In the months preceding the UNITE to Face Addiction rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the promotional trailer stirred emotions and sparked purpose as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler screamed his iconic “Dream On” in the background. Those of us who have seen addiction up-close and personal know what’s at stake. With a nationwide opiate crisis where someone overdoses every 24 minutes, we know there are millions of lives on the line. We’ve longed to capture the attention of the rest of the world and implore “NO MORE. Enough is enough. ”
“I say we make history!” is the final quote of the trailer.
So did it happen? Did the rally deliver on such a bold promise?
You bet it did.
A Celebration of Recovery
I was unprepared for the swell of emotion I felt when my daughter, son and I entered the gates for the rally yesterday afternoon. I’ve been a drug prevention activist in Oregon and advocate for families ever since the unthinkable happened and my daughter landed on the streets of our community addicted to meth. Now nine years free and clean, our trip to DC for the rally was a celebration of recovery as much as it is an act of activism. Gratitude was wet and soppy on my cheeks as I watched my girl gather among thousands of her “own.” She was absolutely luminescent in the backlit evening sky.
The event had nearly been undone by Hurricane Joaquin. Early forecasts predicted flash floods and high winds for DC, and organizers had at one point contemplated cancellation. Yet most were not intimidated by the threat of such a storm. “Hurricane?” some said. “A hurricane is nothin’ compared to what I’ve been through. We’ll make our own hurricane on the Mall that day. Bring it on.” And the storm veered into the Atlantic, as if cowering at the brave resistance ashore.
It’s hard to assess the exact size of the crowd that grew steadily throughout the afternoon. There were many thousands for sure. Colorful signs dotted the landscape of the massive crowd: “Rehabilitation, Not Incarceration,” “Addiction is Not a Moral Failing,” “Families Recover Together” and “People in Recovery Vote.” Chants spread as waves: “We vote! We vote! We vote!”
Everybody was there, including President Obama via a special recorded message. Speakers included our country’s “drug czar,” Michael Botticelli, who is himself in long-term recovery from addiction. The U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, promised to release in 2016 a first-ever Surgeon General report on substance abuse, addiction and health. And dozens of representatives from partner organizations across the country conveyed messages of hope and of solidarity. Senators and Congressmen came to stand beside us. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, William Cope Moyers and and Dr. Mehmet Oz were there. And dozens of people in recovery shared their stories.
Signs of Solidarity
The messages throughout the afternoon and early evening were commitments to and for change:
No longer will families need to suffer in silence.
No longer will our loved ones die because of ignorance and inaction.
We will demand parity and that addiction be treated with all the rights and benefits of any other chronic illness.
There is help.
There is hope.
You are not alone.
And in between the speeches and the sharing and the videos, we were gifted with a first-rate rock concert! Joe Walsh, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, The Fray and John Rzeznik boomed music through a world-class sound system. It was thrilling.
With the White House only one block away, I couldn’t help but wonder if the President might be like any hard-working businessman, relaxing at home on a Sunday night, wishing he could put a stop to the ruckus going on in the neighborhood. But maybe he sat on his famous white balcony overlooking the Ellipse, taking in the concert he couldn’t attend. Whatever the case, we know he’s on our side. We now move forward with next steps to truly change the landscape of addiction in America.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Cofer Stoefen