Curtain of silence on addiction lifts in Durham

More than 20 men and woman stood before a crowd of friends and family Sunday afternoon and owned a truth that would have gotten them shunned decades ago.

An addiction to drugs and alcohol has ruled their lives.

On Sunday, that acknowledgement — and their healing — earned a celebration.

A total of 34 men and women graduated from a Trosa’s two-year substance abuse recovery program. The Durham non-profit helps addicts get sober and find direction. The ceremony was built on the hope and promise that sobriety will now dominate the graduates’ lives.

Anthony Peppitoni, one of Sunday’s graduates, said he would spend the rest of his days trying to earn the devotion his sister had provided to him over the years.

"I can't imagine loving someone as much as you love me, and I'm so sorry for not living up to it," he said.

The graduates rejoin society at a turning point in America’s conversation about addiction. For decades, a dependence on drugs and alcohol was a humiliation many addicts and their loved ones carried in secret. Treatment programs were discreet and hidden, the political discourse often halted. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, addicts were seen as criminals who needed to be jailed, not patients who needed treatment.

On Sunday, more than 100 relatives of the graduates stood and cheered as their loved ones were called forward. Brothers, daughters and parents stood to be honored, their love and patience praised, their suffering acknowledged. Many wiped away tears.

As more and more high-profile people publicly acknowledge their own battles with drugs and alcohol, rhetoric has begun to shift from shame to sympathy, and Sunday’s ceremony captured that.

“I think it’s great that politicians and celebrities are talking more openly and frankly about addiction,” said Kevin McDonald, president, chief executive office and founder of Trosa. “It is an issue that crosses all boundaries of race, class, geography — everyone knows someone who has struggled with addiction, but for years, that was always hidden.”

The diminishing stigma of addiction gives graduate Mike Retchless hope. As he was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, no one talked about addiction. He believes that silence impeded his recovery. As he spiraled into a drug addiction, his family looked on, confused and helpless.

“I was out of control, my life in total turmoil,” Retchless said. “Having that confusion caused so much suffering between myself and my family. I didn’t know, they didn’t know, how to help.”

On Sunday, Retchless’ siblings, parents and daughter stood and cheered for his sobriety as he vowed to be a better person.

“My addiction is not something I’m proud of, necessarily, but it’s something people need to know. That’s important for our society,” Retchless said.