The question came out of the blue: "How would you like to be the Betsy Ross of the American recovery movement?"
That's how Marty Boldin pitched his latest idea to John Sweeney, who serves with him on the board of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery. Both men have been in recovery for many years.
Boldin also serves on the board of another nonprofit organization working to prevent and reduce substance abuse, New Futures, which hosted a recent roundtable discussion with business leaders. That's where he was struck by the notion that what the battle against addiction really needs is a recognizable symbol that could appear on bumper stickers, T-shirts - and flags.
"So that people that are sober would know that wherever that flag is flown or wherever that symbol is present, it's safe to talk about being sober, or to bring up the fact that you are in recovery or still working on recovery," Boldin said.
"Because a lot of people like myself have been sober for a long period of time, but are afraid to be public about it because of the stigma associated with it."
Boldin called Sweeney, a Derry artist who coaches others who are new to recovery, and asked whether he would design a flag. Sweeney didn't hesitate.
The board of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery spent a few days brainstorming about just what such a flag should look like. They called up national recovery experts to see whether there already was such a symbol (there wasn't).
Sweeney designed a simple, striking image in purple and green featuring a butterfly. The color purple is associated with recovery, while green, which can mean go, symbolizes that "it's safe to go into recovery," Sweeney said.
The butterfly represents transformation, he said. "In recovery, you're this ugly caterpillar, and once you find recovery, you're a beautiful butterfly."
Sweeney's girlfriend, Lisa Jeck, sewed a prototype of the new flag, which recovery advocates presented to Gov. Maggie Hassan during a recent meeting to discuss support for substance abuse treatment.
Hassan applauded the group's efforts.
"Substance abuse is one of the most pressing challenges facing our state, and I applaud Hope for New Hampshire Recovery's commitment to breaking down barriers to recovery," she said.
"Their flag signals the importance of individual and organizational support to advance the recovery movement, and I am honored to work with Hope for New Hampshire Recovery to communicate this important message."
The next step is to try to boost awareness and adoption of the new flag, Boldin said.
"Hopefully, it will take off," he said. "We want to have a symbol out there to let people know they're not alone and that ... recovery is spoken where that flag is flown."
For example, he said, the flag could be flown at recovery celebrations and by clinicians and clergy who help people stay sober.
"Wouldn't it be a really great thing for restaurants and employers to have out there so that when people go to work, they're not afraid to tell their bosses they're in sobriety?'' he said. "Or that the reason they don't want to go to the Christmas party where everyone's getting snockered isn't because they're anti-social but because it isn't consistent with their lifestyle."
Sweeney would like to see his flag become a universal sign of support for those in recovery, hanging at places where 12-step meetings are held, at counseling centers and even private homes. "I don't have one yet, but I'd put it out in front of my house," he said.
"Let's face it, the disease of addiction carries around a lot of stigma and shame, and we really want people to recognize that you can overcome all that," he said.
Sweeney has been clean and sober for 14 years. He reached out for help, he said, when he realized alcohol abuse "was literally killing me."
Recovery center project
The Hope for New Hampshire Recovery board has another near-term goal: creation of the state's first recovery center, in Manchester.
Boldin envisions a place where people in early stages of recovery would find support and resources to help them stay sober, seek employment and build connections. He'd like to see the center host sober entertainment events, such as open mike nights, as well as education, training and other support services.
His group is about to begin raising funds to open the first center. "It's going to happen," Boldin said.
And while the board hopes to seek out any federal or state funding that could be available, Boldin said the plan is to make such centers, which he hopes will open in other cities as well as Manchester, self-sustaining. "At the end of the day, we want to make sure that these places, when they open, are able to pay their own rent and are not dependent on the winds of political favor," he said.
Boldin, who in his professional life is director of Manchester's Office of Youth Services, sees the fight against addiction gaining momentum here. That's why it's important to adopt a symbol that folks can recognize, he said.
He said it's time for those involved in recovery to tell their stories, to inspire others to get the help they need.
"I'm 26 years clean and sober, and I'm a trusted public servant who affects positively the life of thousands of Manchester youth every year because I live a clean and sober lifestyle," Boldin said. "And I understand not only professionally but personally the kinds of processes that people need to go through to get sober."