Cucumbers, pickles, and hope

By Colin Jorgenson
AAC Litigation Counsel

Greetings, faithful county officials and friends of county government.

As I’ve written about in roughly half of my columns over the past five years, we — the united counties and governments of Arkansas — are engaged in a yearslong effort to bring financial recovery into the state, to help our communities, families, and addicts, recover from the Arkansas opioid epidemic. I will surely write more about this in the future.

My column is entitled “Litigation Lessons,” and I usually try to stay in my lane. But today, I shall preach a bit about cucumbers, pickles, and hope.

It’s no secret that I’m a sober alcoholic (at least at the time of this writing — one day at a time). But because of baseless stigma, many folks like me choose to recover in the shadows. That is absolutely their choice — a necessary choice for some folks to achieve and sustain sobriety, and a choice that should be respected by all. Other folks choose to recover out loud, while respecting the anonymity of others.

Anonymity is essential for many who seek recovery from addiction, primarily because of the shame and stigma associated with the disease of addiction. Shame often accompanies addiction because when we drink and/or use, we do shameful things. There’s no sugar-coating the conduct of an active addict. We lie, manipulate, disappoint, fail, and worse in pursuit of the next fix over all else. Whether we like it or not. We lose the power of choice, completely. We are powerless to behave differently, and we are powerless to conquer addiction on our own — no matter how much we yearn for sobriety. We must have outside help, or the addiction and the shameful behavior will continue until it ends in death.

The social stigma strongly associated with addiction is understandable given the way we act. We arguably earn our reputations as weak-willed people who made bad choices — moral failures, bad apples. But the stigma is incorrect.

I have been trapped in the hell of alcoholism, where drinking was no fun anymore and I wanted to stop drinking more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life, but I couldn’t because addiction robs the addict of the power of choice and renders us powerless. As the U.S. Surgeon General stated in a landmark report entitled Facing Addiction in America, addiction is a disease that changes the function of brain circuits involved in pleasure, learning, stress, decision-making, and self-control. Addiction “is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.” Addiction is the “public health crisis of our time” because untreated addiction prevents addicts from living healthy and productive lives, and it has profoundly destructive effects on families, friends, colleagues, and entire communities.

The Surgeon General has also explained that there is no cure for the disease of addiction — no magic pill or surgery or therapy that will fully vanquish the disease from the addict. As some folks say in recovery, once a cucumber turns into a pickle, it can’t be a cucumber again.

But there are solutions to addiction. As explained by the Surgeon General, public policies, education, a variety of medical treatments, counseling, social support, and mutual aid groups have all proven successful at helping addicts achieve sobriety, sending the disease into remission. There is always hope of recovery.

The most important message from the U.S. Surgeon General is this: Our biggest challenge with alcoholism and addiction — and the primary reason it is a public health crisis of such magnitude — is the social stigma and shame that makes alcoholics and addicts unlikely to come forward and seek help.

Think about that for a minute. We have solutions to the biggest public health crisis that we face. But despite having solutions, we fail to solve the crisis because of baseless stigma and shame. This saddens me to no end. But we are changing — slowly but surely, the stigma is eroding. And that delights me to no end.

You might ask yourself: What can I do to help eradicate baseless stigma? Whether you are a local leader, or an ordinary citizen, or an addict like me, the answer is the same. You can reject the baseless stigma associated with addiction (and while you’re at it, feel free to reject the baseless stigma associated with mental health challenges like depression). You can understand and know, and perhaps even explain to others, that people who suffer from addiction are not moral failures, not weak, not stupid, not hopeless bad apples. They are sick. And they need help getting well.

Many of you already know this. Some of you are advocates and leaders who work to educate our citizens and eradicate stigma about addiction and recovery. Thank you. Some of you who do this important work have lost loved ones to overdose or other deaths of despair. God bless you and yours — and thank you. Some of you who do this important work are ordinary alcoholics and addicts like me, who’ve managed to string together some sobriety, and want nothing more than the same miracle for anyone else who suffers like we have. God bless you, my friends — and thank you for saving me in my time of need.

Recovery from addiction and alcoholism is replete with paradox. We gain power over our disease through our admission that we are powerless over our disease. We seek progress, but not perfection. We scrutinize our past and seek to make amends for past misconduct, but we don’t regret the past — we learn to be grateful for it. We are all, or nothing. Once a cucumber turns into a pickle, it can’t be a cucumber again.

To those who discover that you have been pickled: You have a fatal disease, but do not despair. You are not terminally unique, though it feels that way. You are not alone, though you may be isolated. You may feel hopeless, but there is hope. Professional help is more widely available, and more helpful than ever. There is no shame in seeking treatment or counseling. But many of us only need the help and understanding of fellow alcoholics and addicts. We have a remarkable and even miraculous ability to help each other. We know the truth about addiction — we are just like you, and you are just like us. Baseless stigma and shame have long been defeated in the recovery community. And a fellowship of joyful pickles stands ready to help you trudge the road of happy destiny.

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