Don Perks, a prototypical NY tough guy, speaks about Mickey Diamond with a tear in his eyes and respect streaming from his voice. The man that only needs a first name in Steamfitters lore is affectionately called "Mickey." Everyone knows Mickey. He recognized the problem his Union's membership was facing with addiction and started a program to help his friends. In the process Mickey forged a legacy that has saved innumerable lives - including Don Perks who would become his successor and has saved countless lives himself.
On March 15th HBO will premiere their Addiction Project - a courageous 14-part series that shows our societies struggles with addiction in an intelligent yet straightforward and accessible manner - it is the kind of program that is long overdue. With 1 in 10 Americans battling some form of addiction we are faced with nothing short of an epidemic and we need to speak about it openly like any other crisis.
Making this film was not easy. There is an unfair stigma and a shame attached to addicts. We see them as making choices as if they are in control. While I don't want to tackle this subject here I can say that this stigma is counterproductive and one of the largest hurdles we need to overcome before this epidemic can truly be curbed.
At first the guys from the Union and their counselors were reluctant to participate due to the aforementioned shame they were sure would come from friends and family that didn't know their secret. Ultimately they decided that their story was too important not to share and they made the brave decision to put themselves out for the world to learn from.
Upon meeting Don Perks I was struck by how genuine he is in his concern for his Union brothers. He can be both kind and forceful at the same time, a combination necessary in this line of work. The program he was handed from Mickey is unique and carries with it a 70-80% success rate compared to typical Managed Care Programs 10%, so it is not a stretch to say the Steamfitters are doing something right.
Things were not always so good in their Union though. The Steamfitters had a history where drinking on the job was acceptable. They would cover one another during hangovers and hit the bars at lunch and after work together. Drinking was almost part of the job. Seeing them work with their heavy machinery the stories related to me by Don made me shiver. I couldn't imagine working in such conditions and not being completely alert. A lot has changed and as Don says reforming the Union's culture so there is no hiding in the closet any longer was the first step.
Here is their basic game plan: They have made it so that their members are entitled to at least 30 days inpatient care and no one can cut that short for any reason. If they need more time the Union has the power to ensure they get it. They have an amazing facility, Veritas Villa, that they have created a relationship with that always has an answer - if a Steamfitter calls Don at 5pm to get help, the Villa has a van picking them up by 6pm. After inpatient rehab the men are picked up and brought to their first after care session that is run by the Union with the help of professional addiction counselors. The Men are required to attend one day a week for an entire year.
This doesn't sound like a complicated formula but in an age where a nameless voice on the other end of a phone can tell you what is best without ever meeting you their program starts to look like nothing less than a miracle.
My hope, and Don's as well, is that by sharing this successful program that other Unions and large organizations will realize the power they hold and set up similar programs. Don travels the country sharing his information and I hope that the Steamfitters get a lot more inquiries after this piece hits the air.