What I learned from legislative testimony about proposed drug addiction legislation

On Tuesday three legislative committees held a public hearing about pending legislation that would fund 10 new drug enforcement agents (that it turns out the LePage administration found the funding for anyway) and would invest an equal amount of funding into treatment and education to address our state’s addiction epidemic. Live audio of the hearing was available, and, quite unintentionally, I ended up listening for most of the day.

By most of the day, I actually mean, most of the day. I don’t know how normal it is for a legislative hearing to go marathon-style from 10 a.m. until after 6:30 p.m., but the length was only part of what made it so compelling. Appropriations, Criminal Justice and Health and Human Services committee members heard testimony from law enforcement, family members, service providers, health officials and, perhaps most importantly, people who are in recovery.

The legislators heard about the shortage of detox and treatment beds, and heard a couple sheriffs say their jails are the largest substance abuse and mental health facilities in their region. I think it was the sheriff of Penobscot county who said he was running the largest such facility in the state, and he didn’t think that was right.

AUGUSTA, MAINE -- 06/17/15 -- A State House file photo. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

AUGUSTA, MAINE — 06/17/15 — A State House file photo. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

The folks running Project Hope, a program that helps addicts access treatment at the Scarborough Police Department, testified that the biggest expense to date was transportation expenses to send people out of state for treatment. If I recall, the figure was around $17,000 since the program started in October to send those without insurance or means to pay to facilities around the country who have expressed willingness to try to help our state at this time.

We are not taking care of our own.

In that vein the legislators heard repeatedly about how MaineCare expansion under the Affordable Care Act would have ameliorated some of the treatment infrastructure issues and still could. Legislators also repeatedly heard that no one treatment worked for every person, so it was critical to have a treatment infrastructure that offered a variety of avenues to recovery. Peer centers and other community supports were identified as key pieces of this infrastructure.

Among those testifying were medical marijuana providers who offered to do, if legalized in Maine to do so, a documented study of how CBD (a component of marijuana that can be isolated for multiple medicinal purposes) might treat opioid addiction. More than one caregiver acknowledged that they are currently treating clients this way even though it is not sanctioned by law. At least one of these caregivers was in recovery with addiction himself, and he attributed his sobriety to having gone the medical marijuana route.

The legislators also heard more than once about open-minded urgency as they tackle this issue because people are dying.

The education and prevention piece received the least attention, though, and it could be argued that nipping the epidemic in the bud is the most critical part of a collaborative strategy. I would have like to have heard more testimony about these aspects of the bill because there’s more to convey in educational and prevention-based efforts than just the message that drugs are bad, and addiction can destroy and end one’s life. And these efforts should not only target youth but the population at large.

The words we need to use to educate ourselves and our children can be found in the words of the people in recovery who testified Tuesday. They talked about supports and treatment, but they also talked about having to change themselves. They talked about accepting themselves and their life stories, about learning to cope with life without substance abuse, and about developing a healthy sense of self.

These were familiar messages to me. I was never addicted to opioids. (Thank goodness they weren’t so readily available when I was young.) I did spend several years immersed in poly-substance abuse meant to numb the aftermath of a traumatic childhood, although I didn’t understand that at the time.

My recovery themes are similar to those expressed at the meeting. In a nutshell, I had to accept that life wasn’t always fair, that life can be painful sometimes and not all pain is treatable, and that I am and always will be an imperfect creature. What makes recovery so great is that acceptance brings a level of contentment.

This contentment makes the unfairness and pain more tolerable, and it makes the fair and less painful times in life more pleasurable. Prior to recovery, I had no idea just how pleasurable life could be, and in recovery, mindfulness reminds me that there is no limit to contentment and pleasure. Acceptance of the bad makes the good better.

This idea sustains me during dark times when pleasure and contentment are hard to find; it keeps me from slipping too far back. Embracing my imperfections, the imperfections of others, and life’s imperfections makes me happier and more committed to trying to be a better person.

Besides pushing my personal recovery recall switch, Tuesday’s testimony left me thinking that we need to front-end load addiction recovery. We need to teach the tenets of recovery before people turn to toxic substances to alleviate their suffering. We need to teach our kids and each other that it’s okay to be imperfect.

It’s okay to tell someone you have this problem and you don’t know what to do. It’s okay and perfectly normal to go through something that has you feeling totally overwhelmed, totally imperfect.

Most of us have been there to some extent or another, but there’s societal pressure to present a self that is unflawed. The idea of “what will people think” looms over our culture like a giant psychological rain cloud. We need to create a new standard, a new societal pressure — a blue sky one that acknowledges there is no perfection in the human condition.

We need to create the sense that the answer to “what will people think” is this: that it’s perfectly normal to be flawed and struggling in one way or another. And we need to start incorporating that sensibility into our relationships, our communities and schools, our workplaces, and our services. Never has it been more imperative that we do so.

Like more than one person said Tuesday, people are dying. Accepting ourselves and each other in our imperfections could go a long way toward preventing others from suffering the same fate.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.