“I am me. I am not just my addiction. There is a lot of other stuff to love,” a gentleman shares on Facebook. Another individual adds, “Sometimes you honestly don’t realize what you’re doing, and who you’re hurting until you look back months later. I wish people could understand the suffocating guilt.” Countless others who have struggled with addiction share similar cries for support, understanding and compassion.
Addiction has long carried a heavy stigma and an unjust perception. While it’s an illness that requires adequate treatment, society has continued to view the disease as a weakness, a moral failing, a choice. Public messages of the past have even, unknowingly, strengthened this perception; they advised people to “just say no,” as if that was an option, and eluded that a brain is as good as fried if a person tries drugs. With these outlooks, it’s not hard to imagine the guilt, shame, isolation and fear that ensues for someone, directly or indirectly, struggling with addiction.
Sadly, at a time when people need to feel encouraged to seek treatment, they feel stuck in the shadows, afraid to ask for help. In fact, many people struggling with addiction don’t receive treatment — and stigma is the second largest barrier.
In hopes of reversing these numbers, Recovery Brands took action by launching the LIVES (Leveraging Impactful Videos to End Stigma) Challenge, a three-month long national video contest in search of a new, inspirational public message around addiction. Individuals across the nation joined together for one cause — end the stigma associated with addiction and encourage those in need of help to speak up. The winners, Tori Utley and Sydney Johnson, are passionate about bringing a new, positive message to the public’s attention through their newly created PSAs. They were kind enough to share that message with me in hopes of inspiring others:
1. What was the main inspiration for your video?
Sydney: Honestly, my main inspiration was wanting to help others get through the same pain I went through. It’s never easy, but it can be done. We are all so much stronger than we realize.
Tori: Our video speaks to the heart of our organization, More Than An Addict. We see stigma as a deterrent for many people both in seeking treatment when they are struggling, as well as in recovery when they’re trying to build their lives back up — getting a job, going back to school, starting a company, mending relationships, etc. It keeps many people stuck, often feeling insecure or inadequate. The main inspiration was our desire to eradicate stigma to help those in recovery have the empowerment, dignity, and opportunities that we believe are possible.
2. Who do you hope relates to your video?
Sydney: This video is for the people that give up on their loved ones simply because they do not understand what they are going through. This video is for those who maintain preconceived notions about addiction, and it is also for those who have lost faith in themselves because of that negativity in their life.
Tori: Put simply, we want people to see they are more than their addiction. They are more than the shame, they are more than the barriers, they are human beings and their lives and the lessons they’ve learned along the way are valuable. They are capable, valuable assets to society and we should treat them and empower them as such. For people who are not in recovery and who possibly know others in recovery, the goal is the same: to convey that those who struggle are more than the struggle itself, and are deserving of the hope in recovery.
3. How do you hope your video will impact and inspire others to ask for help?
Sydney: I chose to share a success story so that my viewers can understand that they are not alone in this process and recovery is reachable for everyone.
Tori: The video will inspire individuals suffering with addiction to seek treatment by showing that addiction can be overcome, and the feeling of being labeled an “addict” can be washed away. The message of “More Than An Addict” is hope. You can become everything you ever wanted to be, you are more than your struggle and more than a label.
4. If there was one piece of advice you could give to individuals who are struggling with a substance use disorder and/or mental illness, what would it be?
Sydney: My advice would be to take some sort of small step forward, initially. Know that, no matter what, someone out there loves and cares for you. There were so many times it felt like I was alone, but sometimes one conversation can change that entire perspective. Reach out to someone, and something great can come from it.
Tori: Our advice is to keep going, keep pushing forward. As the actress in our video said in a recent blog post, “Know this is a journey. Know there is a next. Living in addiction isn’t it.” We believe recovery is possible and that hope is available to all who pursue it. Beyond this, we believe that those in recovery can be dynamite forces in our society — they are students, business owners, leaders and great employees — and we want those in recovery to understand how transformational recovery can be to all aspects of life.
Tori Utley is the founder of the nonprofit, More Than an Addict, and Sydney Johnson is a student at Indiana University. They are the proud recipients of the Judge’s Choice Award and People’s Choice Award, respectively. Along with the $10,000 awarded in prizes, both Tori and Sydney’s videos will be featured on Recovery Brands’ flagship site, Rehabs.com, so their messages of hope and encouragement can impact those in need of help.