In 2012, Jim Hood suffered a parent’s worst nightmare: His son Austin died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 20 years old, and had been a student at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Here in Westport, Jim and his wife Julia — Austin’s stepmother — felt unbearable pain. Austin had been a wonderful young man, and a brilliant musician. He had a loving heart, a keen wit and a hopeful spirit.
His parents also felt helpless. During Austin’s struggles with addiction, Julia says, “There is so much I wish I had understood differently.” As they tried to help their son with his addiction issues, they felt as if they’d been dropped into a foreign city. They had no maps, and did not speak the language.
“We didn’t know who to turn to for help, or if we could talk publicly about the issue,” Julia says.
“We didn’t know if we could trust the people we chose to help him, and we didn’t know if we could trust our own decisions along the way.”
Jim Hood, and Austin.
They did not fully understand that addiction is a disease– not a choice or a personality trait. They did not realize that an addict’s brain is “hijacked, and chemically altered.”
Nor did the Hoods know that drug addiction affects 1 in every 3 families in the United States. At least 22 million people are addicted to drugs — including alcohol, for it too is a drug — while 23 million more are in long-term recovery.
Jim could have retreated into his grief. But that’s not who he is. And it’s not how he wanted to memorialize his son.
So, for the past year and a half, he and group of very dedicated men and women have worked to form a new national organization. Called Facing Addiction, it will be launched October 4, with an enormous rally in Washington, D.C.
The date could be a turning point in a fight that has taken far too many lives, most of them far too young.
“After Austin died, I realized how horrific this disease is. It’s hell on earth,” Jim says. “I also realized there was no well-funded national organization tackling it.”
Even the best-known groups — Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and Faces and Voices of Recovery work with budgets of less than $10 million.
Cancer organizations, by contrast, raise $1.7 billion annually (“as they should,” Jim says). Heart groups operate with $800 million.
Addiction organizations are run by “good, skillful people,” Jim says. “But they’re woefully underfunded. They compete against each other at times. And there is no overarching strategy.”
Jim brings a very successful business background — in advertising, Wall Street and consulting — to Facing Addiction.
He calls the fight against addiction “a cottage industry. There are thousands of small players competing for money. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you know to call Sloan-Kettering. When you have heart disease, you turn to the American Heart Association. With addiction, you don’t know what to do.”
That’s understandable, he says. Addiction is a disease shrouded in shame, stigma and denial.
“When you see an obituary for someone in their late teens or early 20s, if it doesn’t expressly say ‘cancer’ or another disease, you can assume the reason was addiction or suicide,” Jim says.
“And if the obituary asks for donations to ‘a charity of your choice’ — even if people know the cause was addiction — no one knows who to write a check to.”
Jim adds, “Addiction is not about ‘bad people.’ It’s about bad things happening to good people — decent, loving, smart people from good families.”
Austin Hood (left) and his siblings, at their Compo Beach home.
Jim has used his talents to bring many separate groups together, all under the Facing Addiction umbrella. They’re collaborating, he says, because they realize “we’re losing the battle.” Opiod use has spiked; heroin seems to be everywhere, and drug use starts earlier than ever. 90% or more of all addicts first use drugs in adolescence.
Facing Addiction’s focus is on “big-impact ideas to help more people, more quickly,” Jim says. “We’re developing a full strategic plan.”
It’s a daunting task. But, Jim asks, “what’s the alternative? The problem gets worse every year.”
Facing Addiction’s first public event is an October 4 rally on Washington’s National Mall.
The site — where Martin Luther King proclaimed “I have a dream,” millions protested the Vietnam War and many more wept at the AIDS Quilt — has “enormous symbolism,” Jim says.
“It focuses the country’s attention. It’s a place to open hearts, so we can open minds.”
Performers include Joe Walsh, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Johnny Rzeznik and The Fray. All have been affected by addiction.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have recorded videos. Drug czar Michael Botticelli and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will speak.
The next day, thousands of citizens will meet with senators and congressmen. They’ll tell their stories, and urge federal funding for the fight against addiction.
Austin Hood can no longer fight his own demons. So his father is doing it for him.
And for millions of others — plus the untold millions more who love them.
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(To donate to Facing Addiction — and help millions of people, while saving hundreds of thousands of lives — click here, or text “facing” to 41444.)