• Celebrating the Holidays with Recovering Family Members and Friends

    This time each year can be stressful for anyone, but the holidays present a special challenge for people recovering from a substance use disorder. Those in long-term recovery typically are adept at navigating the minefield of temptation at holiday social gatherings. But many of those in their first year of recovery, their friends, and family members wonder how best to celebrate the holidays safely, comfortably, and joyously.
    If your festivities will include someone with a year or more in recovery, you may simply want to ask if there is anything you can do to make the holiday better for them. They may want to bring a friend who’s also in recovery. They may have beverage preferences or want the flexibility to step out for a short while, either to attend a mutual aid meeting (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery), make a call, or get some fresh air.
    The holidays may come with expectations, such as shopping, travel, cooking, and multiple social gatherings. People in early recovery are often experiencing difficult personal or financial circumstances while at the same time trying to learn to live without the substance that had become central to their lives. While the holidays are a time to celebrate family and good cheer, they are also a time when other feelings can be heightened. Such feelings can include a sense of loss about a deceased family member, or feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, shame, or guilt about the past on the part of the recovering person, other family members, or both.
    Early recovery brings reawakened awareness of the harm one caused oneself and one’s family and friends during the course of the addiction. It is also a time when the brain and body are still actively recovering from the effects of addiction. Those in early recovery are relatively new at learning to experience, process, and manage feelings and to function in social situations without the use of a substance. Alcohol or other drugs may have served the recovering person as a social lubricant during the early stages of their use, helping alleviate social anxiety and feelings of not fitting in while simultaneously lifting their guard, making it easier to speak and act spontaneously.  The social events of the holidays can be challenging in a number of ways for the individual who is new to recovery.
    Fortunately, many in early recovery do well during the holidays. The experience of sharing the holidays with family or friends can strengthen their recovery and reinforce the value of the fuller, more authentic way of life they are entering. The holidays can, in effect, be a time to reconnect and restore. To help foster a positive holiday environment for those in recovery, please keep in mind the following:
    Tips for celebrating the holidays with family or friends in early recovery:

    1. You are not responsible for your guest’s recovery, even if that guest is your child, sibling, or parent. Behind the scenes orchestration to “help” the recovering person through the event can sometimes be unhelpful. Instead, reach out to him or her to see if there’s anything you can do to help the event  go smoothly. If you do, be ready and willing to accept “No, thank you” as the answer.

    2. Ask yourself if you and your family are ready to celebrate the holiday with the recovering person. Are there unresolved hurts or resentments that could make the holiday difficult for all? Does your family understand addiction and embrace recovery or is the topic shrouded in shame, an “elephant in the room”? Addiction affects not only the addicted individual, but the family as a whole. Denial or shame around addiction, if not appropriately addressed, can make the holiday difficult for the family and risky for the recovering person. So, it’s worth asking: Are you and your family ready?

    3. Ask your friend or family member if they are comfortable taking part in the celebration this year. Make sure they understand that it is perfectly OK to miss the celebration if that is what is best for their recovery. Their recovery comes first. It’s better to miss them this time around in order to increase the likelihood that they will be alive, well, and able to participate in future events.  Think of it as an investment that will pay dividends.

    4. If you will be serving alcohol, check to see if your invitee is comfortable with that. Note, even if you’re willing to host an alcohol-free holiday event, your family member or friend might not be comfortable attending if alcohol is not served simply because he or she is present.

    5. Ask if they’d like to invite someone or invite others who do not drink. Regardless of whether alcohol is served or not, the recovering person may want to invite a recovering guest. If you’re serving alcohol and have family members or friends who are in recovery or who do not drink, you may want to ask your guest if he or she would like you to invite them so that there will be other non-drinkers with whom to socialize.

    6. Ask what kinds of beverages they would like to have. While non-alcoholic “mocktails” may seem like a good idea—and many in recovery do enjoy them—they  may actually be a trigger for some people in early recovery, either because they visually remind the guest of cocktails or because they remind the individual that he or she can no longer drink. Despite all the pain and aggravation that alcohol and drugs may have caused the recovering individual, giving them up can result in a powerful sense of loss. Beverages such as hot spiced cider, hot cocoa, iced or hot tea or coffee are often welcomed. Some people in long-term recovery drink so-called “non-alcoholic” beer and wine. If this works for them, it is of course perfectly acceptable. It should be noted, though, that these beverages generally do include small amounts of alcohol. For people in the early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction, these beverages should be avoided.

    7. Provide time and space to step away from the group, if needed. Being able to take a walk, relax in a quiet room, step away to connect by telephone with another person in recovery, attend a mutual aid meeting, or gracefully depart early can be very important to a person in early recovery.

    8. Listen to them. If they don’t want any special steps taken to accommodate them, and both you and they are comfortable with them taking part this time, then simply go ahead.


    Tips for individuals or families in early recovery:

    • Have a plan for the holiday, including mutual aid meetings and calls to sponsor, mentor, recovering peer, counselor, clergy or others central to your recovery.

    • Identify risk factors that should be avoided and know how you will respond if they’re encountered.

    • Know your signs of potential relapse and take steps to address them.

    • Stay in touch with your key supports, such as counselors, sponsors, mentors, or recovering peers.

    • Keep it all in perspective: Nothing that happens, no matter how painful or unpleasant, is worth giving up one’s recovery.

    • If relapse does, occur, don’t delay acting out of shame or guilt. Get help immediately. There is still an opportunity to build on the progress you’ve made.

  • Largest Survey of Youth Drug Use Released Today

    We all recognize the impact of drug use on America. Too many of us have been touched by a life cut short by overdose, or a future cut down by substance dependence. Unfortunately, drug use holds back too many Americans from living up to their best selves and achieving their goals. 

    And it hits young people particularly hard.   

    As part of our focus on young people, every year we join the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research to present findings from the “Monitoring the Future” (MTF) study. This is the largest survey on youth drug use in America and reflects research into drug use and attitudes about drugs among students in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades.

    The young people represented in the study are making decisions that will define their future—and the future health and safety of the next generation of American leaders, innovators, and citizens. That is why this survey is so important.

    Although this year’s survey shows that there were no statistically significant increases in use over last year, over a 6-year period (2007-2012), we have seen some troubling increases in youth drug use:

    • Past month use of any illicit drug increased among high school seniors (from 21.9% to 25.2%).
    • Past month use of marijuana increased among 10th graders (from 14.2% to 17.0%) and 12th graders (from 18.8% to 22.9%).

    In responding to America’s drug problem, the Obama Administration is guided by the knowledge that drug use is a threat to public health, and substance dependence is a preventable, treatable disease. Though these recent increases are cause for concern, it is important to note that progress can be made.  In fact, over the long term, drug use among young people now is far lower than it was in the late 1970s.  As President Obama noted, we have successfully changed attitudes regarding smoking and drunk driving—and we can do the same for the challenges represented by today’s new findings.  

    To learn more about this year’s Monitoring the Future study, read our fact sheet here. Follow the conversation on Twitter using #MTF2012.

  • Drunk and Drugged Driving: Not an Acceptable Part of Life

    This time of year most of us are making plans for gatherings and celebrations with family and friends.  But sadly, there are 10,000 people who won’t be home for the holidays because they lost their lives this year in substance-impaired driving crashes in the United States. The problem is so deadly that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has placed substance-impaired driving on its annual Most Wanted List highlighting the most critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives.

    At the NTSB, we investigate accidents across all modes of transportation.  We understand the intense public concern and media scrutiny following a commercial airline crash or train derailment.  Yet more than 90% of transportation-related deaths occur on our nation’s roadways.  The numbers are staggering:  more than 30,000 people a year are lost to traffic crashes.  More than 30% of these deaths involve substance-impaired driving; it would take a major commercial airliner crash every week to reach the same number of deaths.

    Absent is the intense public concern, and there is little media scrutiny of these crashes.  Where is the call for increased safety measures?  I believe that complacency is part of the problem.  In his book One for the Road:  Drunk Driving Since 1900, author Barron Lerner quotes physician Ralph Hudson who said:  “This national embarrassment and disgrace has not been just the accumulation of death and injury but, rather, the strange acceptance of death and injury as a way of life.”  It’s time for everyone to challenge the notion that drugged and drunk driving crashes are inevitable.  We must work together to identify and support new measures to curb the carnage on our roadways.

    Like the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the NTSB has begun to call greater attention to the issue of drugged driving, a problem that still goes unrecognized by many.  In fact, a recent survey of teens revealed that while 87 percent of teen passengers would speak up to ask a driver to refrain from getting behind the wheel after drinking, only 72 percent of teen passengers would do the same for a driver who has used marijuana.  But while there is compelling evidence that illegal, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs are playing an increasing role in traffic crashes, there are no standards or testing criteria for these substances, and their role in crashes is often under-reported.  That’s why last month the NTSB issued new safety recommendations calling for a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing and increased collection, documentation, and reporting of test results. 

    As we move into 2013, the NTSB will continue to work with Federal agencies like ONDCP and continue advocating for measures that will push us towards the goal of zero highway deaths due to substance-impaired driving.  Regardless of how they travel, everyone should be able to get home safely for the holidays.   

    The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents, promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families.

  • Independent Fact-Checkers Report President Obama Kept Promise to Send Non-violent Drug Offenders to Rehab, Not Prison

    From the reporters at PolitiFact.com, a Tampa Bay Times project: 

    "President Barack Obama says he wants to treat the nation's drug problem as a public health issue as well as a law enforcement one. So he has said nonviolent drug offenders should be given a chance at rehabilitation over jail.

    Along those lines, the administration has supported drug courts, which allow low-level drug offenders to have their charges dropped if they successfully complete a court-monitored treatment program. We rated Obama's promise to enhance drug courts as a Compromise, because while federal funding has increased and the number of drug courts has grown by about 400 during his term to more than 2,700, the system has not expanded into the federal courts system as Obama pledged."

    Read the full post here


  • What I Am Thankful for this Holiday Season

    As winter approaches, the trees are bare except for a few remaining leaves dangling from their branches. Blowing in the wind are only shadows of the rich green shapes that have dried and fallen to the ground.

    A tree losing its leaves is a good metaphor for the effects of addiction. Drugs and alcohol strip away just about everything leaving only shadows of the original self. At first, the high is so pleasurable that all seems well, but gradually the seasons change.

    I don’t recall the moment when I crossed the line into addiction. I only know that alcohol eventually became the central focus of my life. Sitting in jail, I was dazed by the night’s events. Would things get better? Could I change? What was going to happen? Should I end it all? These were the questions spinning around in my head after my arrest for driving under the influence (DUI). Earlier that night, I entered a freeway traveling southbound in a northbound lane. Realizing the signs were facing the opposite direction, I tried to turn around but ended up in a ditch.

    Years before, I was so proud when I graduated from boot camp. Marching across the parade deck filled me with hope, ambition, and a desire to succeed. There I sat wondering what would become of me now, but fortunately God had a plan. My incident required a mandatory dependency screening, which came back no-diagnosis. Fearing the repercussions on my career, I lied out of self-preservation on just about every question but my name. My job was one of the few remaining leaves hanging on a limb.

    Without a diagnosis, the military had limited options to get me help. My supervisor—a man I have come to regard as a personal hero—introduced me to recovery-based support groups. Sitting across from me after my DUI, he must have seen something worth saving.

    Compassion is an emotion one never fully appreciates until one receives it from another. My supervisor could have thrown the book at me. Instead, he chose a different path and adopted a wait-and-see approach. As long as I took recovery seriously, he refrained from imposing punishment. Thirty days turned into a year, then two, then three.

    The evolution of recovery is much like a tree budding in the spring. The depths of mental darkness to which drugs and alcohol can take a person are indescribable. Addiction ravaged my soul. In recovery, I learned that one has to heal internally before he can really begin to grow. Recovery helped me clean house from the inside out, and I began to take responsibility for my life.

    My experience placed me in a position to pass along to others the opportunities that were provided to me. People tend to view a person who has reached bottom through the lens of what brought the abuse to everyone's attention. I see them through the eyes of one who knows what recovery can make possible.

    Eleven years ago, I was a Second Class Petty Officer sitting in jail without hope, without a plan, without a future. Following recovery, I have gone on to have a successful career. I served as an Information Technology Regional Systems Manager. I deployed to the Middle East as Chief of a Combat Information Center and completed an operational tour for a Tactical Maritime Safety and Security Team as a Planning Officer. Currently, I support the mission of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    Midway through a master’s program in mental health counseling, I now have a better understanding of the physiological, psychological, and sociological issues surrounding addiction. I often think of the support I received, and the course my life may have taken without it. Most notably, I think about what might not have been – how I never would have met my wife or have been blessed with our two little girls.

    I am thankful for the second chance I did not deserve. I am thankful for my supervisor, who reached out and guided me toward help, and for the recovery programs created by others before me. I am thankful for God’s grace, my family, and our country. Recovery is not only possible; it is likely when good people are there to help. A tree that sheds its leaves still has a world of potential within.

  • Nation’s Prison and Jail Populations Drop for Third Straight Year

    Criminal justice reform is an important component of our effort to implement a 21st century approach to drug policy.  While law enforcement will always play a role in combating drug-related crime, we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.  Fortunately, some important data released last week show there are some promising trends when it comes to the high rates of incarceration in the United States.

    According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates behind bars in the United States dropped in 2011 for the third straight year, falling to about 2.24 million from a peak of 2,307,500 in 2008.  The report also found that the number of Americans under any kind of “correctional supervision”—a catch-all term that includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole—fell for the third year in a row.

    Our National Drug Control Strategy contains an array of action items aimed at reducing the burdens that drug use and its consequences impose on our communities.  Among them are efforts to divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison, expanding access to drug treatment for incarcerated individuals, and implementing effective reentry programs to break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration, and rearrest. 

  • Join the Chorus of Voices Speaking Out Against Drugged Driving

    Our world changed in 2010 after the death of our 33-year-old son, Brian. Two women, drugged on marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin, were driving an SUV that crossed into Brian’s lane. While changing her sweater, the driver turned the steering wheel over to a passenger.  Therefore, both were charged as vehicle operators.   The SUV went airborne and crashed through Brian’s windshield. Three men lost their lives that night. Brian’s pregnant widow sustained grave injuries from which she is not likely to recover.

    After the collision, my education began on the nature of drugged driving trials. I learned it is profoundly difficult to successfully convict someone of driving under the influence of drugs.  Drunk drivers can be convicted predictably, in part due to per se laws that prohibit driving with more than 0.08 grams per deciliter of alcohol in the driver’s blood. Yet there are no similar per se laws for drugs in most of the United States, even though it’s much more difficult to prove drug impairment than alcohol impairment.

    During the trial of Brian’s killers, the defense attorney said, “It’s not unlawful to drive with illegal drugs in your body.” That shocking statement is true in most of the country. The women were convicted of vehicular homicide and assault, but the verdict was based on driving with disregard for the safety of others rather than on driving under the influence of drugs. Assuming standard parole, they probably will serve only 18 months in prison per homicide.

    I now direct Deception Pass 3, a network of drugged-driving victims who have joined me in an effort to enact drugged-driving legislation. Our primary focus is to bring effective drug per se laws to the 33 states that don’t yet have them. We enjoy the support of many experts and consultants.  We encourage drugged driving victims to contact us. Your voice can be heard.

  • National Impaired Driving Prevention Month

    December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month – a time to focus our efforts toward recognizing the risks and reducing the prevalence of drugged driving. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is proud to join Administrator David Strickland and the staff of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in observing National Impaired Driving Prevention Month and working to stop drugged driving all year long.

    Drugged driving presents a deadly risk to everyone on the road. According to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), 1 in 3 drivers who were killed in a motor vehicle crash in 2010 with known test results tested positive for drugs (illicit substances as well as over-the-counter and prescription medications).[1] Additional FARS data showed that while the overall number of drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States has declined, involvement of drugs in fatal crashes increased by 6 percentage points over the past 6 years.

    We commend efforts by individuals, communities, and states to combat these risks and work toward improving our public health and safety. One such individual is Ed Wood, who is recognized as one of ONDCP’s Advocates for Action because of his work promoting drugged driving laws and drug per se legislation, which he began pursuing after his son was killed by a drugged driver. ONDCP urges all states to adopt drug per se laws. We also applaud state efforts such as California’s recent signing of Assembly Bill 2552, which, when enacted in 2014, will differentiate between drunk driving, drugged driving, and driving under the combined influence of drugs and alcohol.

    While these endeavors are valuable steps toward decreasing the risks of drugged driving, there is much more we can and must do. I look forward to working with Administrator Strickland throughout December to make the most of National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, and I encourage you to get involved, as well.

    Learn about NHTSA’s campaigns Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving and Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, and visit our Drugged Driving page for additional information. We hope you will spread awareness about drugged driving and encourage your family and friends to “drive with reason” this holiday season.





    [1] U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Drug Involvement of Fatally Injured Drivers (November 2010). 2010 statistics are from unpublished ONDCP tabulations of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (October 2012).


  • When a Coach is More than a Coach

    In suburban Virginia, 50 high school athletes trickle onto the field and don their soccer cleats and practice jerseys. The coach pulls the players together and gives them the plan for the day. Soon the players are in action, running, kicking, yelling, joking, and happy to be doing what they love most.

    Half an hour into practice, another player arrives and walks slowly onto the field, frowning and clearly distracted. He approaches the coach and says he’s late because he got in trouble at school. The conversation could have ended there, perhaps with punitive laps around the field. Fortunately, the coach does not let the matter drop. He senses something is amiss and knows this could be a perfect time to use his role as an adult influencer to make a positive difference in a young man’s life.

    Mindful of the special relationship between players and coaches, and recognizing that sports provide opportunities for coaches to talk to students about important issues such as drug use, the Virginia High School League (VHSL) requires every coach to complete a challenging online course that emphasizes the principles of positive coaching. This training, detailed in the VHSL Handbook and Policy Manual, is necessary for certification as a coach at all Virginia public high schools and at private Virginia high schools that are VHSL members. Every coach must complete the course and pass a test to confirm his or her understanding of the material. Woven into the program is information on developing skills for educating students and their parents about the harmful effects of alcohol and drug abuse. The course also provides examples of how best to communicate with student athletes and how to make sure they not only hear the message, but fully comprehend and accept it.

    Coaches influence a large and growing number of students in America. For 22 consecutive years, the number of high school students playing sports has exceeded the previous year’s total, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, released recently by the National Federation of State High School Associations. More than 7.6 million students played sports during the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of nearly 40,000 students compared to 2009-2010. The organization estimates that 55.5 percent of all high school students participate in sports.

    Back on the practice field, the coach pulls the late-arriving player aside. He asks the young man about the trouble he’s in, all the while watching for clues in the player’s words and demeanor. Could it be substance abuse? At this moment, he is more than a soccer coach. He is mentor, counselor, friend, and concerned adult. His brief, targeted intervention is mindful of the lessons learned in the VHSL coaching course on recognizing the signs of drug use and how best to deliver messages that matter.

    As it turns out, the young athlete’s trouble was minor and had nothing to do with drugs. Satisfied that no further action is necessary, the coach sends the player out to join his teammates on the field. It was a short conversation, over in minutes. But sometimes that is all it takes to make a meaningful, enduring impact in a young person’s life.

    Michael Reles, a Budget Analyst at ONDCP, is a Virginia high school soccer coach, certified by the Virginia High School League, Virginia Youth Soccer Association, and U.S. Soccer Federation.

  • A Military Family, Torn by Stress and Substance Abuse, Comes Together by Staying in FOCUS

    Recently, a family came to my office struggling with poor communication and uncontrollable emotions.  Both parents felt exhausted from trying to balance the demands of military and family life, and they were having a hard time adjusting to dad’s new diagnosis of combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    In our first training session together, the woman described feeling lonely and confused about why her husband seemed to “shut down” and not care about the family. She said she wanted her husband to stop drinking.  The man felt that his wife was exaggerating and did not completely agree with her. At this point, I provided education about risk factors and how substance abuse can sabotage relationships and family wellness and can also interrupt the healing process for PTSD. The service member explained that he just wanted to “stop the pain” but didn’t realize the drinking was a problem.

    For the next several weeks, the family engaged in guided activities that helped them embrace their strengths as a family, explore the affect of substance abuse on their interactions, and take steps toward their goals of improved communication and family closeness. The family practiced ways to better recognize their feelings and reduce negative thinking.  The whole family also learned about PTSD and developed strategies to solve problems that often arise from combat-related injuries. When I described additional resources, the service member started to consider other treatment options for his drinking.

    By graduation from the FOCUS program, the family was using their newly learned skills in everyday life.  Where the service member once drank to cope with stress, he and his family now used communication, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills to overcome challenges. During our final session together, the service member announced he had enrolled in a treatment program that also addressed his PTSD. The family felt “relieved” and “hopeful.” As with so many of the families who have come through our doors, the FOCUS program empowered this family to learn better ways to cope.

    Project FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) is a program of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). FOCUS supports military families, including  those at risk or currently challenged with substance abuse, to identify their strengths on the way to building their own story of success. For more information about Project FOCUS, visit focusproject.org.