Source: CNN

The relationship at the center of A.R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters” is a complicated mix of friendship and devotion. As the protagonists reach middle age, the character of Melissa — whose life has been upended by generational substance use and depression — expresses her frustration to Andy, now a US Senator. “They say I’m dancing on the edge of an abyss,” she writes to him. “You’d better stay away, I might take you with me when I fall.”

As the US remains in the grip of the addiction crisis, it can feel as though we are all dancing on the edge of the abyss. We lost more than 109,000 people to fatal overdose in the 12-month period ending April, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many more were ensnared in the justice system or found themselves unhoused or living precariously. Alarming reports from the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare reveal that the opioid epidemic’s impact on children has reached unprecedented levels.

These public health and public safety crises are among the paramount social challenges of our time. Yet, amidst this darkness, there are glimmers of hope. Scientific advancements in our understanding of treatment and recovery have never been more promising. We must now provide multiple pathways to treatment and support recovery and recovering people — just as we would any other disease.

Addiction is often described as the loss of connection; an unraveling of trust and untethering from community. For individuals and their loved ones, it is, indeed, the abyss. To those experiencing it firsthand, and those bearing witness to its devastation, addiction can feel insurmountable.

Like so many, we have despaired, anguished, consoled, and grieved over loved ones lost to this disease. According to estimates from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) in 2021, only 6% of people aged 12 or older with a substance use disorder obtain the treatment they need. The reasons vary, but it is clear the widespread perception that recovery is only reserved for a fortunate few is a contributing factor.

We have also seen the unmistakable joy of life in recovery; a joy that radiates beyond the individual and shines on families, friendships, and communities. The over 20 million people living in recovery are testaments to the resilience of the soul. They light the way for others and remind us all that behind every struggle is a human being deserving of empathy and support.

Recovery is a process of resilience and restoration, the rebuilding of human connection. Just as addiction impacts all in its sphere, recovery transcends the individual journey. For many, the first steps toward recovery begin with treatment. But treatment for any condition is never one-size-fits-all. Our treatment infrastructure must include trauma-informed care and access to medications, address co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders and be culturally competent. And of course, we need to develop an ever-growing workforce of licensed addiction treatment providers to deliver services.

For many more, quality, affordable treatment is out of reach. We must prioritize investments in telehealth and break down barriers to coverage that prevent individuals from accessing treatment through insurance.

Expanding pathways to recovery also means transforming the justice system’s role in addressing substance use disorders by recognizing the humanity and potential for change within those facing addiction and ensuring public health interventions are available at every intercept point.

Diversion programs, treatment courts, police department substance use response teams and alternative sentencing options can steer individuals toward recovery rather than incarceration.

Treatment courts are a shining example of how the justice system can, and should, provide a public health-oriented response to addiction. This year alone, 4,000 treatment courts will refer 150,000 people to treatment and recovery support. Research shows these courts help reduce crime and drug use while improving economic independence and family problems.

Treatment is where recovery takes root, but the community is where recovery thrives. Community involvement is crucial to removing barriers to successful recovery, including reducing stigma, providing supportive housing, employment opportunities and healthcare. In Chicago, for example, an innovative partnership between the treatment court and the county housing authority provides individuals in the program with vouchers for an apartment where they can focus on their recovery without the fear of displacement and away from the triggers of their past. Just this year the program’s first voucher recipient moved into his own apartment, paid for with money earned from his new job.

Recovering people dispel the notion that addiction is an irreversible fate and live as testaments to the incredible capacity of human beings to change. And their experiences serve as a reminder that recovery is not a solitary journey but one that’s profoundly influenced by medical interventions, societal attitudes, and the availability of resources to help them thrive.

Later this month, we’ll perform “Love Letters” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, fittingly as Recovery Month comes to an end. The show’s themes of connection, vulnerability, personal growth and the passage of time can offer parallels and insights that resonate with those who are on that path. Our hope is that this performance spurs conversations that lead to a deeper understanding of both addiction and our collective role in creating conditions for successful recovery.

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