Jeanne McAlister, left, is founder of the McAlister Institute.
Jeanne McAlister, left, is founder of the McAlister Institute.

By Jeanne McAlister

This Saturday, the McAlister Institute will hold its third Walk for Sobriety beginning at 8 a.m. at Liberty Station in Point Loma. We anticipate more than 500 people who are engaged in, pray for themselves or others, and support a clean and sober life will join us for this 5K experience.

This is an important event. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose was responsible for 38,329 deaths in the United States in 2010. U.S. overdose deaths have increased for 11 successive years. In 2010, and for the third year in a row, the number of American citizens whose deaths were drug related exceeded the number of fatalities in road traffic accidents (32,885). Opioid analgesic overdoses have claimed 125,000 American lives in the last decade. In 2012 the number-one cause of death in 17 states was prescription drug abuse, and that figure surpassed the number of fatalities caused by motor vehicle accidents.

Yet the clamor for solution to drug addiction is still in its infancy.

Sadly, it occurs to me how often the conversation about addiction, whether it’s substance abuse, gambling, overeating, or other addictive illnesses, generates negative or dismissive commentary. The focus is on the behavior, which can range from well-hidden to, more commonly, disruptive, disheartening, and criminal. Sure, there’s some mention along this path that drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, mental or physical. But the conservation often quickly dismisses the health aspect of addiction and dwells on the behavior. Sympathy and understanding are not terms that immediately come to mind.

The result of this, it seems, is that addiction is most often looked at as a criminal matter or one of choice rather than a health issue. It’s easy to see why. All too often we hear about violence connected to the drug culture, particularly the horrific power of the cartels to the south of us. We are also confronted by the battle in our own urban and rural communities over illicit and drug trade and use, as well as the surging abuse of prescription drugs.

Since 1977, hundreds of thousands of individuals suffering from addiction have passed through the doors of McAlister Institute, and not one of them – not one – has chosen to become an addict, any more than a person chooses to contract cancer or heart disease. A true, deliberate conversation which focuses on substance abuse as an illness and emphasizes recovery and hope for addicts, family, loved ones, business associates, and the community at large is long overdue.

The work of recovery begins with compassion, dedication, and commitment to lifestyle changes. It involves learning to make good life decisions, retooling of drug-related and dependent paradigms, modifying behavior, increasing self-awareness, and understanding the complexity of the disease of addiction. This is hard work; it takes months and even years of recovery and mentoring and a lifetime commitment.

McAlister treats more than 2,500 individuals every month who are struggling with substance abuse regardless of ability to pay. Our staff consists of many professionals who, themselves, are in recovery. Combined, our organization has more than 1,000 years of recovery. This year, I am celebrating 57 years in recovery.  I strongly believe that in San Diego we have many individuals who live a life dedicated to sobriety and whose days are filled with hope, but don’t necessarily share their experiences.

I encourage San Diegans in recovery or connected to someone else living a life dedicated to being clean and sober to join us June 21 as we celebrate hope.

Jeanne McAlister is founder and CEO of the McAlister Institute and herself a recovering alcoholic.