“Women in recovery are swans,” Bedford resident Amanda Rowan observed last week. “We look well put together, we look competent and calm. But make no mistake, under that water we are paddling like hell to stay afloat.”
Rowan, assistant clerk magistrate for Middlesex Superior Court, is highlighting her personal long-term recovery as part of a campaign to eradicate the stigma attached to people recovering from addiction.
She was among nine women honored by the Trial Court of Massachusetts last week as part of a Women’s History Month commemoration. Among her fellow honorees were Gloria Steinem, Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, and District Court Chief Justice Stacey Fortes. The theme of the celebration was “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”
Rowan was introduced by her co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Well-Being Committee, Marianne LeBlanc. “Amanda is a passionate advocate for the well-being of her fellow lawyers and fellow trial court employees,” LeBlanc said. “She previously struggled with substance use disorder and now is recovering out loud.”
“Amanda organized and chaired a forum on addiction, stigma, and recovery in the legal community,” LeBlanc said, with a panel of five lawyers and a judge, all in recovery. She also arranged a series of articles, “Fighting Stigma,” in Mass Lawyers Weekly, and “she wrote the very first article about her own personal path. She continues to speak about the need to destigmatize health-seeking behaviors at law schools, law firms, and throughout the legal community.”
According to Rowan, attorneys and the legal community have been hit particularly hard by alcoholism and addiction. A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found that 42 percent of active Massachusetts lawyers reported hazardous or dangerous drinking and 98 percent of those refuse to seek help because of stigma or fear of negative repercussions.
Rowan was forthright in her acceptance remarks. “Instead of entering the outside world with support for what they’ve done, people in recovery hide because of stigma. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, and fatal disease for which there’s no cure. People in recovery should be filled with pride.”
Some advised her that going public would end her career and reputation, Rowan said. However, “Over the past 10 years I have learned that authenticity is paramount. Everyone has received what I tell them with kindness and curiosity. Receiving this award is validation that people who struggle with this disease and people in recovery have value and we have allies. Being a sober mom and wife has been the single best achievement of my life.”
Rowan was a victim witness advocate in the Middlesex District attorney’s office for five years, attending Suffolk Law School evenings, before she was appointed an assistant district attorney in 2007, prosecuting domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse cases. She began working for Massachusetts Trial Court in 2014.
“Leaving the district attorney’s office was a work-life balance move,” she explained. “I needed to pump the brakes on the amount of stress and vicarious trauma.” She now runs a civil session alongside the judge assigned to the courtroom at the Lowell Justice Center.
Reflecting after the ceremony, Rowan said, “I have to work on my recovery on a daily basis.” Part of that is her message: “It is not the responsibility of a stigmatized community to put an end to a stigma, but this is my calling. I am uniquely positioned to have the ear of a lot of people.”
“I live in two worlds,” she continued. “I see how my legal community has been affected by this disease. I completely understand why this problem is so rampant. But I am also a person in recovery, and I know the value and necessity of having support on this journey.”
Active alcoholism, she said, is “a complex and complicated nightmare. I don’t know how to solve that problem, but stigma is something we actually can fix. That way when people do have to fight addiction, they don’t have to fight stigma as well. The disease is more than enough.”
There are 23 million Americans currently in recovery, Rowan said, and most are “terrified of anyone finding out. Bedford has a strong and thriving recovery community. People in recovery are everywhere – we are your next-door neighbors, favorite kids’ teachers, your coworkers, your closest friends in town. We just don’t say it out loud. Why? Fear.
“Many are especially concerned about the social impact on their children. This is what breaks my heart. It wasn’t until I could tell the whole truth of who I am that I got truly free. I want everyone to know that feeling.”
“Staying quiet on the problem continues this problem,” she said. “We as a community need to spread the message that we accept and support those in recovery. Once people begin to feel safe, I hope they can start dipping their toes into the truth pool with the people around them. It’s the only way that’s really effective, so people can live authentically. I promise, since I started speaking out, the world has proven to be a pretty supportive place.
“People in recovery are absolute superstars. There’s a lot of altruism and selflessness – people in recovery do things for each other. They show up for one another. You have to give it away to keep it, and service is a necessity. You really get to know each other and lean on each other.”
She added, “My dream is that one day everyone can be identified as just who they are, without fear of repercussions. Fear and stigma have no place in any community where people are fighting a fatal disease.”
If you are struggling with alcohol or drug use, call 1-800-662-HELP or the Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline. 1-800-327-5050. Both are free and confidential.