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Having an alcoholic in the Cabinet reminds us that recovery is never over

Then-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Boston on March

Then-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Boston on March 13, 2020. Walsh will be the first Cabinet member in American history to be openly in 12-step recovery from addiction. Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

The Biden Cabinet has been boldly stacked with people whose presence is itself a statement of values: the first indigenous secretary of the interior, the first Black secretary of defense, the first openly gay man, the first Latino homeland security secretary. Amid these deservingly heralded pioneers, there's a necessarily quieter debut. Marty Walsh, the former mayor of Boston just confirmed as labor secretary, will be the first Cabinet member in American history to be openly in 12-step recovery from addiction.

I have little doubt that the White House has seen its share of alcoholics up and down the chain of command; maybe a few even darkened the door of a meeting or two. But until now, the most famous recovering person in the White House was a character on "The West Wing." In the real world, until now, no one in that upper echelon has introduced themselves to the public the way Walsh did at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: "My name is Marty Walsh, and I'm an alcoholic."

While our culture has crept toward erasing much of the stigma around addiction, President Joe Biden himself only has to look as far as headlines about his son Hunter for a reminder that the public can still be wildly judgmental and cruel about those of us forced to contend with the disease — which is chronic as well as fatal — on a national stage.

When someone is lost to the disease of addiction — and there are so many ways you get lost — the thing you too-often hear is, "What a waste." When we get sober, we get to share our gifts, and we want to share them; but if we are public about our story, we're limited by the expectations others have of someone who admits to living one day at a time. When I think of the people who have hesitated to enter politics or limited their ambitions because they know they can't promise to be sober forever . . . what a waste.

Walsh's elevation to the Cabinet is meaningful because he's in recovery and because the Biden administration is allowing him to be lot of other things (a union leader, the son of immigrants, a two-term mayor) in addition to being an alcoholic.

Americans love a good redemption story, except when it means revealing the fact that redemption is not a permanent state. Which is probably why George W. Bush turned his story of "quitting drinking" into stump speech set piece but never called himself an alcoholic or described his daily drinking as anything but "a problem." It's one thing to tell the world you beat your addiction; it's quite another to confess that a rear-guard attack could come at any minute.

About 9% of Americans report having "resolved an alcohol or other drug problem," and a little less than half of them identify as being "in recovery." The distinction may seem trivial to some. But to those of us who belong to the latter group, it's an acknowledgment that our particular journey doesn't end with having a problem "resolved."

That's the idea behind the present tense introduction ("and I'm an alcoholic") Walsh echoed in his speech in 2016. I know a lot of people who don't like that tradition; some of them sit in the same meetings as I do, and they say something else: "I'm so-and-so and I have a problem with drugs," or " . . . and I'm chemically dependent" or " . . . and I'm here because I don't want to drink again," or maybe they just end with the name. There's no rule. The tradition exists as a way of acknowledging that the twelve steps aren't a recipe for sobriety but a road map for living. To say, "I'm an alcoholic" after more than 20 years sober — as Walsh does — is admission that, for you, the work of recovery is never done. I celebrated 10 years free from booze and benzodiazepines this week, and that's the way I introduced myself at a Zoom meeting today.

When I was thrashing around at what turned out to be my last months drinking, resolving every day to really quit this time, and never being able to stick with it, I knew there were sober people in the world. I knew there were people who used to drink and then didn't. I just thought they were better fighters than I was. What I needed, at that point, was someone to show me that there was no shame in just staying in the ring.

I was lucky: I stayed alive long enough and went to enough meetings that the present-tense introduction finally sunk in. I gave up on trying not to be an alcoholic and focused on living without a drink.

But for some people, Marty Walsh will be the first and only person they know to acknowledge that sobriety isn't necessarily something you achieve, a medal that gets pinned to your chest once — and that gets ripped away if you stray. Walsh will be there to show anyone who cares to pay attention that it is always a victory to stay sober just for today.

Ana Marie Cox is the host of Crooked Media's "With Friends Like These." This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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