MIAMI – Lissa Franklin said that as a little girl, she was taught that having an addiction was something to be ashamed of. She associated it with criminality and homelessness, so when she began to struggle with it she suffered in secret.
The daughter of a stock broker and a registered nurse said that she began to drink in excess when she was 14. She started taking opioids -- highly addictive drugs that include painkillers --- when she was 16. She was at an adolescent residential treatment center and was later admitted to a residential treatment facility at 24.
It was there where she learned that she had an illness. The cause was unknown but it was likely a genetic predisposition -- and not a moral deficiency, she said. Four years of sobriety later, she wants to help save lives and is dedicated to the recovery advocacy movement.
"I was so embarrassed ... That stigma haunted me for years and almost brought me to my death," said Franklin, 27, a University of Miami psychology student, who runs the collegiate recovery community at the Coral Gables campus. "I thought treatment was only available for the ultra-rich and famous."
Franklin also volunteers as the chapter lead in Miami for the Young People in Recovery, a national grassroots organization based in Colorado. President Barack Obama sat next to the group's president at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit to talk about addiction. Franklin was one of the many young alcoholics and addicts in recovery in South Florida who followed the conversation.
Young People in Recovery president Justin Luke Riley and Crystal Oertle, shared their stories with Obama, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, some 2,000 at the The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta and C-Span viewers. The story was familiar and felt real.
"Justin's message was a positive and empowering message," said Franklin, who is also a clinical outreach coordinator for Life of Purpose Treatment, a therapeutic addiction treatment program coupled with academic guidance that is based in Boca Raton. "People know a lot about drug addiction, but they don't know about recovery and the resources that are needed."
The 28-year-old University of Colorado student said he began using Benadryl when he was an 8-year-old who "didn't feel comfortable" in his skin. He progressed to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills. And he was homeless at 19. After he got healthy, his father also got sober.
"Regardless of how individuals get in these situations, we don't know everything. There may be genetic components. Addictions may be different for different people," Obama said. "What we do know is there are steps that can be taken to get through addiction and get to the other side and that is under-sourced."
Riley agrees. He has been sober since he was 19 and envisions a network that could help young people living with addiction achieve their full potential. Franklin and other volunteers like her across the country support a public policy agenda to improve access to treatment, education, employment opportunities and safe housing.
The forum was a day after Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy told reporters that expanding access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid-use disorders was a top priority for the Obama administration.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued a proposed rule allowing physicians to increase prescriptions of Buprenorphine, a drug that the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2002 for the treatment of narcotic addiction.
"The problem we have right now is treatment is underfunded," Obama said adding that war veterans who are coming back home and self medicating and the prison population need the help desperately.
"It's great to hear the president say the 'disease of addition' but there is still a stigma," Oertle said. "I talk to a lot of people who are on probation. Their probation officers do not treat them like they have a disease."
During the discussion, Dr. Leana Wen told Obama addicts encounter ignorance in the medical and law enforcement communities. As an emergency doctor, she struggled with a lack of resources when she wanted to save addicts' lives.
"One of the worst feelings as a doctor is knowing you can't help them," Wen said. "What so many patients need is addiction treatment."
Allocating more resources to confront the problem is one of the few areas where there is bipartisan agreement in Congress. But Obama disagrees with Republican senators, who think $400 million would make important strides. He is seeking $1.1 billion over two years. About $920 million to help states, where the epidemic is prevalent and about $50 million for some 700 providers.
"We are going to have to work with Congress to support policies that they have already embraced, but until the money comes true. It's just that. It's just an idea," Obama said. "It doesn't actually just get done."