A few days ago the Surgeon General made what many are calling a landmark statement in regards to addiction and the so-called War On Drugs. He has said it is a disease, and should be treated as such, as opposed to treating it as a moral or character failing, throwing out statistics including the reality that the numbers of people struggling with addiction rival the numbers of those struggling with Diabetes in this country. (You can read for yourself what was said by clicking here.)
And I have to be honest: as a recovering addict myself (my drug of choice is prescription opiates), I was unbelievably gratified to see this.
“For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing,” the surgeon general said. “This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.”
I know this is a touchy subject for many; sometimes as polarizing as discussions about abortion or gay marriage. But as a recovering addict with a voice, I feel it’s my duty to speak out about my experiences and help give society a sense of the different faces of addiction; hopefully changing the view of addicts as nothing more than criminals who live in the cracks of society and can’t hold down a job or contribute anything of value.
When I finally got help for my addiction many years ago (September 29, 2008, to be exact), I went to a wonderful treatment center called Hazelden-Springbrook in Newberg, Oregon. And would it surprise you to know that nearly every single woman I lived with for my thirty days there had Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees? That they were overall what society would consider “white collar” and “respectable”?
Addiction is, as they teach in recovery, an equal opportunity disease. It doesn’t care what race you are, what religion, or what socioeconomic class you belong to. Anyone can fall prey to addiction…and it can begin innocently before spiraling out of control. Like with me; I had a shoulder injury that caused me a lot of pain and ultimately stalled and then prematurely ended a competitive swimming career. I had rotator cuff surgery, and then required daily opiate painkillers for six months afterward just to function (I’m not a baby, I have a high tolerance for pain…but those were the most painful months of my life).
I developed a tolerance, and had to be weaned off when it was finally time to go back to living a “normal” life. I remember it vividly; how it took a while to relearn how to sleep without the added sedative effects of Percocet. But ultimately I got there, and went about my life. (Did you know that everyone will develop a physical tolerance/dependence on opiates if they take them daily for a long enough period of time?)
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in college at the University of Oregon; somewhat depressed and feeling a little lost as I was changing degrees and not sure what I wanted out of life. (Not an uncommon problem for college students.) About that time, I’d taken up playing tennis with a friend for exercise, and it ultimately led to a moment when I partially dislocated that same right shoulder.
I called my orthopedist, and because I was the daughter of a physician (one of his colleagues), and because I’d been a patient for a long time, he didn’t make me come in immediately for an appointment; instead he called in a prescription for some Vicodin, and said I could come in the next time I was home from school. That’s the moment when I started down what became a rapid descent.
That was March, and by September I was taking upwards of 35 pills a day to maintain and not go through withdrawals; doctor shopping and doing whatever necessary to get enough pills to sustain me through the day. (I wasn’t street smart or savvy enough to know how to buy pills on the street, so instead of finding stronger medications I had to stick with what I knew and just try and get more and more of it.)
It wasn’t sustainable. And as often happens, the law finally caught on and got involved. I found myself literally racing home to my parents to avoid arrest when police visited the house I shared with roommates.
I went cold turkey off the pills, and endured several days of horrendous physical withdrawals (that part of my experience detailed in this post). I met with a defense attorney (never thought in a million years I’d need one of those), and then checked myself into rehab at Hazelden-Springbrook for a minimum of thirty days.
And so began my journey into sobriety. But it really was just that: the beginning.
When I came out of rehab, I attempted to go back to living life. Working. Taking care of my grandfather, who was by then sick from rapidly progressing prostate cancer. Overall putting one foot in front of the other.
The legal system is a slow moving machine, so I didn’t hear again from police until March, when the Eugene police department informed my attorney I was being offered what Lane County called their Drug Court program. They offered this to many drug offenders, the idea being if a person successfully completed the program, they waived any misdemeanors or felonies from ever going on their record.
In this program I would meet a surprising mix of people; college students who’d gotten carried away with weed, women who’d had the unfortunate luck of stumbling across meth and getting addicted, alcoholics who’d had one DUI too many but otherwise had white collar jobs and educations, young people, old people, middle aged people…it really ran the gamut.
Because again: equal opportunity disease.
I willingly complied when offered this option, and started a nine month minimum outpatient treatment program. I’d make the drive to Eugene three to four times a week from Hillsboro for three hour meetings as well as random drug screens and court appointments with a judge. The program had three phases; the first phase not surprisingly was the most intense. But it was also the easiest to get out of; the only requirement was having a minimum of thirty days of clean drug tests and perfect attendance of all groups. So I went to group meetings three times a week, went before the judge with a progress report once a week, and went in for my random UAs whenever my number was called on the UA hotline…and sure enough, within about five weeks I was moved up to Phase Two, where I only had to meet in group twice a week, I was assigned a new UA number that wasn’t called as often for UAs, and I only had to go before the judge every two or three weeks.
Phase Two required people to work through a book very similar to the 12-Step program in AA and NA; taking accountability for your addiction and understanding the impact it’s had on your life. Once completed, you were graduated to Phase Three, where you only had to attend group once a week and only saw the judge once every five weeks, and yes, got a new UA number again that was called even less often for random UAs.
But even as I was going through this program successfully, I learned that police in Hillsboro had decided they too wanted to pursue criminal charges against me, as I’d abused my medications while living in Washington County as well. The difference was this county didn’t have nearly as tolerant or progressive a view of addiction as Lane County; and so instead of completing a rehab program, and in spite of the fact that by then I was already over a year clean and sober and was successfully completing a program in another county, I was ultimately forced to sign a plea agreement where I was saddled with two felonies; one count of identity theft (it’s considered “defrauding the pharmacy” when you abuse prescription medications), and one count of what they call tampering with drug records (which is because I was abusing prescriptions in a way that wasn’t prescribed by a physician).
I’ve had to overcome the stigma of those charges ever since. People see Identity Theft and assume I must have done something truly awful, like swipe credit cards that didn’t belong to me or steal bank account numbers……but I wouldn’t know how to do that if my life depended on it. All I did was “defraud” my health insurance by billing them for pain medications that I wasn’t taking “as prescribed”; and you know what? I would have just paid full freight if I’d known it was a crime to do otherwise. I wasn’t breaking that law on purpose.
Do you think potential employers or landlords give me a chance to explain?
So there you have it: one county with a more tolerant view of addiction, and one county with a no-holds-barred, black and white view of addiction. And I experienced them both, and had both impact my life, one for the better, one for the worse.
No surprise then that in my opinion what I experienced in Lane County was far, far superior in my opinion. Not just for me, but for everyone; and not just because I’m some whiny bear who doesn’t want to be held accountable for my actions. That program held people accountable, believe me (you ever stood before a judge when you’ve done wrong?). But the difference is what I saw in Lane County was a system that really seemed to understand what addiction actually is; a judge who was tough when she had to be, but didn’t just throw people away if they relapsed.
I literally watched a woman go before the judge having tested positive for Meth for about the fifth time, and attempt to tell the judge that someone must have just slipped some Meth into her coffee without her knowing and that’s how it got into her UA……and instead of locking her up and throwing away the key, the judge ordered her put on the short list for a bed at the state-funded in-patient treatment facility. Why? Because the judge understands that lying is part of the disease; the judge understands that the person who lies to get their drugs isn’t the same as the person who lies simply for the sake of lying. Same way the person who steals a tv to sell for money for their drugs isn’t the same as the person who steals the tv simply because they like how it looks in their own bedroom.
It’s NOT the same.
And yet in counties like Washington County, they treat them the same; slapping both scenarios with the same crimes and forever changing the course of their future lives.
When you’re addicted to a substance, something really does hijack your brain. Whether you want it to or not. I can’t tell you how many times I’d vow to myself I was done with pills, that that was the last time…only to do it all over again the next day. It’s impossible to explain unless you’ve lived through it, but trust me: it is NOT a moral failing. It’s a disease. One that requires treatment and care and follow up in order to get better. Jails and prisons and felonies don’t fix the problem in the slightest; and in fact it just attaches another layer of stigma and burden and shame to the addict trying to get better. (Imagine if you were told tomorrow to quit smoking or else you’d be labeled a felon…I guarantee it would be harder to do than you realize. Or how many people are morbidly obese and struggle to lose the weight even though they resolve to eat healthier every day, over and over and over again? And how about the anorectic and bulimic women and men of the world, and how they insist every day that they look fat and unhealthy when in fact the rest of the world only sees skin and bones? It’s all the same kind of thinking.)
Would it surprise you to also know that program in Lane County cost less than what they did to me in Washington County? Because I was able to still work, and attended group therapy sessions with others, instead of being supervised individually on a weekly basis by probation officers. I also didn’t go through several court appearances with DAs and judges and legal aids, which again costs money. Plus I was still able to go out and get any job I wanted, because I didn’t have a criminal record; meaning I could work, earn money, and also pay my taxes back to society. Whereas once you have a criminal record that becomes harder to do, and of course if you’re in PRISON then working and taking care of yourself is impossible. (Not to mention the cost of incarcerating just one individual for a few months or a year…)
And think of all the jobs created for the drug and alcohol counselors needed for the Lane County program; now imagine every county in the nation having that program, and how many jobs THAT would create.
I’m not stupid; not every addict graduated that program successfully. And I do believe you have to eventually draw a line; so of course I understood why ultimately some people failed and were thrown back onto the mercy of the general system where they ended up with felonies or prison time. But there were a lot of people who DID graduate; people who could then move on with their lives with more knowledge and therefore be better equipped to handle what came next.
So I commend what the Surgeon General has said. And I hope perhaps it can be the start of a change of perspective where addiction is concerned; to where society can shift into a view of compassion and tolerance for the addicts and alcoholics who still suffer out there. Compassion for those who cannot, as Nancy Reagan once demanded, “Just say no”.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. To learn more about her, or to work with her personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities.