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A Brief Reflection of the Recovery Advocacy Movement

A Brief Reflection of the Recovery Advocacy Movement

Recently, I spent some time traveling up through the North East for work and advocacy. The trip was amazing and I certainly was able to get a whole lot done. There was something special about it though. It was the kind of week that I feel like I will look back on as a pivotal moment. I went from UNITE to Face Addiction in DC and then hopped on the train with Andrew Burki to check out Philadelphia/South Jersey (where I am from) and finished things off at my alma mater, Penn State University.

Below are five takeaways from my trip:

The Collegiate Recovery Message is the Message to Tell

1445527059439 Doug Rudolph awestruck with the gifts of recovery

I had the opportunity to speak at the Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community’s Celebration of Recovery. As I stood at the podium engulfed in a tirade about advocacy and the importance of collegiate recovery, something clicked. I’ve written many times about the rapid change that is common in students involved with collegiate recovery communities, but I had never made the connection to advocacy the way I did that day.

I saw my best friends for the first time in a few months doing better than ever. I saw people new to the CRC, who came after I left, absolutely crushing it. As I shared my story and journey to recovery, I could tell that the students shared similar experiences to the ones I was describing.

The week before, I watched Doug Rudolph, the Policy Director at Young People in Recovery, fall over in excitement. He got an email notifying him that he had passed his bar exam while standing in front of the Supreme Court of the United States with Andrew Burki, Tara Moseley, and myself. He turned a GED into a Law Degree with his recovery and will soon be a practicing lawyer. The average celebrity in recovery has no shot at telling a story that powerful.

Right now there is a 15 year old who is struggling with a substance use disorder. That same 15 year old will find recovery and attend a recovery high school. He or she will then go to college and be a member of a CRC. A life statistically set for incarceration, endless treatment, and/or death will be launched into the recovery community and catapulted towards success. That is the story we need to tell.

Bet on the Young People and the Academics

1445526852535 Recovery Messaging training at Penn state

It all clicked that weekend.  Young students in recovery have the message this movement needs, a rapid life change at a young age that catapulted them into a life beyond what anyone could comprehend as possible for them. We can talk about the all deaths and torn families. Dr. Oz and Stephen Tyler can get vocal, but the story of a young person whose life was a category five hurricane that managed to turn everything around is the story that is going to change the conversation around substance use disorders and promote change.

I looked over the podium at Jason Whitney -the Penn State CRC Program Coordinator who is also doing recovery research- and the ridiculously intelligent group of young advocates in front of me and I knew that they are going to change the world. We can have all the rallies and fundraisers that we want, but without young, intelligent advocates to become the politicians, conduct the research, and apply for the grants we will continue to lose the war on drugs.

Research Will Win the War

If we want to end the war on drugs and start the rally to recovery, we need research more than anything. We need to figure out what the most effective treatment models are. We need to figure out what makes a successful recovery ready community and what contributes to the success of someone who has found recovery. We need to focus more on the solution than what the problem is.

Every month I see a new study arguing against the disease definition, arguing for the disease definition, arguing for the 12 steps, arguing against the 12 steps, etc. What exactly are we trying to prove and how does this promote recovery? Clearly some programs work great for some people and other programs work great for other people. How about we try to figure out what makes that happen and stop trying to disprove each other. I don’t have a PhD and have a large amount of respect for those that do, but in my humble opinion the recovery advocacy movement is failing to fund and conduct research around recovery.

At the time of this article, I hopped on the national library of medicine and did a search for the following terms:


Search Term Number of Results
Substance Use Disorder 76,445
Alcoholism 45,319
Addiction 63,993
Cancer 947,012
Heart Disease 531,449
Influenza 104,872
Stroke 193,752
Diabetes 380,684


Even if you ignore overlap and add substance use disorder, alcoholism, and addiction together, you only get 185,757. That is less than any other search term! There is not enough research on recovery. Until we start to treat the researchers like celebrities, that will not change.

Our Message is Disjointed and Its Detrimental

I am a person in long term recovery. I also happen to have chosen a 12-step path to abstinence based recovery. There are over 23 million Americans in recovery. There are by no means 23 million Americans in 12-step based abstinence based recovery. If we are going to continue throwing the big numbers around, we have to show some acceptance to all Americans in recovery. I spoke to a number of individuals who found another pathway to recovery outside of twelve step who feel marginalized by the recovery community. If we really want to unify the recovery movement, we need to start accepting all Americans in recovery. I personally like to respect the traditions of my fellowship and keep the 12-step verbiage to a minimum when practicing advocacy and personally consider this best practice.

Stigma is Alive and Well

1445527317115 The Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community at Unite to Face Addiction

I had been away from the stigma for a while. I live in South Florida and work at a treatment center. Most of my friends and peers down here are in recovery. I am very public about my recovery. I had forgotten the predetermined attitudes toward recovery that exist in areas like Centre County, Pennsylvania. Centre County is an area that has minimal support for people with substance use disorders. There aren’t Detoxes. There isn’t drug court. Students are sent to jail every day for petty, non-violent drug crimes. While hosting a recovery messaging training event at Penn State the conversation came up about employment. Some students expressed that they did not want their employers knowing that they are in recovery.

it is depressing to me that to no fault of their own, young people with substance use disorders feel the need to hide their medical condition and remain silent on the blatant oppression taking place. The public relations policy at the Penn State CRC- one that I helped write when I was about 9 months sober- hides the faces of students in all public pictures. I urge young people to not hide their face and speak up about their recovery, but understand why we feel a need to hide it. I didn’t want to be a public face ofrecovery at first. Eventually I realized how much good speaking up can do. I urge other young people to do the same. Our messages have power and will change the world.










James Hatzell
Director of Technology

Life of Purpose Treatment
3848 FAU Boulevard, Suite 100
Boca Raton, FL 33431
Admissions: 1.888.PURPOSE

This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. Yes, and I am in no way critical of them for doing so. I was apart of the CRC when this policy was created. We had members who were apply to highly competitive jobs. Penn State students get recruited by the top companies in the world and it is common practice for those companies to dig and dig and dig into the lives of their recruits. We were at a crossroad where we did not want to discourage students (especially new students) from attending for fear of being photographed but still needing to promote recovery. This is how we ended up with this policy. Today, I wish everyone would show their faces, but I discourage judgement. Sure you and I may feel great about sharing our recovery message, but we are not waiting for applications to be processed from the big four or the FBI. I was not a finance major, or looking to work in the oil and gas business. I cannot judge because I don’t suffer from the fears of my employer judging me about my recovery. Please do not be critical toward these amazing students!

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