Addiction in Maine: Recovery

RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE — Bill Stockwell, chairman of the Substance Abuse Conference Committee of Healthy Oxford Hills, spoke about the high rate of alcoholism in the Oxford Hills at the Dec. 7 Addiction Conference in South Paris. Recovery is possible, he said, with treatment and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This is the final segment of a series of articles based on information presented at a Dec. 7 Addiction Conference held in South Paris.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

There’s a good reason why the Oxford Hills has held a major conference on the disease of alcohol and addiction for 12 years running.

It’s because Oxford County has the dubious distinction of having the highest incidence of alcoholism in the country, according to Bill Stockwell, chairman of the Substance Abuse Conference Committee of Healthy Oxford Hills.

It was in the Oxford Hills that the Project Graduation tradition started, dating back to 1980, when the first Project Graduation was held for SAD 17 graduates in the wake of seven alcohol and other drug-related deaths of teens in the graduation season of 1979.

The alcoholism rate in Oxford County, and thus Oxford Hills, “hovers around 15 per cent — it has for years,” Stockwell said. He then offered a grim assessment of the recovery rate for that population:

“Out of that 15 per cent, out of 100 of them, 97 will die without ever knowing they are alcoholic,” he said. In other words, they either will not or cannot admit that it is their drinking that is killing them. Out of that same 100 people, he said, “Three will get some kind of treatment, and only one will truly recover from this disease.”

The population of the Oxford Hills is around 22,000, said Stockwell. “If you take 15 per cent of that, that’s 3,300 people out there right now that are active or potential alcoholics.” Breaking it down further, he said, “If you take three out of 10 of those (3,300 potential or actual alcoholics), that means there are 99 people who will get some sort of treatment, and 33 of those people will recover.”

Stockwell said he could probably name most of those 33 people, because they are the ones who have been through treatment and who are actively practicing one of the most reputable and proven programs of recovery — Alcoholics Anonymous. “After 30,000 years of man crushing grapes, finally two men came together in 1936,” and from their partnership, AA was born. The first public statement by a medical professional declaring that alcoholism was a disease was in 1939, as outlined by Dr. William Silkworth in AA’s Big Book. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Medical Association accepted alcoholism as a disease, he said. By practicing AA’s 12 Steps and regularly attending meetings, many have been able to recover from a disease that affects not only the body, but also the mind and the spirit, he said.

There are “magnitudes of difference between sobriety and recovery,” Stockwell said; he knows many who attend AA regularly and “they’ve been trying very hard,” but they are not what he would call recovered. True recovery, he said, requires a sea change in consciousness, because alcohol adversely affects the brain’s basic functioning.

“Alcohol takes such a toll on the mind and the body that the mind does not remember,” he said. Eighty per cent of the people in jail are substance misusers, and most of them have no memory of their crime.” These people can stand before a judge “and swear up and down that they didn’t do it,” and even after a videotape is shown to them proving they did do the crime, “they are still not convinced that they would be capable of such a thing.”

Alcoholism is the third leading cause of death in the United States, he said, after heart disease and cancer, “both of which are aggravated by alcohol use.” A 2005 study by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse found that far more people are admitted for alcoholism treatment than for treatment of drug addiction. 47% of the admissions were for alcohol, while 19% were for drugs; 34% were for both alcohol and drugs.

One positive trend in Maine is that the number of underage drinkers has been on the decline in recent years. One study showed that Maine had a significant decrease in underage alcohol use between 2005–2006 and 2006–2007 (from 32.30% to 29.60% among 12-20 year olds).

One alcoholic may negatively affect the lives of 20 to 40 friends and family members, Stockwell said, “Like a tornado roaring through the lives” of everyone living in a community. Very few alcoholics are obvious to the general public, he added. “Most are high functioning. They have their own companies because they don’t want to work for other people. They are often smart, and gregarious.”

Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Mark Publicker, the medical director at Mercy Recovery Center, said he loves treating alcoholics, and recalls with fondness the days before the prescription drug epidemic exploded in Maine.

“God, I loved treating alcoholics. The middle-aged alcoholic, they really want to stop for the most part. The IV and opiate-addicted person is so hard to treat. It’s really a very depressing way to spend your professional career.”


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