You hear a lot in recovery about addicts having to hit bottom before they’re willing to get clean or about the need of friends and family members to show that addict tough love.

It’s understandable, of course; so many of us show an astounding unwillingness to accept help even in the face of legal, financial, emotional or familial consequences.

And the “tough love” sentiment is also understandable; after all, family members and loved ones have to take measures to protect themselves from the actions and choices those of us in addiction make and we needn’t feel guilt for refusing to enable or prolong that sickness. But what if there’s a middle path? What if we’re looking at those terms, hitting bottom and tough love, through a Draconian lens that hurts rather than helps?

I’ve thought a lot about that over the past week ever since I heard keynote speaker Aly Chapman at the Metro Drug Coalition’s Community Champion Awards luncheon held last Tuesday in downtown Knoxville. Chapman delivered a powerful testimony, but she ended it with a searing indictment of how we use those two terms:

“Tough love is sometimes just a way of saying, ‘I’m maxed out; I can’t do this anymore. Come back some other time,’” she said. “Telling an addict they haven’t hit bottom yet is basically telling them, ‘You haven’t suffered enough; you need to go out and suffer some more.’” That hit home for me, because as someone intimately familiar with addiction, I’ve used those terms frequently. Now, I’m rethinking them. After all, Chapman pointed out, we’re not “winning” the fight against addiction. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention report was recently released that showed overdose deaths claimed 70,000 people in 2017 alone — more than the total number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War and more than the casualties of gun violence, car crashes and the AIDS epidemic at their heights. A scientist by trade, Chapman’s rough analysis of that data included a much bigger statistic: 420,000 family members impacted directly by those 2017 overdose deaths. It’s a rough estimate, she acknowledged, based on the assumption of an average household size of three that assumes the survival of a sibling and two grandparents. If anything, those numbers are a gross underestimate. And her family was among them. Chapman grew up in Middletown, Ohio, the middle of three sisters; her youngest sibling, Abby — Abigail Elizabeth “Abby” Chapman Roark — died on New Year’s Day, 2017, from her addiction. As a child, Abby “took big risks, had fearless friends, but she also drank and partied hard,” her sister remembered. “She loved animals and older people and babies — all things that are vulnerable.”

But she could not love herself. Abusive relationships pushed her deeper into darkness and while motherhood lifted her out temporarily, the loss of her third child sent her spiraling into an abyss from which there was no return.

“Six months later, she was lost and missing,” Chapman recounted. “She would call every once in a while, but she sounded hollow and broken and sick.”

She lived for a while in a horse trailer; although she attempted to get psychiatric help, an 11-month waiting list made it a hopeless prospect. Another toxic relationship seemed to be the final straw, and on Jan. 1, 2017, she succumbed to an overdose. Chapman didn’t recount the story to elicit pity or by-proxy grief, but the tears she shed during the telling were powerful and stark exhibits of the work that the assembled guests have before them:

“She was a victim of a system polluted with stigma, shame and public isolation,” she said. “I want to change the conversation and put addiction in the context of family and community. I want you to aggressively address the stigma that still exists, and I want you to always remember the babies, the littles and the teens that are casualties of this epidemic.”

It was somber, it was powerful and it was tragic, but as Charme Allen — Knox County District Attorney General and president of Metro Drug Coalition’s board of directors — pointed out, Chapman’s testimony was a reminder “that the lives we work for are real and meaningful.”

Organizations like the Metro Drug Coalition or Blount County’s own Substance Abuse Prevention Action Team are fighting every day to save those lives, but the battle is often a stalemate, with no real gains and very visible losses.

Fortunately, the men and women who make up those organizations don’t know the meaning of the word quit, and their determination is truly evidence that “tough love” doesn’t mean giving up, and “rock bottom” doesn’t have to end in tragedy because someone wasn’t willing to keep fighting for the afflicted.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

Award-winning freelance columnist and entertainment writer Steve Wildsmith is the former WeekEnd editor at The Daily Times.

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