a while to get a job in her field, and finally she did and was given that chance. It’s not just government, it’s any industry. That is definitely not what you will discuss at the interview. But I think you take a chance with anyone. So many things can change that many people can become unreliable for a variety of reasons. I would bet that many sober people are some of the best employees. Everyone deserves a second chance!! Cathy, treatmenttalk.org

  6. I was sober 13 years and relapsedl now have 5 yrs again ——– so I can definitely identify Chris!
    I also have many friends that had double digit sobriety & relapsed and came back –but it’s much much harder for us that get “up there” and re;apse —to come back “in” ………
    Also —- the more years you HAVE, the more prone to relapse you aRE—it;s just a statistical FACT—so as you say in this Blog: in MOST cases—it truly IS just a “matter of time before they relapse”—IF you look at the odds/statistics. Each year farther into Sobriety—the odds are greater for Relapse. Simply a FACT.
    But that doesn’t ever mean we should “give up”!!!! We ARE responsible for our EFFORT — NOT the Outcome.

    As far as “Is the White House ready for a Recovering Addict” …………? YES—and I think YOU are the perfect candidate to run—for PRESIDENT. And if you want an Addict for your VP running mate I’m available! Heh heh ………….

  7. I was sober 13 years and relapsedl now have 5 yrs again ——– so I can definitely identify Chris!
    I also have many friends that had double digit sobriety & relapsed and came back –but it’s much much harder for us that get “up there” and re;apse —to come back “in” ………
    Also —- the more years you HAVE, the more prone to relapse you aRE—it;s just a statistical FACT—so as you say in this Blog: in MOST cases—it truly IS just a “matter of time before they relapse”—IF you look at the odds/statistics. Each year farther into Sobriety—the odds are greater for Relapse. Simply a FACT.
    But that doesn’t ever mean we should “give up”!!!! We ARE responsible for our EFFORT — NOT the Outcome.

    As far as “Is the White House ready for a Recovering Addict” …………? YES—and I think YOU are the perfect candidate to run—for PRESIDENT. And if you want an Addict for your VP running mate I’m available! Heh heh ………….*plus— look at this Kennedy-Sheehan Irish Thing, eh??? Just like JFK all over again!)

    Chuck Sheehan

  8. It’s an interesting point Chris, and it raises some good questions. On some level, it is akin to asking at what point does society consider those with a history of addiction and substance abuse problems ready to re-enter society on it’s own terms, and hold positions of responsibility with no danger of relapse?
    Those of us in recovery know the only person who truly knows whether we are in danger of relapsing are ourselves. Only we alone know the true quality of our sobriety.
    When it comes to matters of recovery, the only people we are the slightest bit interested in listening to are those who are in recovery themselves. It’s no coincidence that a high incidence of people working in the field are those who have suffered at the hands of this disease.
    The company I used to work for was unique in having a drug & alcohol treatment unit working under the occupational health department. They would assess employees who had either admitted to, or were referred by their managers, for having drug or alcohol issues. Their they would be assess and the necessary action taken (in my case it was six weeks residential treatment).
    When the unit needed a new specialist addiction counselor the manager of the unit (himself in recovery) decreed that anyone working in the unit MUST be in recovery, and familiar with 12 step programs.
    Needless to say this gave the human resources department a heart attack, as they felt it was discriminatory, and in violation of countless HR policies.
    The manager of the drug & alcohol unit had to go to director level to get a special exemption, to ensure that he would not be obligated to offer someone the position who may have been qualified, but was not in recovery.
    If you are familiar with the television series The West Wing, two of the main characters hold high government office. Perhaps like the story of President Obama himself, life can imitate art once again?

  9. The unlying implication seems to be that people is recovery must be held to a higher standard of behavior than ‘normal’ people. Anyone, given painful, debilitating experiences, has the possibility of going off the deep end and creating wreckage and embarrassment. Certainly all humans make mistakes and occasionally exhibit behavior that deviates from the norm. Why should folks who are committed to their recovery be more suspect than anyone else? The whole world is poorer if any group of people is prevented from utilizing their talents because of fear. Addiction has its own unique siren’s song. Not all hear it. But if you have listened to the song, smashed yourself on the rocks and you have survived, you have insights to offer that must be heard.

  10. “two of the main characters who hold high government office, are in recovery”

    Is what that should have read…..

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