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The other pandemic | The Boston Globe

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

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