On Thursday, May 17, SpeakOUT! held its first public education forum at the New York City Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center. Following are the remarks of the keynote speaker for the evening, Stacia Murphy, President of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).
GAY & LESBIAN COMMUNITY CENTER "SPEAK OUT" REMARKS
Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here with you tonight. The project that the Gay and Lesbian Services Center has undertaken is very important because addiction is one of our country's most critical and overlooked public health issues.
The organization I represent was founded by Marty Mann in 1944. Marty was the first woman to achieve long-term sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. It gave her an enormous sense of purpose which she combined with a talent for public relations. It couldn't have been easy for her. America was a much different place in the 40s. Women weren't supposed to become alcoholic let alone speak out about their recovery. Not everyone shared her candor in the early days of the self-help movement, but with the encouragement of Bill Wilson and his wife Lois, Marty decided to carry her educational message directly to the people. She traveled to city after city where she made speeches and gave interviews to the press. As a result, local organizations began to spring up all over the country and a national voluntary movement was born based on the message that alcoholism is a disease and not a moral failing.
But for as many strides as we have made in prevention and treatment of alcoholism and other drug addictions in the past 50 years, we still face the challenge of stigma. Marty Mann knew a little about this, too, and not just because of her alcoholism. In fact, stigma of an altogether different variety probably contributed to her drinking. For not only was Marty a woman in a man's world--and America in the 40s was most definitely a man's world--but she was reputed to have been a lesbian as well. She even tried to conceal this fact with a brief marriage. But once she got sober, she was pragmatic enough to choose the right battle for the time she lived in. Think about it: how would the public have reacted to a self-proclaimed recovering lesbian in a country where Betty Crocker and Playboy bunnies were the female norms? I like to think Marty channeled a lot of the frustrations of leading a closeted life into her zeal for making sure that people could get help for their addictions.
While my talk tonight is not specifically about stigma, it is--as it relates to each of us on both an internal and an external level--inseparable from what I have been asked to address: oppression, shame and recovery. Well, I think I have some intimate knowledge and experience with each. As a child growing up in a segregated South in the 40's, 50's and 60's I was constantly confronted with how I was different. From an early age laws that limited my access to stores, movie theaters, churches and schools made the difference in my skin color even more apparent than a look in the mirror. Later, as an adult, I was denied the right to vote which is the very definition of American citizenship. Though I lacked the vocabulary as a child to describe how segregation had affected my development, I did feel its harsh sting and knew that I lived a very confined and prescribed existence. I couldn't understand why I should be treated differently because of my skin color and so, to some degree I became rebellious.
As I grew older I did learn the meaning of oppression which the dictionary defines as "an unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power used repeatedly by individuals or groups;" also "a sense of being weighted down in mind, body or spirit." What I did not recognize was that my own experience with oppression had produced within me a sense of shame. Again, I turn to the dictionary to define something I felt in my heart since the age of six when I was called a nigger by a little white girl as I walked down the street on my way to school. She didn't even know my name. Shame: "a painful and damaging emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcomings or impropriety." Everyone in this room knows exactly what I'm talking about: not feeling good about yourself because you are different. And even though we have all railed against this problem by speaking out against our oppression and oppressors at some point in our lives, a residue of that shame stays inside our heads and corrodes our sense of self. It is the ugly, unavoidable legacy of our oppression.
For many, this shame results in addiction to mind altering substances. We try to bury the pain by medicating ourselves with alcohol and other drugs, both legal and illegal. Why should we care about the laws against drug use when the laws of some states once prevented blacks and whites from drinking from the same water fountain and today try to prevent us from loving each other? And so, as we gradually become addicted, our shame is further exacerbated and compounded and we are spun into the utter depths of despair. But for some of us, for the lucky among us, in that moment of deepest humiliation, despair and defeat we manage to overcome relying on the inner strength of the human condition. We discover the will to survive not because we have been weak where others have been strong, but because we reach deep inside of ourselves and find the courage to stop using a drug that can only hide our pain, not heal it.
This is the profoundness of recovery. It is our ultimate accomplishment and one in which we should take great pride. Addiction is an enemy we defeat every day that we remain sober. Each of us here tonight has been reborn. That's why Marty Mann chose to use the wings of the phoenix to symbolize recovery, because like that mythical bird, each of us has risen from the ashes of self-destruction that has been enabled by the prejudices of society and the biochemistry of our brains.
In my opinion, the internalization of oppression and shame prevents many addicted persons from sharing in the joy of recovery. One of my favorite authors once said, "if you believe what they say about you, you become that." And so, when society calls us names we often listen when we shouldn't because each of us craves the acceptance and comfort of belonging. We become those names instead of treasuring our uniqueness and then we suffer from feelings of inferiority because of our skin color or our sexual orientation or our addiction. And so we must answer by saying I will not be defined by what you call me. I will be defined by what I call myself. And if that means shouting that "we're here, we're queer and we're sober," then so be it. Marty Mann never had this luxury and we owe it to her to be as open about our recovery as we are about our sexuality. Times have changed and each of us can do our part to make then keep changing.
The task before us is to celebrate our individual identities, our recovery, our achievement. There are many tools we can use to make amends, to forgive ourselves, to embrace and own our extraordinary contributions to society. We have reclaimed ourselves, and for that we have no reason to be ashamed. No longer will we hide our lights so that others will feel better. We can be and are positive models for so many others who are still in throes of addiction because they believe what others are saying. We must share our stories, and celebrate our recovery. For when all is said and done, it is what is in our hearts that will matter most.