I have been working in the substance abuse field in Guilford County for more than 30 years. I have worked in both the public and private sectors. I am a licensed clinical addictions specialist and have been professionally credentialed by the N.C. Substance Abuse Professional Practice Board since 1993.
I am also a person in long-term recovery for more than 32 years. I have been at my current place of employment for more than 26 years. I have treated captains of industry, namesakes of international conglomerates who were worth millions of dollars. I have also treated people who literally lived in the park in Glenwood or under a bridge and were brought in for detox by the police two or three times a month.
In the past several weeks it has been painful to see that a local judge, Tom Jarrell, died at his home, alone, from what is reported as an opioid-related death. I want to offer my condolences to his family and those who loved him. Also in the news recently has been the story of Patrick Conway, now the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. He lost his job when news broke that he had been driving while intoxicated, jeopardizing the welfare of his family and the general public.
As I understand it, Conway went to treatment after being arrested, found personal recovery and returned to work. He was terminated, it seems, in what has been termed a “cover-up” by the BCBS Board.
In both of these cases it is clear these men were respected by their peers and both champions of innovative and responsible change in their fields. What is also clear, at least to me as an observer, is that they both suffered silently with substance abuse disorders.
What I know is that by the time someone dies at home alone, or behaves in such a way that they are arrested after jeopardizing the very people they love the most, is that their disease processes were severe and had been active for some time. I also know that family, friends and co-workers knew — or at the very least had suspected for some time — that there was a problem and that it was overlooked. More likely, though, I would suggest those people were paralyzed, not knowing what to do or whom to turn to.
The fear of stigma, public scorn and vilification, like what we have seen in both of these cases, is exactly what prevents scores of people suffering with substance abuse disorders from coming forward. Being called a “hypocrite” is evidence of a gross misunderstanding of what substance abuse disorders are and how those suffering with them behave.
Do not hear me condone illegal behavior. Hear me offer a rallying cry to make something else happen other than the grave consequences these men and many like them suffer.
Substance abuse disorders are heavily researched, scientifically accepted, medically recognized, diagnosable brain disease processes. That’s why insurance companies cover the treatment of substance abuse disorders. A federal law passed under the Parity Act 10 years ago ensures that behavioral health disorders are treated as equally as other medical issues. The No. 1 symptom of substance-abuse disorders is denial. Shame and fear freeze people in their tracks, including family and friends. Secrecy abounds with those suffering. The addicts and their families suffer alone. We have to do better. There is no option.
Guilford County’s opiate-related deaths increased by 3% last year. They were down across the state by 5%. But the picture is much larger. Deaths from cocaine and methamphetamine are up by 250% across the county. Meth is fast becoming the bigger problem now.
Nineteen states west of the Mississippi cite meth as the No. 1 one drug causing deaths, not opioids. Alcohol-related deaths are up, particularly among women. A study I read last week showed that 46% of the U.S. population had someone in their family with a substance abuse issue. The numbers are staggering. I could continue to reference statistics, all of which say the same thing.
Now is the time for us to make changes. We need treatment on demand. We must recognize that prevention efforts, family support and education are all vital in providing hope and direction. There are multiple pathways to recovery, and I for one want to encourage people in need to seek the help that best fits their needs.
What I know is that treatment works. It is hard and requires perseverance, but it is worth it.
There are many treatment options, but not nearly enough. With Medicaid expansion treatment access would expand. We need better fiscal policies so we can offer services to the uninsured. We need the Parity Law enforced so insurance companies will cover behavioral health issues in line with other medical issues. Social determinates are an issue we as a community can get behind. Jobs, affordable living, education and personal safety are things everyone deserves.
Make no mistake, if you are reading this you know someone who is either suffering with a substance abuse issue or you know someone who is being impacted by a person with a substance abuse disorder. The person you see who is overdrinking again at the country club brunch; the person you do not see who is isolated at home with his or her drugs. This is a chronic problem that is not going away. Reading shocking headlines and shaking our collective heads is a poor response. Action is required, so break the silence, make a call, ask questions and seek help until you find what it is you or your loved one needs.
There is a solution, and it will take all of us to make a difference. Recovery is real. The lives of thousands of people in recovery in North Carolina and our own community are proof that change is indeed possible. We have to make the opportunity more available. We must break the stigma and shame that keeps those with substance abuse disorders and their families hidden away from the light of recovery. There is hope.