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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

There is hope where there is help

Betty Firth
Posted 5/15/24

I found out my mom was an alcoholic when I was 17 years old. That was devastating, but eventually shed some enlightenment for me on our household dysfunctions. I shouldn’t have been surprised, …

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There is hope where there is help


I found out my mom was an alcoholic when I was 17 years old. That was devastating, but eventually shed some enlightenment for me on our household dysfunctions. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I grew up in an alcohol-soaked environment, but that was the norm, and alcoholism was neither acknowledged nor discussed. My parents had a fully-stocked liquor cabinet, and socializing with friends always meant drinking, whether it was a weekend party, golf outing, or bridge club, along with a daily ritual of evening cocktails. I thought it was normal to have a dozen liquor bottles on hand along with many after-dinner liqueurs. I thought every teenager would naturally know the difference between creme de menthe and Kahlúa, how to make a dry martini, and be able to identify drinks I served to the adults. We rarely had beer or wine (which I thought of as intense grape juice, not even really alcohol), but my best friend’s father drank beer, and I just thought he wasn’t as classy as my parents.
I was unaware of Al-Anon and floundered in my ignorance and lack of support about Mom’s condition. Although empathetic, I was embarrassed by her, ashamed for her, and angry at my father for abandoning her and me emotionally and later, physically. Most distressing was being clueless about how to help her. Like many in that predominantly white, middle class, Chicago suburb, I thought alcoholism was the affliction of winos falling into gutters, and we didn’t even have gutters in our neighborhood. The uninformed and biased attitudes of our country as a whole delayed serious research into addictive behavior, because it was regarded as a character flaw and moral failing.
Lack of true understanding about addictions and the interconnection with mental health is still an obstacle to implementing effective solutions that would provide the supports needed. Those with deep pockets have a lot of options, but for those with little money or support from family and friends, the obstacles are huge. Addictive behavior can be changed, but it’s not easy, and the chances for long-term recovery are dramatically improved with adequate, supportive resources. And yet, according to the 2022 U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 94 percent of people aged 12 or older with a substance use disorder did not receive any treatment, and most did not think they needed treatment.
A friend, who is in recovery with a year’s sobriety, first tried to quit on her own with family support. She realized she needed inpatient treatment, where hearing everyone’s stories helped her understanding of the addictions and challenges they all faced. She said, “People can be very vulnerable and still feel safe,” which she continues to experience in 12-step meetings. She said, “I met weekly on Zoom with my family for months, attended several 12-step meetings a week, and shared my story with friends. I continue to meet weekly with my wise, wonderful, sponsor, and I couldn’t have done it without all that incredible support.”
Professionals in the field have long acknowledged that alcohol and substance (drug) abuse is a disease, but the average lay person may still be holding on to old biases and the resulting stigma, perhaps thinking, “Yeah, but really, it just takes some will power, doesn’t it?” It is almost cliche that people––including most of us–– are in denial about our own addictive behavior: “I’m not really addicted to…” (fill in substance of choice: alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, nicotine, sugar, caffeine…and behaviors such as shopping, sleeping, relationships, and work). “I can stop anytime. I can do it on my own. I’ll just cut back. I don’t need any treatment, therapy, or help from people or programs. I’m doing just fine,” as we reach for another bottle of beer, pill, or candy bar.
Advancements in brain research have increased the understanding of what addictive substances are specifically doing to our brains that cause addiction and make recovery difficult. I think this deepening understanding of the process, beyond using the generic term of “disease,” will help people realize that addiction is not a character flaw or personal failure, but a way that our bodies react to certain substances, and that some people are more susceptible than others; 10-15-percent of the population are considered to have addictive tendencies.
The National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH/NIDA) website states, “As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behavior. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. These changes help explain the compulsive nature of addiction.”
Research has identified many of the biological and environmental risk factors and are searching for the genetic variations that contribute to this disorder in order to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches. Treatment enables people to counteract the disruptive effects on their brain, behavior, and loss of control in their lives.
The cost to ourselves, our families, and communities is stunning when you wrap your mind around the realities. In 2021, 16.7-percent of the population over 12 battled a substance use disorder. That’s one in every six people, so one-sixth of our population is adversely affected by substance use, with a ripple effect to all those around them. That means they are probably doing poorly in school or work, having difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, spending a lot of money to feed their addictions, and performing more poorly as a community member than they would be if they were clean and sober. There is also an incalculable cost to those affected by the often devastating side effects––partners, children, parents, siblings and other family members, co-workers, as well as random strangers who become victims in crimes or accidents.
How could our communities benefit from providing adequate supports for prevention and recovery? In addition to improving the lives of the people with a substance disorder and all those in their sphere, our communities gain a productive, tax-paying citizen who will hopefully engage in constructive activities and lend a hand to others who could use some help. Research shows that communities with better resources experience reduced crime rates, less reliance on law enforcement and emergency services, higher property values, and improved connections between community members.
How can we do that here? The need is greater in our rural communities and resources are in short supply, a sad statement for the state nicknamed “The Land of 10,000 treatment centers.” The Ely nonprofit, Well Being Development, created in 2010 to address widely unmet mental health needs on the northeast Iron Range, is working hard to make more community support a reality. With input from the community, plans are underway to create a recovery residence for local residents recovering from the effects of substance abuse. In March of 2023, the group received $134,000 from an opioid settlement received by St. Louis County and initiated research into proven, cost-effective interventions that could be implemented in Ely.
I spoke with Nels Pierson, who is on the Well Being Development board and advisory council for the transitional housing facility. He shared his own experiences as a person in recovery in sober housing after he completed treatment, saying that he doesn’t believe he would have made it without that structure, accountability, and support. The facility had rules and agreements that were not negotiable, such as attending 12-step meetings at least three days a week, being in the facility at night, having a paid or volunteer job, and obviously, not using illegal drugs or alcohol. Counseling was available to residents as well as appropriately prescribed medication for depression and other physical and mental health issues.
Asked what was most helpful about that structure, he responded that it was a safe place to be, insulated from the world’s stresses and temptations. “I needed the slow pace of getting back into society, living in recovery. I felt that I was a part of something bigger; that if I didn’t keep my agreements, I would be letting down not just myself, but the other residents and the program itself.”
The proposed sober house in Ely will have similar agreements and supports for two to four rent-paying residents who have successfully completed a treatment program. The residence will have an on-site manager with peer recovery support training and will also provide a home for Northern Lights Clubhouse and office space for Well Being Development offices, including a certified Community Health Worker serving as a Pathways to Wellness Care Facilitator.
May is Mental Health Awareness month––perhaps it’s time to give your own attitudes about mental health and addiction a wellness check. A contribution to Well Being Development would be a valued step toward shifting attitudes and improving resources in our area! Mail a check to Well Being Development, PO Box 714, Ely, MN, 55731 or donate online at: