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Faces of a Failed War

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Co-authored by Michael Fryer, Co-Founder of The SongStream Project.

Since the tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, there has been an increase in public discourse regarding addiction. While I am thankful for this heightened awareness, it tends to be characterized by facts and judgment-infused debates. They lack empathy. When it comes to addiction, our ability to connect with another human, with a grieving family, with fragility and brokenness somehow goes missing. To find it takes vulnerability, compassion and a willingness to engage with and appreciate complexity. When we open ourselves up to those, our perspectives change.

My brother Nick was born in 1983 into a loving family. I was only three when he came along but my parents tell me that he was an easy and fun baby. As a child, he was very imaginative and bright. I remember him turning our entire house into a jungle, his toy animals set up in perfect scenes to be acted out for hours upon end. As he got older, he loved learning magic tricks and was gifted in school. Our childhood was like many others. It was one of family camping trips, playing in the neighborhood with friends, walks down to the local ice cream shop and church on Sundays.

On the same stage and against the same backdrop, my brother Nick and I were very different characters and played different roles. I was fairly easy going and Nick was more intense. If we both received $20 on Christmas morning, I could happily put the money away and perhaps not spend it for weeks. Nick was obsessed with spending that money. He threw himself whole-heartedly into whatever grabbed his interest. Pair this determination and drive with an early tendency toward extreme sensitivity and depression (he would be later diagnosed with Bipolar disorder) and you have a recipe for disaster when, in his early teens, Nick was exposed to addictive substances. These drugs quickly took hold of the reins of his life, guiding him onto ever more destructive and irrational paths.

From the onset, my brother's life was a living testament to the nightmare repercussions of the failed War on Drugs. This tender-hearted young man was treated like a criminal and imprisoned when he should have received treatment. His sweet face is the face of mass incarcerations in the U.S., of people serving ridiculous amounts of time behind bars for minor drug charges.

The depressing reality is that my family's story is far from unique. Too many families across our country are desperately trying to navigate a haphazard, confusing and often deceptive system of recovery. Too many are trying with all their might to walk alongside, love and support those with the disease of addiction. Too many are trying to find quality affordable care only to be turned down. Too many have plowed what money they have into countless promises of quick-fix programs only to be left disappointed, angry, disillusioned, exhausted and hopeless. Too many are pondering the "what-ifs?" that losing a loved one to addiction brings each day.

The subtleties of too many stories remain invisible under the neon sterility of statistics. Because the War on Drugs has focused money and energies on incarceration in place of medical research, programs of quality care and harm reduction, too many young faces will never grow old, their smiles and potential frozen behind the glass of a photo frame. My brother's face is one of them.

Nick died on May 29th 2010. Yes, he was addicted to illegal drugs. But, he was so much more than an addict. He was a brother, a son, a father, a friend, a bright and creative person robbed of the opportunity to contribute to the world around him by a disease from whose grip he could never struggle free.

And yet, within this bleak and overwhelming landscape, I am beginning to see signs of hope and encouragement. Tides of awareness and change are shifting. Just recently, Vermont's Governor, Peter Shumlin, dedicated his entire State of the State message to the epidemic of addiction and the need to take it seriously as a profound public health crisis. On all levels of society, the voices of those who have been fighting for change for so long are beginning to be amplified. New foundations dedicated to medical research, advocacy and funding for programs are emerging. People like Russell Brand, someone who knows the everyday realities of addiction, are using their fame and celebrity to offer valuable insights and perspectives. Families are refusing to stay silent and with each new voice, more find the courage and strength to speak out.

A common characteristic of all these voices is a belief that we will only change our policies and our attitudes when we open ourselves up to the stories of those affected by addiction and recognize the true human cost of decades of failed strategy.

Gary Mendell, who lost his son, Brian, to this pernicious and unrelenting disease, founded Shatterproof last year. They are currently promoting a campaign called My Last Photo. Its beauty and power lies in its call to recognize the human side of statistics. These are the faces of the War on Drugs. They are a lost generation.

I am a musician. Inspired by the My Last Photo campaign, I wrote a song about the photo of my brother that I hold in my mind. It's the image I carry with me as I seek to contribute to a more compassionate and understanding society.

The truth is that a song by itself won't change attitudes. The anguished appeals of a grieving parent won't change policies overnight. The hard-earned wisdom of an addict in recovery won't wave a magic wand. A collection of photos won't suddenly bring about a more effective way of dealing with addiction. However, because they all demand that we look at the stories and lives behind percentages, together they carry the potential to encourage new conversations, new ideas and a new hope that the insanity of a failed war can be transformed.