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Fay Zenoff

Leading an organization that hopes to remove the shame of recovery from addiction and bring those stories to the light of day.

WHEN FAY ZENOFF became executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism in 2014, she decided that the organization needed a new, more vibrant focus. Yes, addiction was having a huge impact on the country. Zenoff, an MBA with years of corporate experience, could see it from her office window in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. But where could her organization have the most impact?

Zenoff enlisted the Harvard Business School’s Community Partners to help her clarify her mission. She and her staff knew that there were resources (though not enough) for people who had reached crisis stage and needed treatment. But what about for the 23 million Americans currently living in recovery from addiction? It was a subject that Zenoff, a Larkspur resident, knew well. She’s been sober almost 10 years herself.

After much brainstorming, Zenoff and her staff decided they could do the greatest good by working to remove the stigma attached to living in recovery. And in 2016, they unveiled their rebranded organization, San Francisco’s Center for Open Recovery, with a motto that neatly summed up its mission, “End Shame. Open Recovery.” The center offers a variety of services including DUI classes, clinical assessments, alcohol and drug counseling, recovery support groups and yoga. Like many social movements, COR, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, is starting at the grassroots in the Bay Area with plans to expand to Los Angeles and New York by 2019. In the meantime, it’s launching an ad campaign, hosting its annual Road to Recovery event (which took place in April at Crissy Field) and spreading the word about how healthy life in recovery can be.

What do you mean by “Open Recovery”? We believe it’s a paradigm shift to celebrate and be open about our recovery. It’s an invitation for people who have recovered from addiction to step out of the shadows of shame and share what their lives look like now. Recovery looks different from addiction, and it should be treated differently. We have this incredible resource of people who have been successful in achieving recovery. They could inspire and educate others. But they remain silent and invisible because of the fear of discrimination and backlash. It’s so different from how we treat other diseases. When we talk about breast cancer, we talk about “survivors,” right? We talk about remission. We celebrate that someone has overcome the disease.

Isn’t it taboo to identify yourself as being in recovery? Isn’t anonymity an important tenet of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous? I want to make it clear that I don’t speak on behalf of A.A. But anonymity in those peer-to-peer fellowships means only that you don’t publicly identify yourself as a member of that group. It’s about program membership, not the fact that you’re in recovery. There are many different paths to recovery. I’m talking about integrating recovery, and the healthy lifestyle that goes with it, into all parts of your life. I’m a better mother, worker and partner as a result of being in recovery. For me not to bring that into my conversations means I’m holding back who I am and what I have to offer. It’s like being a vegan but only being able to talk about it in a kitchen or a hospital, or with somebody else who is a vegan.

When you talk about stigma and discrimination, what do you mean? One of the biggest ways we discriminate in this country is by identifying addiction as a moral failing or criminal matter rather than as a public health issue. As a result, the disease — and recovery from it — doesn’t get funding for research. There are about 20 million people in the U.S. struggling with untreated substance use disorders. Last year, 33,000 people died from opiate use alone. Thirty-three thousand. What portion of the population isn’t touched by this? There aren’t enough beds, there’s not enough access to treatment and insurance pays for only a very short period of treatment. There’s almost nothing for ongoing medical treatment in recovery. There are huge institutions getting funding for diseases like cancer and ALS. They deserve the funding but there are more people struggling with addiction than people dealing with all cancers combined.

What about when people are in recovery? Do they still experience discrimination? People are afraid to come forward at work because there isn’t any kind of social acceptance around this. In some ways, it’s like where we were with homosexuality in the ’70s or AIDS right before the ’80s. The NFL player who spoke at our Road to Recovery event last year was concerned that he might lose his job with the league if he came forward and said he was in recovery. Our master of ceremonies, an anchorman on a local station, didn’t know if he was going to be able to say he was in recovery because of the possible backlash at work.

Do you have any ideas about how this can be changed? One of the new programs we have at COR is a workshop to help companies create recovery-conducive environments. Most big employers have resources to help when an employee is in crisis, but they’re not geared toward helping the person when that person comes back to work. I recently got a call from a woman who works at a large organization in San Francisco. She’s three years sober and has worked at the company for seven years. She was calling because her department had an off-site at 3 in the afternoon to celebrate a big accomplishment. Everybody was served drinks in wine glasses and there were no nonalcoholic options. When she asked for an alternative, she was given a plastic cup and told there was a water fountain around the corner. This is part of diversity training. We can’t just leave a whole population out.

You compared Open Recovery to the gay rights movement. Can you talk more about that? When people think of addiction, they think of a junkie. They think, “That’s the other. That’s not me.” But many addicts, and people in recovery, look just like you and me. One of the reasons we model ourselves after the gay rights movement — in particular, movements like Act Up and Silence Equals Death — is that they were able to transform a culture by individuals coming forward and self-identifying as part of a group. That’s where the real power is.

What are you doing specifically to create a change? We design our programs so that our individual clients have the opportunity to reassess their relationship with substances and make decisions that support living healthier lives. On a broader scale, though, one of the initiatives we’re taking is an ad campaign for the general public called “This Is What Recovery Looks Like.” Last year, we ran a full-page ad in the San Francisco Business Times with a photo of a beautiful, intact family with that tagline. You don’t know who in the picture has dealt with addiction. But it doesn’t really matter because the whole family has been affected. What we’re trying to do is bring [forth] strong, healthy images of what recovery looks like. For the new campaign, we’ve shot photos of 12 local Bay Area residents, including a fireman, a bodybuilder, an ordained minister and a white-collar marketing professional. The ads are running on social media and buses and shelter stops in San Francisco. My wish is to have our ad campaign on the banners along Lombard Street. That one is a fantasy unless I get the funding.

How do you see this transformation unfolding? We’ve got to start with the people who have been touched by this disease themselves. If we are afraid of the backlash, we’ll never get anywhere. I think there are some of us who are no longer afraid. We’ve already experienced hell in our addiction. Our belief is that as the movement grows, as more people come forward and experience strength and affirmation, we can provide hope for other people. We can be role models. This is a treatable condition. Maybe not curable, but treatable. I know. I’ve had to learn tools and strategies in recovery, but in the last decade, I’ve had a life better than I ever could have imagined.

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