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Recovery's campaign manager

May 1, 2007
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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As a young Rhode Island state legislator rising in the ranks, Tom Coderre lived a fast-paced life in the public eye. This made it inevitable that when Coderre suffered a downfall caused by cocaine addiction, this would be played out publicly as well.

Coderre, now 37 and approaching four years in recovery, knew from both his good and bad experiences that he would most certainly maintain a public profile in recovery. What he probably couldn't have predicted was that he would quickly move from recovery mobilization activity in his home state to the recovery movement's national spotlight—now as intense as ever.

“Because I went through a demoralizing kind of public process, I'm sure that part of me was looking for some kind of public redemption as well,” says Coderre. “Public redemption is one of the gifts that we get.”

Coderre was working on a Rhode Island political candidate's campaign and continuing to assist a state recovery coalition's activities last fall when he noticed that the national membership organization Faces and Voices of Recovery was looking for a national field director. His attendance at the group's national summit in 2005 had already demonstrated to him that a recovery movement was growing much larger than he had ever known.

“I was really humbled to be selected,” he says of his new role with the national organization. “I haven't used in almost four years, and I was up against people who have been in recovery for double-digit years.”

Community organizing

Coderre's new position was established to assist a one-year effort to bring technical assistance to 15 communities as they attempt to mobilize recovering people and allies under The ADDICTION Project, a multimedia effort involving HBO and several supporting organizations (see Letter From the Editor in the January/February 2007 issue).

Coderre has found in his early blitz of travel (44 trips in a three-month period starting in mid-December) that some recovery groups already have much experience in community organizing, while others are new to the task. “I've been approaching it like a political campaign,” he says.

Faces and Voices, a six-year-old organization now numbering about 16,000 members, is trying to help recovering people and their loved ones to recruit less likely community partners to the cause of supporting funding for treatment and meaningful policy change. In events at which HBO's centerpiece 90-minute documentary is aired, Coderre tries to engage attendees in the effort to educate members of Congress and local political leaders about addiction and recovery.

Tom coderre

At the federal level, high-priority topics this spring have been insurance equality legislation (Coderre says advocates are trying to move away from use of the somewhat vague-sounding “parity”) and the threat of federal funding cuts for support of Recovery Month activities across the country. Coderre also is working to organize a civic engagement campaign that will use issue-oriented questionnaires to launch discussions with candidates for office.

He believes the attention that addiction and recovery topics is receiving has placed the recovery movement on the edge of some significant accomplishments. “The moon, the sun, and the stars are starting to come into alignment; we're preparing for when it's our time,” he says.

Life in recovery

In a small state of close-knit communities, where one's state senator very well could be part of one's extended family, a lawmaker's personal tragedy sends powerful reverberations. Coderre, member of a political family who was elected to the state legislature at 25 and held a leadership position after his first session, had used alcohol to calm down from the hectic pace of his life, then was introduced to crack cocaine.

By 2001, cocaine addiction had cost Coderre his Senate leadership position and his full-time job with an adult literacy agency. Arrested twice in 2003, he was ordered to jail and soon thereafter spent time in a treatment center and then a long-term recovery house, where the turnaround began.

Coderre's well-publicized story has not impeded his advocacy efforts at all, even in the close confines of his home state. “People have welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “Maybe one comment out of 1,000 has been negative.”

Working with other recovery advocates has helped Coderre understand much of what people in recovery must do to maintain a healthy lifestyle. “I don't struggle with addiction anymore; what I struggle with is how to live my life as a person in recovery.”

He adds, “I have learned that I have to take care of myself. That's something that everyone could benefit from.”