Last weekend, I spent Saturday afternoon in Center City with a friend I hadn't seen in years, went for two long runs in Haddon Heights Park, and savored a Thai meal in Voorhees on Sunday with another good friend.
I also attended three 12-step meetings, without which none of those other activities would have been possible — because I'd have died long ago.
I'd be a casualty like the seven individuals who fatally overdosed last weekend in Philly's Kensington neighborhood, where dozens of intravenous drug users were sickened by the latest dangerously adulterated opioid concoction sold to the desperate on the street.
I've been clean and sober, after a series of self-inflicted calamities that nearly killed me, for going on a dozen years now. I owe my survival to a traditional, abstinence-centered program of recovery that works for me and millions of others.
But as drug overdoses annually kill more than 70,000 Americans — including nearly 2,000 in New Jersey and more than 4,000 in Pennsylvania — it's become clear this is an extraordinary crisis demanding an extraordinary response. From all of us.
So I was glad to hear about a community training session entitled "What Is Addiction?," set for noon to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Campus Center at Rutgers-Camden. The event is being held in conjunction with National Recovery Month, said Nyeema C. Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement.
"This is open to people who just want to gather information in order to have a personal understanding, and for professionals who want to get further training and more information about potentially new approaches," Watson told me Monday.
If the understanding of alcoholism, addiction and treatment can grow, perhaps the understanding of recovery will grow as well — including those of us in recovery ourselves.
As someone whose life is being saved one day at a time by total abstinence from alcohol and all mood-altering drugs, save coffee and anesthesia, I've long been uncomfortable with methadone, suboxone, and other harm-reduction strategies that can help maintain people in a state some regard as a compromised form of sobriety.
In my experience, anything that made me more comfortable in my addictions enabled me to sustain them.
But with so many people dying — like the quiet young fellow at one of the LGBTQ meetings I regularly attend — it behooves me to overcome my qualms and support or at least accept strategies that may prove useful, if not life-saving, for my sisters and brothers who have yet to find recovery.
I'd also suggest that those who regard the total-abstinence approach as a quaint and problematic relic of a less-enlightened era ought not be so quick to dismiss it. While 12-step recovery isn't easy and is no cure-all, chemotherapy is grueling and doesn't always help cancer patients.
The grassroots self-help movement that devised the 12 steps more than 80 years ago endures because total abstinence can work.
As does the approach pioneered in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when grassroots organizations educated the public and established prevention (and later, treatment) programs.
Back then, blaming HIV/AIDS patients for their disease — an approach favored by some religious conservatives — was not only cruel but ineffective from an epidemiological standpoint. Community efforts persuaded people to change their behavior and avoid transmitting or contracting the virus.
So rather than labeling or disparaging people with opioid abuse disorder as weak, or dismissing young activists calling for safe injection sites as bent on coddling their pampered peers, we need to make as many harm reduction and treatment programs available as possible, as quickly as possible.
If we do, greater numbers of addicted people will begin to recover and regain their freedom. Some will choose to do so through the 12 steps.
But if they overdose and die on the street, they'll never get the chance I got. And that just doesn't seem right.