Every addiction story is unique. I want to repeat that because it’s so important to say. Every single addiction story is unique. But, I haven’t heard too many people speaking about an experience that sounded like mine. It made me wonder how many people are staying silent because their story also deals with mental health issues. To dismiss the stigma and help others heal, it is up to people like me, who have the privilege of a voice and a platform, to speak out for those who do not.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jay Shifman, a Writer, Consultant, Public Speaker and Community Advocate passionate about issues of addiction and mental health. Nine years in recovery, Jay lives in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife Lauren. He began to speak out about his addiction struggles and his recovery in 2015.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Recently, I decided to leave a job I enjoyed at an organization I loved to follow my passion working to help create a systems change in addiction. I believe, as someone who is nine years in recovery, that I have a unique story to tell and the privilege of a platform that can help advance the conversation around mental health and addiction and reduce the stigma associated with the two. I spent my early 20s suffering through a terrible prescription pill addiction that was fostered on me by, I’ll say nicely, an overzealous psychologist and a too-willing psychiatrist. I believe they truly wanted the best for me but their way of showing that was to turn me into an addict. It was a horrible time. I honestly don’t know why or how I didn’t die from my struggle. But it’s made me stronger in the long run and gave me the privilege of being able to speak about this issue intimately.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I simply don’t understand this. Our culture is moving progressively toward embracing and accepting people for who they are on so many issues, yet when it comes to mental health and addiction, the stigma remains. Although I don’t want to be completely pessimistic. I do think we’re making progress.
Very little angers me more than when I experience people or organizations defending this harmful, dangerous and outdated thinking. There is a well-respected treatment facility here in Cincinnati that actually advertises their discretion in radio spots. Look, I get that some people still worry about what others will think if they admit to suffering from addiction or mental health issues, but we should be reassuring them that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable, instead of victim-shaming them and directly reinforcing the idea. By suggesting discretion is important, you are acknowledging the validity of the stigma; that there’s something immorally wrong with them. That sort of thing… it’s so harmful! There’s nothing wrong with self-care and treating mental health. Those deciding to seek help are strong and brave and deserve nothing but love and support!
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I am constantly searching for opportunities to tell my story. I speak publicly about my struggles with addiction, both onstage and off, and never hide that I am in recovery. I recently published an article on Medium detailing my addiction story and honestly it was so freeing! I hope it inspires others to do the same.
Additionally, I walk around with my Narcan pouch every day and love talking to people about why it’s so important more people get trained to save lives with Narcan. Finally, I wear a purple S.A.F.E. bracelet on my wrist at all times. I sing my recovery proudly and loudly, on every platform and from every stage I can!
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Every addiction story is unique. I want to repeat that because it’s so important to say. Every single addiction story is unique. But, I haven’t heard too many people speaking about an experience that sounded like mine. It made me wonder how many people are staying silent because their story also deals with mental health issues. To dismiss the stigma and help others heal, it is up to people like me, who have the privilege of a voice and a platform, to speak out for those who do not. When I wrote of my experience in Medium, it went viral in my community pretty quick, which was wonderful. So many people reached out to share their experience, which is exactly what I wanted! What was so interesting was other people from my High School graduating class contacted me to say their story was incredibly similar to mine but they felt alone! Multiple of us and we never knew. I sat next to one of the guys in a class and all along we were suffering from the same sort of experiences. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we talked about this more? It’s incredible to think about.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
First and foremost, assume good intent. We see these news stories with headlines like ‘Addict Caught Stealing Mother’s T.V. to Fund Habit’ which are just so harmful. Sure, they may make for good clickbait, but they always follow the same outline that makes a punchline out of the person. Instead, look at that and think ‘I just can’t fathom how awful this person must feel.’ Addiction takes over the brain; it turns the person into a zombie. The person you knew is in there, but they’re a captive. It’s the addiction that’s stealing that T.V.
Second, we need to put our money where our mouth is. We talk and talk and talk about this but it’s almost criminal how few dollars are being directed towards addiction research and treatment. If we stopped locking up addicts and helped them into treatment instead, we’d still have money left over to fund research. We need to make this happen. Now!
Third, we need to speak up. Case in point, Sherriff Richard Jones, elected in a suburb of my home city of Cincinnati, made headlines last year when he said he was instructing his deputies to stop carrying Narcan. Which is unfathomably evil. In his mind, it’s not worth it to revive an overdose victim. If you said the same thing about anyone else suffering, a heart attack victim or a car crash victim; if you stood there and watched them die, someone would call you a monster. And they’d be right! Why can’t we say the same thing about addiction? Richard Jones is a monster and should be removed from his post for refusing to save lives, which, I’m pretty sure, is literally his job. Addicts are people! Say it again with me. Addicts are people.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I try to practice good self-talk. My wife says I tend to spiral sometimes, which I think is very human. A couple things go wrong then all-a-sudden we notice more things going wrong. So I try to force myself to focus on positive things and usually the spiraling stops. If that doesn’t work, the Beatles are always helpful. Throw on Sgt. Peppers or Abbey Road and try not to smile. Here comes the sun…
Also, this is a big one for me, I give hugs. Only to willing people of course. Seriously never touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched, I shouldn’t have to say that, but you know. Anyway, a hug is the most interpersonal contact we’ll have on a day to day basis with anyone except our partner. It’s a way to say hey, I’m here, and it’s therapeutic too. I got married recently and I was worried about those horror stories you hear all the time like ‘oh my wedding was a blur.’ So I did some research and the number one tip was to give as many hugs as possible. It helped so much! Each hug slowed down my wedding for that moment and helped me stay in the present. And I felt a personal connection to all of those great people who came out on a cool Cincinnati night to celebrate my wife’s and my love. It was wonderful.
Finally, I’ll say this because it’s such good advice and it’s so true. We live in a time where it’s so easy to get caught up in the falseness of it all. If you spend any time on social media, it’s easy to think ‘wow, my life sucks’ because we only get the top of the top. Few people post a picture of them sitting alone or a status about getting chewed out by their boss. Only the good stuff. It’s nice, and it’s fun, but it can be painful if you’re struggling. Just remember, we’re all humans and we all go through ups and downs. When I tried to take my own life while I was seriously struggling with my addiction, it was because I decided this was my life, now and forever. Which is just wrong. I read a study recently that stated the average person, when asked to plan or think about the future, imagines, on average, four and a half years. For an addict, that number is nine days. Nine days! It’s easy to understand why some suffering will struggle to believe anything will ever get better if you recognize their future, to them, is nine days. They’re probably right. Nine days won’t be much better. But, four and a half years? Or, in my case, nine years? It’s definitely better. Today I’m happy, healthy and proudly telling my story with a semi-colon tattooed on my right leg and a wonderful, supportive wife who is my world. Your story is never truly over. You are never alone! Reach out and someone will respond.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
My must reads include Dopesick and Dreamland, both of which illustrate this issue better than most. I can’t say enough good about the work of Beth Macy (Dopesick) and Sam Quinones (Dreamland), who dove headfirst into this topic and came back up with defining tapestries of good that brought the issue to public notice in a way that allowed those who haven’t suffered to understand. They are both masters. I got to meet Sam last year and I am so forever grateful to him for what he’s doing. As far as podcasts, I enjoy Let’s Talk, Drugs Addiction and Recovery, and The Addiction Podcast, to name a few.
Oh, and a quick shout-out to Lin Manuel Miranda. He’s incredible! The guy was a great actor (go back and watch later seasons of House) and has the skills to be a headline rapper, but decided he wanted to educate and tell stories. Then, boom, Hamilton! I read an interview with him in New York Magazine recently that has stuck with me. He was talking about the new Mary Poppins movie, in which he plays the Dick Van Dyke character. The interviewer said to him something alone the lines of ‘I’m sure taking this role was easy for you right? I mean, it’s every kid’s dream to be in Mary Poppins and to play the role formerly held by Dick Van Dyke, how can you get any better?’ And he said ‘Actually, it was hard for me. I really debated taking it. Because I can’t kid myself anymore. I can’t say I’m taking these roles to pay my bills; Hamilton pays my bills! So I had to decide if this was really something I wanted to do; if it was something that would make me happy.’ I mean, wow! When I was deciding to move on from my job and follow my passion, I kept coming back to this interview. So thank you to Lin Manuel Miranda!
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Thanks for doing this! We need more people to talk about this issue!