I’m not a really big football fan, but last week, I became a big fan of Jets backup quarterback Erik Ainge. In a candid ESPN interview, Ainge recounted his struggles with addiction since the age of 11. Showing tremendous courage, he opened up about the heavy drinking and drugging that all but cost him his life. Now in recovery for almost nine months, he’s sharing his story to inspire others to seek help. If one young athlete “hears this interview and sees that it’s okay to be vulnerable,” Ainge says, his decision to go public will have been worth it.
All too often, people in recovery keep their stories quiet, due in large part to the stigma associated with addiction that still persists in our society. I remember my own concerns when I was asked to go very public with my recovery story at the National Press Conference celebrating Recovery Month in 2008. But like Ainge, I recognized that sharing my journey was part of recovery and I believed that I had come far enough in my career that negative results from going public would be outweighed by the possible good it could do. Opening up, first to friends and family members, often communicated how best to support me in my recovery. (At parties, for instance, the people in my life know not to serve me alcohol.) Later, when I told my story in a much more public forum, I did so because I felt I could serve as living proof that substance abusers can and do get better, sometimes much better. The recovery community should applaud Ainge for helping to spread this important message. The public already knows that people abusing drugs and alcohol do foolish, harmful things. What they won’t know, if we don’t tell them, is that people in recovery can go on to do wonderful things.
Ainge’s story also helps us get the word out that addiction can affect anyone. A talented young player from a famous football family, Ainge seemed to “have it all.” Yet his drug use escalated from marijuana to alcohol and prescription medications and finally to cocaine and heroin. During his rookie year with the Jets, he now admits he was taking 25 Percocets at a time. When he finally sought treatment, he says he was “on a one-way street to hell.” Although most of us aren’t sports stars, many of us in recovery can relate to Ainge’s experience because we too were at the height of promising careers when drugs took over our lives. Addiction, we discovered, does not discriminate based on a person’s achievement level or potential for success.
Fortunately, recovery doesn’t discriminate either. Those who find the help they need and commit to managing their recovery can go on to lead productive, rewarding lives. For this reason, I’m optimistic about Erik Ainge. Although he’s not sure about his future in football, he knows that his top priority is to maintain his sobriety, which is exactly where his focus should be. “I want this to be the last time I ever have to try to get clean,” he says, “and I’m going slowly.” If he continues to put his recovery first, taking it one day at a time, he’ll come out a winner, no matter what the scoreboard says.
Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer