Marty Walsh chose to go to an alcohol detox program in 1995. But even after committing to it, he was questioning his decision.
“I didn’t want to go to detox. … When I got there, I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing here?’ ” the secretary of labor said in an interview with CNN during National Recovery Month, which has taken on an extra level of significance as Covid-19 fuels concerns over a rise in addiction in America.
The interview comes as the Biden administration looks toward tackling addiction issues throughout the US, which seem to have hit a boiling point amid the coronavirus pandemic. Preliminary numbers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention record more than 93,000 US overdose deaths last year, and alcohol consumption among American adults seems to have increased.
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Walsh entered the program in 1995, years before he landed in the political world. He said his relationship with alcohol at the time felt like a “love affair,” such was the power of the addiction. But “the fun started to go away and then blackouts started to happen.”
“Then problems happen,” Walsh said.
During the pandemic, there’s been more stress spurred by job insecurity, job risks, illness and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of loved ones. There’s been less capacity at addiction treatment facilities. And most prevalent, Walsh argued, is that people have felt more isolated.
The spread of the coronavirus “hasn’t challenged my sobriety, but I think the pandemic has forced a lot of people to kind of get away from the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous and get away from the traditional supports they have out there,” Walsh said. “And even I got away from meetings. I was on Zoom, but I got away from meetings.”
Overdose deaths are at a record high. And American adults’ alcohol consumption appears to have increased during the pandemic, with nearly 1 in 4 adults reporting drinking more to cope with their stress in one American Psychological Association poll.
“You feel it,” Walsh added. “I didn’t want to drink over it. But you just feel it inside of you – it’s like you’re edgy or you might not be feeling yourself. You’re not dealing with situations and troubles that happen that are out there.”
Ultimately, Walsh said, he largely decided to commit to the program more than 20 years ago to address how his relationship with alcohol was impacting his mental health.
“I felt like I was just sad, depressed … maybe not clinically defined depressed, but I was depressed and I had this pit in my stomach,” Walsh said. “And I wanted to get rid of that. I haven’t had that pit in my stomach in over 20 years.”
Breaking the stigma
Walsh’s recovery has become a central part of his political identity.
Two years after going to detox, he became a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. While in the statehouse, he said, he decided to speak out about his recovery after hearing his mentor Kevin Fitzgerald, a former Massachusetts state lawmaker, speak openly about his own recovery.
When Walsh ascended the rungs of politics and became mayor of Boston, he remained outspoken about his recovery journey, notably opening his 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention by saying, “My name is Marty Walsh and I’m an alcoholic.”
“I think it’s important to kind of break that stigma and let people know that it’s OK to admit that you’re powerless over alcohol, that you’re powerless over drugs and you can get help,” Walsh said.
While Walsh served as Boston’s mayor, the city launched a number of initiatives aimed at helping individuals facing addiction, including the Office of Recovery Services. Boston also started a 24-hour recovery hotline and mandated that every public safety vehicle in the city be equipped with naloxone – a drug that can bring some people back from opioid overdoses.
Since becoming labor secretary, Walsh says he’s had conversations with different federal agencies about recovery-related programs modeled after his work as mayor.
He also underscored the importance of having the enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 under the Labor Department’s jurisdiction. Under the Biden administration, the federal government has shown renewed interest in enforcing the law, which requires that insurance coverage for mental health disorders, including treatment for substance use disorders, be no more restrictive than coverage for medical benefits.
“Obviously President Biden is focused on this as well. I’ve had some good conversations with President Biden about recovery and the need for more programming,” Walsh added.
But he cautioned that “we can have all the programs in the world but if people aren’t willing to go into them, that’s a problem.”
“When somebody needs a bed, we need to have a bed for anyone who wants one,” Walsh said.
Pandemic creates an addiction nightmare
The conditions spurred by the pandemic have seemingly created a perfect storm for addiction and relapse, having led to isolation, stress and labor shortages among some sectors of the economy.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said in its year-one policy priorities that while there are some protections for individuals with histories of substance use disorder under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, “employers are often reluctant to hire a person with a history of substance use disorder,” arguing that the federal government should find ways to “remove barriers to employment and create employment programs for people in recovery from addiction.”
Asked about the role the federal government plays in reducing hiring stigma, Walsh said, “I think the federal government can tell the story about recovery and about giving people second chances and maybe a third chance.”
“You’re talking to the labor secretary of the United States of America, who is a recovering alcoholic. Somebody gave me a second chance,” he added.
If you or someone you know needs help tackling a drug or alcohol addiction, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-4357.