Danna Jensen went back to school a decade ago to earn a community college degree in addiction studies. It seemed only appropriate, Jensen joked Wednesday, "after my field work for 25 years."
At the Capitol on Wednesday, it was a day of celebration for the 50-year-old Jensen. The drug and alcohol counselor in Merced County has been clean and sober for 13 years and three months after a prolonged struggle with substance abuse, ranging from inhaling PCP to dropping LSD to shooting heroin.
Jensen, her husband, Christopher Jensen, and their 25-year-old son, Christopher Jr. -- all recovering addicts -- joined thousands of others at a "Recovery Happens!" rally celebrating their collective triumph over drugs and alcohol.
The crowd was applauded by retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was national drug policy director under the Clinton administration.
"In the Army when you have a hero, you bring them forward and you pin a medal on them. You use them as an example for others to follow," McCaffrey told the cheering crowd. "All of you here who are in recovery, who have achieved sobriety, who are maintaining sobriety, God bless you. You are an example of courage for all of us."
Renée Zito, the director of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, said the rally -- held as part of National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month -- wasn't simply honoring those who beat addiction. She said policy advocates also want to break down what she called the "barrier of shame" that stigmatizes drug and alcohol addictions afflicting an estimated 23 million Americans.
"We're beginning to change our attitudes on addiction," said Zito, an alcoholic who last New Year's Eve celebrated her 31st anniversary since her last drink. "Science has proved that this is a disease that needs ongoing attention and care."
McCaffrey, who serves on the board of directors of CRC Health Group, a national treatment network for substance abuse patients, said Wednesday that drug and alcohol programs must be a critical part of the country's health care agenda.
Describing his physical recovery after getting shot and wounded in the Vietnam War, McCaffrey said, "When you go through the front door of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, you get a diagnosis. People bring together medical treatment, occupational treatment. They try to get you out of the hospital and back to your family and back to work.
"There is a system in medical care that works pretty darn well, and we want the same thing for drug and alcohol treatment."
Cupertino-based CRC Health Group and the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources -- a sponsor of Wednesday's rally -- are supporting proposed state legislation to grant licenses to "sober living facilities." The facilities are intended as an extra step to provide transitional drug- and alcohol-free environments for people who have completed addiction recovery programs.
Danna Jensen, for one, says she knows the importance of follow-up care. Her first effort to rid herself of drug addiction failed miserably. After two years of sobriety, she lapsed back into drug use and supported her habit by thefts and burglaries.
Eventually, she wound up in jail but received a suspended sentence in exchange for undergoing drug treatment. "I've been clean and sober ever since," she said.
Jensen also watched her husband and two of her three sons battle drug addiction and then find their own paths to recovery.
On Wednesday, son Christopher was celebrating day 339 of sobriety after having ended an alcohol and cocaine habit.
"A lot of people I knew couldn't understand how I could grow up in a home environment of alcohol and drug use and then fall into it knowing the damage it causes," he said.
He said his mother helped him by sharing her own experiences in overcoming addiction. But ultimately, he said, "I had to hit my own rock bottom. It all came down to me saying, 'I've had enough.' "