The other pandemic

How many Americans must die before the country treats alcohol and drug addiction as the national emergency it is?

By Jimmy Tingle Updated December 26, 2020, 3:00 a.m.

During the 1980s, I lost three friends to alcohol and drugs and I was personally going downhill in a big way because of those substances. I had tried to get sober many times before, with limited success, and a week before

Christmas, in 1987, I started calling places looking for help. Hospitals, rehabs, detoxes, treatment centers.

Call after call after call, I’d get, “There’s no beds, there’s long lines, call back tomorrow, you don’t have insurance.” RELATED: US drug overdoses appear to rise amid coronavirus pandemic

Finally, I called Cambridge City Hospital and said to the man who answered the phone, “I really need help.”

Without missing a beat, he said, “You called the right place.”

I checked into that detox, got the alcohol out of my system, and attended Mass for the first time in years, on Christmas morning in the hospital chapel. When I got out after seven days, I moved to New York City to focus on recovery and advancing my career in stand-up comedy.

A year to the week after I checked into that hospital, I got the greatest gift any young comic could hope for: a spot on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” The other guest that night was Bob Hope.

That city hospital with a federally funded detoxification program helped change my life.

Everything I have — my wife, my son, my career, my education, my sobriety — I owe to that man’s response when I reached out for help in the winter of 1987. A seven-day detox is not the whole answer or solution by any means, but it can be the start of, and a vital component in, the recovery process.

I had two profound takeaways from my first year of sobriety — number one, I believe in God; number two, I believe that government matters. That government can change people’s lives and that government can save people’s lives.

But hospitals like Cambridge City, ones that accept people without insurance, are the exception when it comes to treatment. Too many Americans are turned away before ever hearing the words that could change their lives: “You called the right place.”

The “war on drugs” was a well-intentioned effort started under Ronald Reagan in 1985, with a slogan coined by his wife Nancy: “Just say no.”

Sadly, 35 years and millions of drug and alcohol casualties later, we’re saying no to people who need help.

Do we have enough treatment centers? No.

Are there enough hospital beds to meet the need? No.

Can people with substance use disorder enter rehab without insurance? Sometimes, but not enough times.

Has there ever been a real national “war effort” to help Americans who need and want alcohol and drug treatment? No.

To use another war analogy: Since 2001, we’ve lost about 7,000 Americans in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we lost nearly 72,000 Americans to drug overdoses in 2018 alone. Those numbers do not come close to capturing the extent of American lives ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction.

Shatterproof, a nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness about the addiction crisis, reports that every four minutes, a parent loses a child to addiction, and the rising cost of addiction to the country now exceeds $400 billion a year.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making the addiction pandemic worse and, tragically, there is no vaccine for addiction on the horizon.

But with the opportunity for hospitalization, long-term treatment, and medical attention similar to what other patients with chronic illnesses would receive, there is hope for progress.

How many Americans must die before the country treats alcohol and drug addiction as the national emergency it is? President-elect Joe Biden could spur the national recovery movement we need. He could begin by telling us more about his son Hunter’s experiences with addiction.

I didn’t know Hunter was in recovery until President Trump tried to embarrass Biden with it in the final presidential debate.

With a pained look on his face, Biden turned to the cameras and explained to the 63 million people watching, “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.”

Millions of Americans in red states and blue states know the pain Hunter and his family have experienced. They have family members who were or still are living with an alcohol or drug problem.

Biden, working with Republicans and Democrats, can unite Americans around the life-saving force of recovery by making long-term alcohol and drug treatment a national priority in his first term. RELATED: Biden embraces drug courts, but do they actually work?

Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr., members of the Kennedy and Bush families, Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, and first lady Betty Ford all knew the pain and suffering of substance use disorder.

But people can recover if they have the opportunity to recover.

Biden and Republican leaders could begin uniting and healing this country with a bipartisan effort to fund new and expanded treatment centers that will admit patients regardless of geography, income level, or insurance status. This is a bipartisan issue affecting every congressional district in America.

People across this country are desperate for help.

The Biden administration and Congress have the power to create an America where anyone who picks up a phone and reaches out for help will hear the words I heard a week before Christmas in 1987, “You called the right place.”

Jimmy Tingle is a comedian and founder of Humor for Humanity. His new film, “Jimmy Tingle’s 2020 Vision: Why would a comedian run for office?,” is playing online through Jan. 3. Info at jimmytingle.com.

Jimmy Tingle pulled no punches on Trump during stand-up routine

Jimmy Tingle pulled no punches on Trump during stand-up routine

Stand-up comedy, social justice and politics mingled in a tasty brew last Friday night at Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square, where renowned Cambridge-born comic Jimmy Tingle presented his one-man show, “Humor for Humanity: Jimmy Tingle in the age of Trump.”

Captivating his audience of 1,100 over two hours with one intermission, Tingle pulled no punches in his assessment of the new president’s first two weeks in office. Cathartic in its exposure of the absurdities, follies and human toll of Trump’s decisions, Tingle’s humor had bite but not bitterness. If there were Trump voters in the audience, they had no cause to feel unwelcome. Tingle focused not on the man but on his actions.

Character sketches

Outfitted in an unbuttoned jacket and plain tie, like a slightly rumpled office worker, Tingle demonstrated his mastery of stand-up art, with his timing, pauses and use of his entire body and voice to morph into various characters. One was his 93-year old aunt, shopping for medical treatment in a privatized health care market, as she phoned a friend and in a wheezing voice said, “There’s a special on hips today … shall we go?”

Later, he mimicked a border control officer calling his boss to report the arrival of a Palestinian Jew with 12 followers, making the point that with the new restrictions on refugees, even Jesus would have a hard time getting into the USA.

Tingle’s only prop was a podium. He used it only once, to read out the names of the 20 nonprofits the show was supporting with a portion of the ticket price.

Tingle’s website describes his “Humor for Humanity” project as a “social enterprise and solo show…which aspires to raise spirits, funds and awareness” for social causes. Its brand of humor is “entertainment for a purpose beyond itself, to celebrate people doing good work that demonstrates “who we are and who we aspire to be.”

A comic with an amiable rapport and an eye to injustice and hypocrisy, Tingle, 61, has had a long career spanning TV, radio, film and stage, and from 2002 to 2007 ran his own theater in Davis Square, Somerville — a revered club-scale venue for live shows. In 2010, Tingle earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which borders Harvard Square, where in the 1980s he got his start in standup as a street performer.

Stevie Wonder songs played as people took their seats. The program began with video clips of street protests from ’60s civil rights marches to last month’s Women’s March, accompanied by the 1967 anthem sung by Buffalo Springfield with the familiar chorus, “It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down.”

The multigenerational audience clapped to its beat.

By way of introduction, Tingle opened the show with a video of his short and funny commencement address for the Kennedy School, a mix of ideals and autobiography. Tingle spoke of struggling to learn statistics in a tutorial with students from countries at war with one another. “We all helped each other,” and adding a nod to his thick Boston accent, added, “we all spoke English as a second language.”

Tingle then strode on stage and began by commenting on the beauty of the grand gothic hall, a memorial to Harvard men who died serving the Union in the Civil War. He slowly named people who have spoken on this stage: “Winston Churchill. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Martin Luther King. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” He paused, and then in a wobbly voice, added “Tingle,” earning his first roar from the audience.

Turning to the topic at hand, Tingle said, “It’s going to be OK.” Quoting Martin Luther King from his August 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Tingle said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“This is a long game,” Tingle said, before reflecting on the new president’s first two weeks in office. He expressed admiration for candidate Trump’s ability to speak with New Hampshire voters about painful local issues, including their state’s opioid epidemic.

Tingle underscored the cyclical nature of progress by taking three steps forward while noting a positive change and then taking three steps back as he pointed out a reversal. Stepping forward, he said that 22 million people gained health insurance thanks to Obamacare; retreating, he noted its impeding repeal. Conjuring a surreal, hilarious chain of events related to dismantling air traffic control, Tingle described forest rangers with flashlights landing planes over Walden Pond.

Saying that Trump had promised to “drain the swamp” of entrenched players in the nation’s capital, Tingle described the president’s incoming cabinet as “the Everglades.”

Tingle noted that the new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency has denied climate change, and Rick Perry, Trump’s pick as energy secretary, pledged to dismantle the Department of Energy when he was a presidential candidate. His job will be easy, said Tingle, mimicking Perry answering the phone by saying, “We’re closed.”

Describing former presidential candidate and surgeon Ben Carson as “the mellowest man in America,” Tingle noted the experience Carson touted as he prepared to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development: He lived in public housing as a child.

“My father drove taxis in Cambridge,” said Tingle. “But don’t make me secretary of transportation. It’s like someone who has never served in government becoming president.”
Tingle raised another round of laughter by simply stating the name of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and impresario of fake news.

Commenting on Trump’s suspicion of voter fraud and insistence on a formal investigation, Tingle said, “He wants to figure out how the hell he won.”